Girls’ bars. Love hotels. Anime porn. These are just some of the key Google search results of Japan’s eclectic sex industry, known by most, yet experienced by few.
As a mixed-race Japanese person, I’ve been asked numerous times by my American peers if I’ve watched hentai. While the term literally translates to perversion, it also signifies anime and manga-based pornography. I represented their rare, if not sole reference to Japan’s sex world. I’d answer with indignation, clarifying that only a minority watch hentai. The questions I received usually came from curious viewers who were delighted with this glimpse into Japan, which is often naively associated with Tokyo’s tech-futurism and the porn it offers. To this, my inquisitive peers would indignantly and tauntingly ask why I even knew so much about this pornography in the first place. Such is the charm of prepubescent friendships.
When it comes to talking about sex in Japan with my American contemporaries, there seems to be an underlying notion that Japanese sex is kinky because the people lack human emotion. This stems from the stereotypes often associated with Japanese culture, as well as the fetishization of the submissive “Oriental” woman. The slang word for those whose fetishize Asians in this way is dubbed “yellow fever.”
The Japanese, though seen as highly advanced in technology and efficiency, are also paralleled with robots. The stereotypical Japanese salaryman, or office worker, works close to 70 to 80 hours a week and barely sleeps to meet company deadlines. With little to no time to relax during the work week, salarymen are assumed to relieve their stress through Friday night company drinking events — or kinky sex. As stated by Ken McLeod, an associate professor of music history and culture at the University of Toronto, the West has often lent its voice to echo the Japanese identity as dehumanized, representing “ … the alienated and dystopian image of capitalist progress.”
There is no denying that the Japanese work field is demanding. There have been accounts of workers being mistreated and harassed by their superiors, and the government has begun to take notice. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has claimed to make positive changes in work habits, but to generalize the experience of these salarymen and to draw conclusions on the nature of their sex life reduces the Japanese to one identity. Their lives are heavily misconstrued to fit the narrative of outsiders peering in.
Just like my American peers, I find the topic of sex in Japan to be an engrossing topic. But why is that so? Was I as superficial in my interest as those who tend to fetishize East Asia? Was there even such thing as “Japanese” sex? Or was I as “Hentai” as middle schoolers joked? Perhaps all such questions are true. My one burning question still remained, however, when I set off for my year abroad in Tokyo. What does sex really look like in Japan?
To start with my conclusion: It’s far more monetized, varied and respected than I even perceive it to be in the States.
The red-light district of Kabukicho, located in the heart of Shinjuku, Tokyo, became as normal to me as delis are in Queens. Perhaps the local convenience stores are not of quite the same lusty caliber, but the sheer number of sex parlors and girls’ bars was almost comical. Did customers really need six places to pick from if all they wanted was to lie on a girl’s lap? The sex industry has been largely affected by capitalism and its tendency to mass produce. One can no longer support small, quaint businesses — the kind of sex parlors operating with the same five girls on shift rotation — but rather must shop for sex under one big brand label.
That is not to say the options aren’t varied. From the classic fellatio to the less common getting slapped in the face twice, any sexual act you can put a price on, Tokyo’s probably got it. Though the services offered to men are much more significant in numbers, there are similar services catered to women. When I inquired about sex services for the LGBTQ population, my friends informed me of numerous underground facilities for this minority group, although services offered to queer folk pale in comparison to their heterosexual counterparts.
It’s difficult to find a sex industry that meets the needs of an entire population — our society just hasn’t come that far — but when comparing to most, I’d say Tokyo is becoming more sexually liberal. It’s important to note that in my research of Japan’s sex industry, I can only speak of Tokyo; I did not live long enough in other prefectures. Who knows, sex may appear differently in other parts of the country.
These aforementioned sexual services, as my Japanese friends can attest to, are used by many. Customers, aged 18 and up, frequent these establishments to their heart’s content. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about it is the lack of stigma around it. My friends could go to a girls’ bar on a Friday night, drinking and chatting with the hostesses as they wait for the morning train service. My girlfriends could go to butler cafes and be waited on by tuxedo-donned men. Others could shop around for eccentrically themed sex hotels, eager to splurge on an exciting night with their partner.
Admirably, most were left undisturbed for lying with whom they wanted, how they wanted.
Hanako Montgomery is a senior double-majoring in Asian and Asian American studies and Japanese studies.