Prostitution in Japan

Tuesday, September 28 2004 @ 05:51 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

They say it's the oldest profession. Some also say, knowingly, prostitution is ubiquitous on this planet. So what makes me discuss all anew this oldest and widely-"accepted" activity of mankind? But actually I am not talking about prostitution in general, but the particular form it takes in Japan.

In this self-deceptive nation, sex slavery carries distinctive features that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. They are:

1) Prostitution is not called that because within this supposedly homogeneous community, it's not even a necessary evil. It's next to non-existent. The 1956 Anti-Prostitution Law was enacted at the height of the epidemic of syphilis. But once the epidemic was gone, the law became as useless as the human rights and dignity in this country.

2) But it's a different story when it comes to tens of thousands of hookers that yakuza syndicates keep bringing in to ghetto-like "designated" areas from "backyard" countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, etc. The Immigration Bureau of Japan and prefectural/municipal police departments are more than willing to cooperate with yakuza mobsters on the condition they see to it that these dominantly East Asian sex slaves be quickly, and temporarily, evacuated to other cities whenever the likes of the International AIDS Conference or the World Cup take place in the nearby venues. By the same token, Japanese pedophiles buying children abroad, most typically in the Philippines, or 400 Japanese company employees having a company-paid orgy with 500 Chinese prostitutes at a Beijing hotel are also a different issue. These downright prostitutes are a necessary evil as were the wartime "comfort women" procured from the Korean Peninsula.

3) Thanks to the close ties among yakuza, law enforcement and the media, prostitution is subtly institutionalized and legitimatized here. As a result, Japanese prostitutes are always disguised as something else, something a little more decent. It's almost four decades ago that a French correspondent stationed in Japan observed: "These bar hostesses are prostitutes who do not think they are prostitutes".

Under the circumstances it's taboo especially for major media organizations to discuss the whole truth about Japanese prostitution. Half a century ago, a French philosopher argued, when discussing anti-Semitism in Europe, that there is a thing to be called the chain of oppression. And you cannot reveal the truth about prostitution in Japan without unearthing the truth about the entire socio-economic mechanism for oppression. That's why it's a taboo issue here.

But every once in a while some foreigners dare to touch on the issue because foreigners, like the French correspondent stationed in Japan four decades ago, don't have to be prepared for "ostracism" in doing so. In its July 8, 2001, issue, the Japan Times ran an informative report on disguised prostitution by Mark Schreiber. In the absence of the reliable official statistics, Schreiber cited these figures from surveys conducted by the weekly magazine "Spa!" and the Bank of Yokohama:

- At least, an estimated 215,000 women aged 20-24 were working at disguised whorehouses around the nation. Schreiber quickly added that this could be a gross underestimate. I would even put it somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000, including teenage prostitutes, "independent" ones and those in upper age brackets.

- A huge amount of money changing hands between professional prostitutes and their customers escaped income taxes. The bank of Yokohama estimated the annual unreported earnings of these women at JPY 945 billion, or USD 8.5 billion at the today's exchange rate.

Let me also add another piece of statistics here to help you gauge the size of the sex industry extended to include amateur prostitution. According to the official statistics, Japanese women's monthly salaries averaged JPY 222.4 thousand in 2001. (Income gap between genders, as such, is not that far apart from that of other OECD countries). Perhaps this roughly translated into a take-home salary of JPY 180K, or USD 1,600. You may wonder how come Japanese women could afford to satisfy their enormous appetite toward luxury goods with this relatively small salary. These days the vendors of luxury goods, such as Luis Vuitton, are lamenting over the consistent decline in their business in Japan since it peaked at a little over USD 16 billion in 1996. But believe it or not, Japanese women, in 2003, still bought the likes of pricey Luis Vuitton bags worth USD 10.8 billion, or 40% of their total sales world-wide, according to Merrill Lynch.

Is it a far-fetched interpretation of these numbers to assume that this is where widespread prostitution comes in? If not, this society is already rotten to the marrow.

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