This will probably be my most popular blog post, and not for the right reasons. But I think I can bring my powers of dispassionate observation to bear on the Japanese sex-work industry without sounding too creepy.
While in Fukuoka I walked through the red light district a few times. It was as clean and quiet as anywhere else, but at night, male and female staff stood outside clubs to lure passersby. The men dressed in suits, the women in white gothic lolita outfits. They all left me alone, avoiding mutual assured embarrassment. But their trade magazines were everywhere, and I picked one up.
Inside was page after page of impossibly kawaii women. The term encompasses cute but means far more: it’s intimately wrapped up with concepts of female sexuality as docile and non-threatening, which is pretty clear from the imagery:
These are young girls you can drink with from 8pm to close, for a sizeable sum of money (4,800 Yen = $51 US, plus expensive drinks), although my understanding is, despite the pornographic pose, no sex is involved:
More telling were the trade ads towards the middle of the magazine:
There’s no attempt to hide the lengths these women go to construct their image. 50,000 Yen is not a cheap entry fee to an industry – although much cheaper than a degree, I suppose.
Girls who are boys who like boys to be girls
So far, so prurient. And then, right at the centre staple, this:
The construction of Asian women as sex objects isn’t news. As someone pointed out, try a google image search of Asian men, then Asian women and see the difference. However, while female sexuality is one of Asia’s biggest exports, male sexuality is strictly for domestic consumption. Which I find fascinating. I mean, look at these guys:
The men are childlike and non-threatening as well. Hardman archetypes are common in Japan (for plenty of historical and cultural reasons I won’t get into). But not to party with: in the bar, the guys are smooth-faced, waterfall-haired and kitten-like.
At least there’s an appearance of equality to the sex- and affect-work. Men and women not only have equal space in the magazine, they aspire to very similar looks. There are hints of androgyny amidst the ultra-femininity and masculinity. There are also exceptions. Buried in the club ads is one for these women:
They’re not conforming to regular body standards. And neither are these guys:
This is why I picked up the magazine: I was expecting all sexy-kawaii, and instead there were exceptions which, if they didn’t contradict that image, at least broadened it.
If you’ve made it this far, I highly recommend watching Great Happiness Space: Tales of an Osaka Love Thief, which strips bare the illusions of hosting and shows it for the incredibly hard and sad work it actually is. Also Japan: A Story of Love and Hate, for the sheer grind of emotional labour that host-work entails:
Finally, I’m not going all pomo and celebrating the hosts as subverting dominant sexual narratives, even the differently-shaped ones. As the documentary makes clear, dominant notions of gendered sexuality are very much in play, with tragic consequences for some men and women. Beyond the titillation factor, it’s still a job, and most jobs suck. Last word to the hostess and her husband: