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It’s ladies first now in Japanese love hotels

by Donald Richie

Japanese Love Hotels: A Cultural History, by Sarah Chaplin. London/New York: Routledge, 2007, 242 pp. with photos, figures and tables, £85 (cloth)

The love-hotel industry is one of Japan’s most profitable. It accounts for more than ¥4 trillion a year, a figure nearly four times than that of the profit of Toyota Motors, double that of the anime market, and a trillion yen more than the annual takings of the Japan Racing Association.

Supporting this are 30,000 love hotels nationwide providing places for the 500 million visits that take place each year. Some 1,370,000 couples use a love hotel daily (1 percent of the total population of 127 million people on any given day), and one research project has calculated that half of all sex in Japan takes place in a love hotel, and that consequently a large part of the country’s offspring is conceived in one.

This is because a large percentage of the patrons are married to each other. It has been estimated that customers fall into three categories: married, just dating, and adulterous. Their demands, however, are all the same — couples (married to each other or not) seeking space dedicated to sexual intimacy on a short-term basis, away from their crowded, nosy homes.

Other countries have their love-hotel equivalents — South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines — but these are not often of the same caliber as Japan’s. Here the love-hotel establishment is not only geared to provide security and quiet, but also to create an atmosphere that is romantic (even fantastic), as other-worldly as Disneyland but at the same time stuffed with various handy gadgets.

Love-hotel excesses are well known, though now less evident since the 1985 revision to the Law Regulating Businesses Affecting Public Morals. This put an end to the large mirrors and big, round dendo (electric) beds that moved of their own accord. The contemporary love hotel is now much more kawaii (cute) than kinky.

Among the the reasons offered for this is that there has been something of a power shift in love-hotel choice. It used to be the male half that decided. Back then the places had hopeful macho monikers — Empire, Rex, King. Then the female half began to choose. Love hotels started calling themselves “fashion hotels” or “boutique hotels,” and began to have lavish lobbies with theme-shops, colors like beige and lavender, and decor like Laura Ashley.

This change can be documented in the Meguro Emperor (still in Meguro), which began in 1973 as a he-man fort before it slowly metamorphosed into a romantic Disneyland castle. The interior has been several times revised to segue from male- to female-friendly. Even the name has changed. It is now Gallery Hotel.

In most love hotels “macho” kanji has been replaced by “feminine” hiragana, trendy katakana or, more often, romaji, that romanized script that carries no male/female associations at all.

The fashion hotel has grown ultra discrete (no one sees you once you are inside; in fashion motels, your license plates are hidden and there are no windows) and the erotic becomes the exotic, the risky becomes riskless, and the bed is seen as more trophy than taboo.

In her learned and entertaining book on the anthropology of the love hotel Sarah Chaplin follows the ups and downs of her subject and is particularly good in connecting its changes with those within the larger public. From the hovels of the late 1950s, almost entirely associated with adultery and prostitution, we have proceeded to the present pleasure palaces of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and almost everywhere else.

The entrances of such places used to resemble those of public toilets (a bafflement that allowed entry but discouraged voyeurism, and which one critic called “a purely pragmatic answer to a basic physical need.”) Not now. Privacy otherwise ensured, we scan the modish room-menu, take a look around the shop and note the brand-name goods for sale, and then proceed to a bedroom in all ways more lavish than our own.

Since Chaplin is an academic, a number of authorities are evoked and acknowledged, but her style remains lively and readable. Remarking on the dispatch necessary of those cleaning the room and changing the sheets in the five minutes after an occupancy, she quotes that one might liken the process to a pit crew of a Formula One racing team’s.

Here then is everything you would want to know about one of Japan’s most significant architectural achievements, one which is also certainly its most lucrative.