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Sex trade a shaky safety net for Japan’s working-poor women

by

Staff Writer

For the past six years, 47-year-old single mother Kasumi Endo has lived a double life.

On weekdays, she works all day as a temp-staff office worker to raise her teenage daughter. But with wages hardly sufficient to keep the household afloat, Endo (not her real name) takes a surreptitious trip to Tokyo’s downtown Ikebukuro district on weekends to earn extra money.

As she climbs the stairs to exit JR Ikebukuro Station, she gradually switches her normal self off and wills herself to accept that she is now someone else: a professional working in Japan’s fuzoku sex industry.

“When I first decided to join the industry, I did so with great reluctance. I didn’t know whether it was the right thing to sell my identity as a woman. I even felt guilty for my daughter when I imagined a stranger touching the sacred part of my body where she was born,” said Endo, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity because she keeps her side business a secret from those around her, including her 19-year-old daughter.

Endo belongs to the seemingly burgeoning cohort of Japan’s impoverished middle-aged women gravitating toward the sex industry, despite its widespread life-threatening risks.

Today, the taboo community provides women like her with the semblance of a social safety net, superseding the existing public assistance that experts criticize as too fragile and contingent on an old, traditional family model that no longer works.

At the same time, calls are growing for a rethink of the industry’s pariah status. Poverty experts say the entrenched tendency to label the sex industry an unconditional evil will only leave those who work in it marginalized and stymie access to the public support they need.

The plight of women

Japanese women have it tough.

Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” target of having women occupy 30 percent of leadership positions by 2020, the majority of the female workforce is mired in low-paying, unstable nonregular employment. Many are forced to give up full-time positions after childbirth amid a chronic dearth of day care centers as well as Japan’s long-standing “men at work, women at home” mentality, which dissuades husbands from taking paternity leave.

Of the 23.51 million employed females nationwide, 13.32 million are engaged in nonregular work, including part-time and temporary jobs, according to a 2014 survey by the internal affairs ministry.

The National Tax Agency, meanwhile, found in its 2014 study that the annual income of female nonregular workers averaged ¥1.47 million — well below the ¥2 million benchmark seen as the poverty line — while men in the same status earned ¥2.2 million annually.

Things grow even more dire among single mothers like Endo, who, despite working nonstop, can earn barely enough to support their families.

A 2011 study of single-parent households by the welfare ministry revealed that 47.4 percent of working moms eked out livings as part-timers, earning an average of ¥1.25 million per year, and 4.7 percent held jobs as temporary workers. Among men, only 8.0 percent of working dads were part-timers, and earned an average annual wage of ¥1.75 million.

For her part, Endo, who had worked part-time customer service jobs from her mid-30s to 40s that earned her just over ¥1 million yen a year, became the Japanese equivalent of a call girl in the so-called deriheru (“delivery health”) industry in 2010 after her husband fell several hundred million yen into debt.

She divorced him three years later over another debt problem and saw her monthly income plummet to about ¥120,000 on a take-home basis, comprising her earnings as a part-time worker and call girl.

While she recently switched to being a temporary worker with full-time hours, she wound up jobless at the end of June when her contract expired. With her rent late this month, Endo said she was popping out of her deriheru shift when possible to desperately take in one job interview after another.

Flexible and quick

Despite its deep stigma and shady legal status, Japan’s fuzoku industry, which primarily refers to the “soapland” brothels, “fashion health” massage parlors, deriheru businesses and love hotels, is flourishing. The market reached an estimated ¥3.5 trillion in fiscal 2014, according to Yano Research Institute.

With vaginal intercourse prohibited by the Prostitution Prevention Law, most business operators seek to circumvent it by ostensibly offering a gamut of services that stop short of outright sex, from French kissing to oral and anal sex. In reality, however, vaginal sex, euphemistically called honban (real play), is something of an open secret in places such as soaplands.

Fuzoku sometimes proves to be the only viable career option for financially challenged women, particularly single mothers, due to its considerably loose working style.

“Fuzoku is the most convenient part-time job you can possibly think of,” Shizuka Yamaguchi, a 45-year-old nurse from Kanagawa Prefecture who moonlights as a deriheru call girl in Ikebukuro, said. Yamaguchi (not her real name) said she delved into the industry about a year ago to help offset a plunge in household income after her husband lost his career.

“As a nurse, you’d have to complete the pre-assigned shift in order to earn, say, ¥10,000 a day. But this won’t be an issue in this industry — you can just call your boss and show up whenever you feel like it, day or night, using whatever free time you’ve got to yourself.”

Add to this flexibility the instant payment aspect, and cash-strapped women like Shoko Hayama, 48, find the business a life-saver the likes of which she believes is nonexistent anywhere else.

As of July, Hayama (not her real name), who works at the same parlor as Yamaguchi, said she and her husband owed about ¥300,000 in back rent and were on the verge of being evicted.

Her husband lost his job as a truck driver after a traffic accident in January, which led the pair to resort to a black-market lender for what eventually snowballed into ¥2 million in debt under the exorbitant interest rates.

Hayama, who requested her real name not be published because she keeps her plight hidden from her husband, said she is considering filing for personal bankruptcy.

“Even if I take up a job as a temporary worker, it isn’t until a month later that I can get paid. I used to have my name registered with a temp agency, but in many cases, daily payment is only possible like four times a month,” she said, noting her job as a call girl rewards her with half of the ¥6,000 in cash she gets from each 70-minute session with a customer. The other half goes to her employer.

