Women turn to selling sexual favors in Japan

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

AP , TOKYO

Mon, Dec 09, 2002 - Page 11

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.

Train stations are surrounded by "pink salons" promising sexual massage and "telephone clubs" where men line up liaisons with teenage girls.

Convenience stores stock brothel guides as thick as telephone books. Household mailboxes are stuffed with unsolicited "delivery health" ads emblazoned with color photos of lusty schoolgirls tearing off their plaid skirts.

Surveys by anti-prostitution groups suggest that up to 40 percent of Japanese men have paid for sex at least once. But last year there were only 1,032 arrests.

Most of those were pimps, because Japan's anti-prostitution law targets sex brokers, not the prostitutes or customers themselves, said Takeshi Koyanagi, deputy director of the Justice Ministry's research department.

"It's very hard to prosecute," Koyanagi said.

Soaplands duck the law by billing themselves as assisted bath houses. The tacit understanding is whatever else happens inside is a matter between consenting adults.

When Rika has enough "good days," she pockets Japanese Yen 1 million (US$8,200) a month. That's way better than her old job waiting tables, which she describes as "too tough."

"It's a move up," says Rika. "I want to save for the future, but I also like shopping."

A little more than a hundred years ago, Rika would have been, like her predecessors in the "Nightless City," a prisoner displayed behind barred windows, with little hope of buying freedom or a life beyond Yoshiwara's imposing moats.

Today, the moats are paved over and Yoshiwara isn't even marked on most city maps.

Well-heeled customers are dropped off by hired cars and treated to complementary whiskey drinks and cigarettes in velvet-lined lounges. The workers get a week off every month and regular health checkups, not to mention enough cash for those regular trips to Tokyo's glitzy Ginza shopping district.

A two-hour visit to Rika's costs Japanese Yen 45,000 (US$369), modest by soapland standards. Rika takes home half.

That's good pay, but soaplands -- even in bastions like Yoshiwara -- are vanishing like the geisha.

Nothing symbolizes Yoshiwara's seedy flip side more than Tokyo's Kabukicho district, where women like Hitomi prowl the frenetic, neon-bathed alleys.

Prostitution has always exposed women to disease, violence and extortion. But activists say Japan's bad economy makes women more willing to risk low-end work.

Women at soaplands are protected by burly, tuxedo-clad bouncers ready to pounce whenever workers press a panic button installed in each room. But on the street or in a gangster-run massage parlor, there are no such safeguards.

Conditions are especially bad for the estimated 12,000 foreign sex workers like Hitomi, said Yayori Matsui, director of the Tokyo-based Asia-Japan Women's Resource Center.

Many of them were trafficked into the country and indentured by debt. The economic slump means it takes them nearly twice as long, up to a year, to buy back their freedom.

Matsui says it's an uphill battle, in part, because of changing mores.

"There is also a growing point of view that it is a woman's right to engage in prostitution," she says. "I feel helpless against this trend."

Like many foreign workers, Hitomi was lured to Japan with the promise of a job -- in her case, a real job inspecting rubber sealants for refrigerator doors.

But a year later, she was fired as part of the company's restructuring plan.

There was no shackling debt, but also no money to go home. Other Japanese employers wouldn't hire her for lack of proper papers, qualifications, and language skills.

"In Japan, with the economy so terrible, foreigners are the first to get fired. So they told me `We're sorry,'" Hitomi said. "I don't like sex work, but I have to eat."

So she took a tip from a friend and started selling herself outside an hourly rate hotel with peeling wallpaper and no towels.

"I can't think about marriage or kids because I'm not a good woman. The future is only dreams," Hitomi said. "What would you do if you were me?"