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FLIRTING WITH WHOM? AND AT WHAT PRICE?

Fancy an on-screen romance with a cherry on top?

by Joey Mccoy

“I’m looking to sate my filthy fantasies. My sexual desire is off the scale! My husband goes on what he says are business trips, but I’m sure he’s taking his mistress, so I want to have an affair too!” — Yoshimi

“I think my husband is carrying on with a girl from his company. I’m a housewife, and I do the same routine day in, day out. If I commit adultery, it’ll be a balance with what my husband’s doing. Shall we?” — Chikako

“My name’s Maki and I’ve been an elementary-school teacher since April, teaching 3-year-olds. It was hard work at first, but I got used to it. I want to make the most of my free time. Shall we be friends? I could make lunch and we could go out together . . . — Maki

As an ordinary resident of Japan, this correspondent can definitely report getting at least 10 junk keitai (cell phone) e-mails a day from women who, for one reason or another, want to get to know me better. It would almost be flattering if it wasn’t so obvious that these women are not real.

With the huge popularity in this country of pay-to-use deaikei (dating sites) created specifically for Internet-connected keitai, there’s some serious money to be made from manipulating gullible men through unsolicited e-mails.

And so the sakura (cherry) was born. Sakura are women — or often men masquerading as women — who create e-mails such as those above (which are genuine) to lure customers into expensive chats.

Tempted to hit the reply button on your cell phone? You’ll be invited to join the deaikei for a free trial — and as likely as not be awarded five free “points,” which you can use to send e-mails to the object of your desire (one point), exchange private e-mail addresses (typically five points) or get her phone number (10 points).

Sakura are trained to spin these e-mail communications out as long as possible, wasting the customer’s free credits but leaving him sufficiently tantalized that he’ll buy more — at a cost of ¥500 to ¥1,000 per point.

“Japanese guys wants girls; they have fantasies. Men are stupid!” says a 24-year-old woman (we’ll call her Azumi) who worked part-time as a sakura last year.

Custom messaging software

Azumi found her job through the classifieds magazine J-Page. “It said, ‘mail operator wanted,’ she recalls. I called the number and I asked the guy who answered, ‘Is this a sakura job?’ When he said ‘Yes,’ I decided to go for it.”

After a short interview with the company based in Tokyo’s hot-spot Shibuya district, Azumi was hired and asked to start the next day.

She says the office seated 10 sakura staff, about half of whom were men in their 20s, each with their own computer equipped with custom messaging software and a row of keitai. After all, the job encourages multiple personalities, with sakura juggling about 15 identities on any given day.

The Yoshimi, Chikako and Maki referred to above could well all be the same person. (Then again, they could be real — according to Azumi, around 1 percent of deaikei customers are genuine women looking for genuine romance.)

In this business, though, once a man has spent his credits on getting the phone number of his flirting partner, he’s no longer a customer — as there’s no higher prize to spend points on. At least, that’s the theory.

In practice, however, the sakura have ways to keep him spending.

When the sakura’s phone rings, the man’s name and phone number appear alongside the sakura’s name and her character’s name. But as most guys tend to e-mail before they call, the sakura usually has plenty of time to familiarize herself with their previous communications — all of which are stored on special software to prevent her from getting muddled up.

The girl assigned to that customer then goes to a quiet room or out onto the street, answers the phone (male sakura skip this part of the job) and tells her wannabe suitor how delighted she is to hear from him — but how terribly busy she is right now. Can he call back tomorrow, she wonders?

After three of these 2- or 3-minute chats, she makes an excuse to break off the “relationship” — saying “My husband found out about us”; “I’ve got a boyfriend”; that sort of thing.

The male heart is a fickle thing. Finding himself without a new lover — but with a few credits left — our ardent punter will then typically start all over again.

According to Azumi, some guys spend up to ¥600,000 a month on deaikei . . . and never get any action whatsoever.

Perhaps she had a point when she labeled all men stupid.

For a girl such as Azumi, it’s a cushy job. The offices tend to open 24 hours a day — otherwise they’d be sussed pretty quickly — but the sakura are free to choose their work hours, and the pay starts at around ¥1,000 an hour in the daytime and ¥1,500 at night — which is paid by bank transfer after just one week in the job. Longtime staff can also graduate to managerial positions or open a new branch, and balancing the job with other part-time work is allowed. And as Azumi says, “You get a lot of freedom and there’s no stress. You can even listen to your iPod all day and eat at your desk.”

But then again, it’s an industry founded on deception. The sakura’s arsenal is densely packed with tricks to hook the unsuspecting and prey on the gullible.

Sakura will hassle a man after a couple of days of no contact, pretending to feel hurt and betrayed by his silence and tugging on his guilt until he coughs up the cash for “her” phone number. They’ll tell him they live around the corner from him, using map Web sites for reference. They’ll have photos (often pay-to-view) on their deaikei profile that aren’t really them because they’ve simply downloaded them from the Internet. They’ll play the character of a foreign immigrant speaking broken Japanese, seeking to improve her language skills by scoring a native boyfriend. They’ll send a corrupted e-mail address in exchange for five address-exchange credits from the punter — but they will likely be unreadable by the customer. And they’ll type out e-mail after e-mail, pretending to be one person after another, sending them to randomly generated e-mail addresses and those of recent customers.

The men, however, nearly always act the same way, allowing — nay, encouraging — these companies to exploit them.

“I had a boss at a different job who was hooked on deaikei sites,” recalls Azumi.

The nature of men

“He thought the girls he was contacting were real. One day he said he’d met a girl, and I couldn’t believe it because he was such a mean guy. He said, ‘She works around here, she has a husband and child, but she’s bored with her life and she’s looking for someone else. She’s very beautiful; I saw her picture.’ I asked if he’d met her, and he said no, they’d only spoken through this deaikei site. Isn’t that obvious?”

Obvious indeed. But stupidity is in the nature of men — and when women are involved, they are prone to fall for anything. Even if those women are fraudsters. Even if those women are male fraudsters pretending to be women.

Now — if you’ll excuse me — I’ve just received an e-mail from a gorgeous girl I don’t ever recall meeting. Her name is Chisato and she told me: “I worked in a sex shop for two years. I had a lot of regular customers who came especially to see me, so I saved quite a bit of money. I’m up for a bit of lotion-play, but be sure you don’t finish too quick, OK? Ha-ha. I’m free anytime, so let’s meet whenever.”

Sweet! Now, where exactly do I get those credits . . . ?