Some desires money can’t gratify, but for appetites of the flesh, there are ways in Japan to legally sate one’s carnal cravings.
Like many countries, prostitution is illegal in Japan, at least on paper. Brothel-like “soapland” and sexual massage parlors get around these barriers.
And the overt, erotic services of the so-called fashion health venues found in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district and the soaplands in the hot springs resort of Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, ensure that the world’s oldest profession lives on, only under another name.
The context of Japan’s legal definition of prostitution is narrow enough to provide ample loopholes for red-light district operators.
Following are questions and answers regarding Japan’s sex industry — commonly known as “fuzoku” — and the attempts or lack thereof by the government to curb them:
What law bans prostitution in Japan?
The Prostitution Prevention Law, enacted in 1957, forbids the act of having “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment.” It also punishes acts including soliciting by prostitutes and organized prostitution, such as operating brothels.
Legal experts say it is hard for police to crack down on prostitution because it is tricky to verify if a couple had consensual or compensated sex.
The law meanwhile does not ban paid sex with a “specified person,” or someone who has become an acquaintance. It also defines sex exclusively as vaginal intercourse. Thus other paid sexual acts are not illegal.
Soliciting sex on the street could be punishable by a maximum six-month prison term or ¥10,000 fine. Parties who provide locations for prostitution could face a maximum seven-year sentence or ¥300,000 fine.
According to National Police Agency statistics, 923 people were arrested for violating the Prostitution Prevention Law in 2006.
How many types of fuzoku businesses are there?
Enacted in 1948, the Law Regulating Businesses Affecting Public Morals breaks down the sex industry into several major categories, including soaplands, “fashion health” massage parlors, call-girl businesses, strip clubs, love hotels and adult shops.
Soaplands, the “king” of fuzoku, are where clients have sex. “Fashion health” massage parlors offer sexual activities other than straight intercourse.
The law requires such businesses to register with police and operate only within their registered category. It also bans people under age 18 from working or entering fuzoku establishments.
All sex businesses except soaplands abide by the prostitution law because they do not provide straight intercourse and limit other services to mainly massages.
So how can soaplands operate legally?
To dodge the law, soapland operators claim their male clients and their hired masseuses perform sex as couples who have grown fond of each other.
A customer entering a soapland, legally registered as “a special public bathhouse,” pays an admission fee “that holds the pretext as the charge to use the bathing facility,” Kansai University professor Yoshikazu Nagai said.
The client then is usually asked to pay a massage-service fee directly to the masseuse — giving the pretense that the woman is working on her own and the soapland owner is not running a brothel.
According to Nagai, who authored “Fuzoku Eigyo Torishimari” (“Control of Sex Business Operations”), the process also allows the two to be deemed as adults who became acquainted at the soapland.
The law is conveniently interpreted to mean the male customer is having sex with an acquaintance, not with an “unspecified” person in exchange for cash.
Is that an acceptable justification?
“Is it nonsense to deem that the couple fell in love while massaging at a soapland? Yes. But that is how things have operated inside the Japanese legal framework for over five decades,” Nagai said.
Nagai noted the legal framework on prostitution varies worldwide. Sudan, for instance, punishes prostitutes with death, but the same act is legal and out in the open in the Netherlands.
Many observers say police avoid cracking down hard on prostitution mainly because it is considered a necessary evil and they would rather keep the industry on a loose leash than let the market go underground.
“Putting aside the debate of whether it is right or wrong, the definition of prostitution differs greatly by country and is influenced by cultural, historical and religious backgrounds,” Nagai explained.
When did the sex trade begin in Japan?
Prostitution goes back to ancient times, and there were only local-level laws against selling sex until the prostitution law was enacted in the postwar period.
According to Nagai, 16th century feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the first to demarcate part of Kyoto as a red-light district.
“Hideyoshi knew that it would be easier for him to supervise the brothels if they were concentrated in a single location,” Nagai said. “It also made it easier for him to collect levies from business owners.”
What are the health concerns at fuzoku establishments?
In regards to sexually transmitted diseases, most fuzoku businesses conduct comprehensive medical tests when hiring a female worker. Soaplands undergo monthly inspections by public health centers to maintain hygiene.
Some establishments turn away foreign clients.
“This is because of the worldwide outbreak of AIDS in the late 1980s,” Nagai said, noting some premises continue to ban foreign nationals because of the misguided fear that AIDS is spread by them.
How big is the sex industry?
There were approximately 1,200 soaplands in Japan and 17,500 sex-related businesses, including massage parlors and strip clubs, in 2006, according to statistics released by the NPA.
While some have suggested the sex business is a ¥1 trillion industry, Nagai said coming up with an accurate estimate is difficult because of the diversity.
But it is still a way for women to make quick cash, as a soapland “masseuse” can make ¥10 million or more a year, he said.
The sex industry also remains a source of funds for the underworld. According to the NPA, 20 percent of people arrested in violation of the prostitution law in 2006 were related to the mob.
But Nagai believes the industry may be facing a downtrend, since information technology has made it easy for amateurs to operate as freelancers.
Many outdated sex businesses will face such competition in the future, he said.
“One only needs a cell phone to secretly start a call-girl business,” Nagai said. “It has become so convenient and there is no need for professional knowledge or the effort to maintain a bathhouse.”