“We’re even struggling to feed ourselves every day. My wallet is always empty,” she said.

Feeble social security

These women’s tales of divorce, spousal joblessness and debilitating penury resonate with many middle-aged sex workers drawn into the business, industry insiders and poverty experts say.

They point out a mixture of factors for this, from the demise of Japan’s traditional family model, heavily reliant on male breadwinners, to the fundamental weakness of the nation’s social security system.

Akiko Suzuki, a clinical psychologist and chairwoman of the anti-poverty group Inclusion Net Kanagawa, said Japanese women have traditionally found themselves at the mercy of the social security and family benefits tied to the employment of their husbands, including health insurance, pensions, housing subsidies and allowances for dependents.

But this model is almost obsolete in today’s society, Suzuki said, with divorces on the rise over the past two decades and many corporations inclined to cut back on family benefits in an economy that’s been stagnant too long.

“Once those women are left without their husbands, there is little housing or welfare assistance they can turn to,” said Suzuki, who has been involved in a free consultation project catering to sex workers.

Welfare benefits in Japan are notoriously hard to come by thanks to the convoluted bureaucracy, and renting an apartment is often a laborious task if one lacks stable income.

The government meanwhile remains doggedly reluctant to invest in public education, spending an abysmally low 3.5 percent of GDP in 2012, the least of 32 of the 34 OECD countries for which comparable data were available. This, Suzuki said, has prodded many single mothers to sacrifice their health for work to ensure their children can get access to higher education.

The fuzoku world then comes off as a very tempting alternative for job-seeking divorcees or wives of jobless husbands.

Some fuzoku employers, Suzuki said, go to great lengths to cater to the needs of these women, including offering them places to stay and helping to arrange spots in day care centers for their children.

“So, in a way, they offer women the kind of support that society has failed to provide,” Suzuki said, while emphasizing that the sex industry alone can’t substitute as a safety net, given that some of the women make less than ¥100,000 a month.

Risks galore

Even if the sex industry provides women with something akin to a safety net, however, risks permeate its community, including rape, stalking, revenge porn and sexually transmitted diseases.

“There is no doubt that the risks are huge. In the worst-case scenario, you could die,” said Akinori Saito, president of a deriheru chain called Okaasan (Mothers).

Okaasan debuted in Ikebukuro in 2009 as a pioneering establishment focused on middle-aged women to tap a market based on the inherent male desire for motherly affection.

The chain, which has since branched out into the Kansai region, exclusively hires women in their 40s or older and counts many poverty-stricken women, including single mothers, among its 500 call girls.

Okaasan proclaims on its website that it will strive to become one of the “most exemplary” fuzoku chains in Japan, upholding a stringent no-sex policy that makes it the antithesis of some of its law-breaking rivals.

As a precaution against stalkers and other sex offenders, Saito, 48, strictly bans the women from carrying ID when meeting clients and from giving out their contact information. He also stores data on every single customer in a database to better grasp his clientele.

To protect their health, Saito ensures his employees undergo a monthly screening for STDs and discloses their examination history on its website. Any woman found to have broken the no-sex rule to earn extra money is fired immediately, Saito said.

But despite his best efforts, some women fall prey to rapists nonetheless, returning to the office with blood dripping down their thighs, he said.

“It’s always possible the women have to deal with some kinds of criminals. We can’t eliminate the risk, although we can certainly reduce it,” he said.

Battling the stigma

On one Saturday in July, Ikebukuro deriheru workers Yamaguchi and Hayama both attended a free monthly consultation project spearheaded by White Hands, a Niigata-based nonprofit organization that addresses social phenomena and problems related to sex.

Each month, lawyers and social workers offer consultation opportunities at a tiny apartment in the bustling center of Ikebukuro that in normal days serves as a shared lounge where call girls like Yamaguchi and Hayama can spend their idle hours waiting for calls from clients requesting their services.

The trailblazing project, dubbed Fu Terasu (Shedding Light on Fuzoku), aims to give women in the industry access to the welfare and legal assistance they need — an approach long thwarted by the deep-set stigma attached to their profession.

“The most prominent approach taken by municipal officials or lawyers toward those women has long boiled down to something along the lines of ‘you should quit the job immediately,’ because fuzoku, in their opinion, is undesirable by definition,” said Shingo Sakatsume, head of White Hands.

Sakatsume called the attitudes of officialdom overbearing and said they run counter to the nonjudgmental attitude considered essential to doing social work. Adhering to such a stance only serves to prevent constructive discussion on what women can do to move forward, he said.

But in Fu Terasu, “we neither approve nor disapprove of what the women do. We listen to them and figure out what steps need to be taken to improve their situation,” he said.

Kaoru Aoyama, a sociology professor at Kobe University who has studied the sex industry, agrees.

In Japan, the misguided notion that sex workers are without exception exploited, abused and forced to do what they do runs so deep among the public that the whole industry is indelibly stigmatized, she said.

“Branding the industry an evil unconditionally will ultimately deprive women of self-esteem and the kind of ‘bargaining power’ that is crucial to their negotiations with customers or employers, and further weaken their position,” Aoyama said.

“Rather, the focus should be on how to boost anti-poverty support in society to save women who work in the industry against their will,” she said.