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Sex samaritan keeps walking the walk

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Self-styled “sex helper” Shingo Sakatsume has lost count of the abuses he claims the media and the authorities have heaped on him.

At first, after graduating in sociology from the University of Tokyo and freelancing as a “listening-and-talking” person with the often-lonely elderly, he’d had no such problems.

But the “abuses” began when he tried to set up a nonprofit called White Hands in 2008 — perhaps predictably given that its purpose was to address, and manually attend to, the sexual needs of the physically disabled in their homes or residences. Because police permission is required to set up any such sex business in Japan, he found himself thrust into many far from amicable encounters with the boys in blue.

Nonetheless, Sakatsume persevered and eventually got their stamp of acceptance. As a result, the 30-year-old continues to organize that service to this day.

Then came reams of media revelations about young Japanese people’s growing indifference to sex. Although this prompted many armchair critics to express their views, few have actually ventured to walk the walk as Sakatsume has — despite, that is, further accusations flung his way.

Specifically, in May last year, he announced what some sections of the media dubbed “a sex-training camp for virgins.”

His idea was to lodge sexually inexperienced young people together in a three-day sex “boot camp,” with both theory (through lectures) and practice on the menu such that by the time they went home they would have kissed their virginity goodbye.

However, news of his boot-camp plan catapulted Sakatsume and White Hands back into the limelight, and he was soon deluged with online imprecations and hate e-mails branding him as a criminal.

And (surprise, surprise) police officers in Niigata Prefecture, where he is based, weighed in as well, bending over backwards to cajole and browbeat the young entrepreneur into kicking his boot-camp event into touch.

Before long, the pressure had become so intimidating that Sakatsume felt he had no choice but to abandon his sex-aid project.

But he is resilient. White Hands is now preparing to launch another initiative even though it, too, may court controversy.

Sakatsume outlined the new project in his recently published book, “Sekkusu Herupa no Jinjo Narazaru Jonetsu (Sex Helper’s Extraordinary Passion).” This details what he terms a “marriage-simulation program” for romantically challenged singles — a program that requires both parties to sign a contract with their randomly allotted partner to become a couple and enjoy pseudo-matrimony together.

“We realized from last year’s mistake (with the boot-camp plan) that if we push the idea of sex to the fore, criticisms will soon rush in,” Sakatsume said. “So instead, we decided to focus on teaching people how to communicate with the opposite sex. That way, I think, women will find it easier to join the program” — referring to the fact that last year’s boot camp attracted no female applicants.

This time around, participants will start by having occasional dates, going for a drive together, or to a cinema or restaurant, etc. They will also be required to assist their partners in their daily lives, such as by offering a ride home, doing the laundry or odd-jobs around the house. Then, as Sakatsume envisages it, as they gradually strengthen their trust, they will renew their contract every three months to further deepen their relationship — but only by mutual agreement.

As potent an idea as this may seem, though, Sakatsume recently reported a grand total of just two applicants — both males in their late 20s.

One of them, a high-flying 27-year-old junior executive with a multinational company (who spoke on condition of anonymity), said he first heard about White Hands through publicity over the proposed sex-training camp last year.

“At first I was quite skeptical,” he said. “But the more I researched, the more I was convinced it was no sham and that it had an extraordinarily strong sense of mission. I was quite amazed by Sakatsume’s ability to take notice of and respond to issues we tend to ignore — and to fearlessly tackle them. I think that’s the way NPOs should be.”

In a testament to his admiration for the project, the man has even become a secret mastermind behind White Hands, helping Sakatsume to map out details of the marriage-simulation program.

Nonetheless, this program, too, is dogged with controversy. Some critics consider some of its rules too overbearing, such as: no borrowing or lending of money; no sex between “marriage-simulation” partners until the fourth month; and no cohabitation until the seventh month. Other critics, meanwhile, slam the program’s insistence that bills must be split on dates, and the requirement to journalize each rendezvous to keep the organization updated on the couple’s progress.

In defence of such jibes that the program is too paternalistic, the junior executive contends that Sakatsume believes the rules help preclude any trouble and obviate difficult choices often faced by couples.

As he put it: “People who apply to this program have all been unable to initiate relationships. Maybe they are too busy with their work, or they might have some kind of twisted prejudice against enjoying romance. So they would find themselves at a loss if they were told to do whatever they want.”

Oddly, though, as the exec sat there offering his opinions and smiling a debonair smile, this eager would-be marriage-simulation contender didn’t exude the air of someone who would have difficulty communicating with women. And indeed, he freely admitted to a colorful past as a student — but he said that since graduation he has turned lukewarm about pursuing the prospect of happy domesticity as he has begun to feel fulfilled with his work.

As he put it: “I didn’t need to date anybody just to confirm the world needs me. My work assures me that I’m needed.”

He added: “It’s not like I’m hoping to meet my future partner through this program. Since it’s still in the making, I just wanted to be a part of it, watch it grow, and help create it. That said, I do expect some nice romance out of it, of course. I’m still a guy.”

Though that “guy” seemingly needs little tuition in the nitty-gritty of sex, in justifying the need for his marriage-simulation service Sakatsume blames why so many young Japanese people are at a loss in that department on various societal problems.

Among these, he points to there being no national system to teach about the “birds and bees.” This, he believes, means those who can’t form a relationship but are keen to satisfy their libido other than alone must resort to fuzoku (sex businesses).

What Sakatsume advocates, therefore, is for the society to offer his third option to release young people’s sexual frustration in what he described as a modernized version of yobai — an ancient custom that helped villages maintain an ongoing labor supply by people turning a blind eye to young men sneaking into the beds of young female neighbors at night and coaxing them into sexual intercourse.

“After all,” Sakatsume said, “sex is the most important and fundamental desire we human beings need to satisfy to maintain our self-esteem.”

This assertion may contain a great deal of truth, but Sakatsume’s approaches to addressing that desire have their critics quite unrelated to those boys (and girls) in blue.

One critic is sociologist Masahiro Yamada, who points out signs of male chauvinism present behind the marriage-simulation program’s facade of gender equality.

The Chuo University professor challenges Sakatsume’s argument that society’s lack of “sexual infrastructure” has caused many Japanese to stay single and suffer crises of self-esteem as they wrestle with unspeakable embarrassment over their virginity.

“It’s true that being sexually experienced has long been considered admirable among males, but women don’t usually compete with each other over such matters,” Yamada said. “I wonder whether Sakatsume ever put himself in a woman’s shoes before making the arguments he does? His whole activity seems to be male-orientated.”

Little wonder then, he added, that White Hands’ sex-training camp last year failed to appeal to any female virgins.

“So that means most women are not worried what damage their ongoing virginity might do to their social reputation. As long as sexual relationships involve both men and women, I don’t think Sakatsume should cater only to the needs of one side, while trivializing those of the other by lumping them in together,” he said.

For more details about White Hands go to www.whitehands.jp/menu.html; for more about the marriage-simulation program, go to partnerlicense.org.