Mon, Dec 09, 2002 - Page 11 News List

Women turn to selling sexual favors in Japan

PILLOW WORLD EXPANSIONOne life insurance firm predicts that the `assisted' bathhouses have decreased in number while the more overt sex clubs are booming


Neon signs of ``pink salons'' that promise sexual massage, ``image clubs'' for role-play and ``soapland`` bathhouses are seen among bars and restaurants in Tokyo's Kabuki-cho entertainment district.


Rika returns from an "assisted bath" with the day's first customer. The humid air hangs heavy with the sweet smell of soap, and she listlessly leafs through fashion magazines in a packed back room with the other young prostitutes.

"If I get five customers, that's a good day," the 25-year-old says, flashing a confident smile from beneath a dyed-red bob that matches her checkered sundress.

For the past month, this has been Rika's new job -- selling sex at a top-class "soapland" brothel in Tokyo's Yoshiwara red-light district, a grid of quiet streets immortalized in centuries-old woodblock prints of kimono-clad courtesans.

Given Japan's sour economy, she calls it a smart career move. It floats her Japanese Yen 200,000 (US$1,640) shopping binges and the dream of retiring at age 30 with her own house.

But for more women, Japan's red-light underworld is increasingly a last resort, not an opportunistic break. Record unemployment, soaring bankruptcies and stagnant growth are forcing more into the flesh trade -- at cheaper rates and in more desperate conditions.

For Hitomi, a 24-year-old Thai streetwalker, it's about survival, not spending sprees.

She was laid off from a refrigerator factory, stripped of her work visa and company housing. Now, a good night for her means recouping the Japanese Yen 8,000 (US$66) in protection money she shells out to gangsters on her street -- and not having to work until dawn.

Smut has been a near recession-proof industry in Japan, despite the country's decade-long economic slump. All told, the nation spends an estimated Japanese Yen 1.7 trillion (US$13.9 billion) a year on sex.

But hard times are putting the squeeze on the sleaze.

Pricey soaplands, where hourly stints soar to Japanese Yen 100,000 (US$820), are giving way to the fast-growing sectors of low-end "pink salons" and cut-rate foreign prostitutes. Cheap thrills there go for as low as 8,000 (US$66).

The number of soaplands has slid to about 1,200, from about 1,700 in the booming 1980s, according to Takashi Kadokura, an economist at Dai-Ichi Life Insurance who published a two-year study of the underground economy earlier this year.

By contrast, the nation's 1,800 fly-by-night sex shops, where customer turnover is as fast as eight minutes, have seen revenues jump 50 percent to Japanese Yen 600 billion (US$5 billion) since then. Kadokura, giving an admittedly rough figure, estimates the average shop gets 32,800 customers a year.

Increased competition amid the economic doldrums means the sex clubs are resorting to wilder antics, younger women and cheaper prices.

Phone up that call-girl flier in the mailbox, and you're likely to get a housewife working part-time for extra cash. An estimated 5 percent of Tokyo's middle-school and high-school girls have turned tricks in order to buy the designer handbags and latest fashions that are harder to afford but still viewed as trendy necessities.

The tougher competition has upped the pressure on the staid world of Yoshiwara, where prices are buoyed by the overhead of equipping each room with a bed, bath, television, air conditioner and perhaps even a sauna or karaoke machine.

At the cramped pink salons jammed into back-street tenement buildings, customers are often separated by no more than a curtain.

Japan outlawed prostitution in 1956 after centuries of sanctioned sex-selling in glamorized "licensed zones" like Yoshiwara. But legal gray areas still allow it to flourish.

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