When you hear the expression “JK business,” do you have any idea what kind of work this refers to? JK stands for joshi kōsei (high school girls). In Japan, JK is a very powerful brand — and high school girls are a highly valued commodity.
In the 1990s girls sold their worn and unwashed school uniforms, gym shorts and bathing suits for a pretty yen at so-called buru-sera shops. (“Burusera” is a portmanteau of “bloomer,” which in Japan means the type of high-cut sports shorts still worn by volleyball players, plus “sailor suit” — the girls’ school uniform that has become the garment of choice for costume fetishists.)
Later came enjo kōsai, or “compensated dating,” which entailed high school girls selling themselves, in one way or another, to middle-aged men. Every time Japan tries to squash one form of exploitation of high school girls, another type raises its ugly head, like some sort of desperate game of whack-a-mole.
The JK exploitation business continues to thrive today. The U.S. Department of State’s annual human rights report for Japan last year cited the practice of JK o-sanpo as an example of sexual trafficking. JK o-sanpo refers to the practice of an older man “taking a walk” with a high school girl, then usually retiring with her to a karaoke box or manga cafe cubicle. (Some have dismissed the report’s characterization, however, arguing that JK o-sanpo is no worse than frequenting maid cafes.)
An inventive new JK business was uncovered this month in which girls under the age of 18 sat open-legged folding origami cranes, exposing the area under their skirts to male customers. On May 12 the Metropolitan Police Department’s Juvenile Division arrested three suspects in the case, including Takamitsu Fujii, the manager of the establishment where the girls worked in Tokyo’s Higashi-Ikebukero district, which was called Minna no Sagyojo Kurione (translation: Everyone’s Workshop Clione; clione are a cute type of sea slug, also known as sea angels).
All three suspects reportedly admitted to their involvement in the business, with Fujii offering a painfully honest justification: “I thought we’d get arrested if we had them just show their panties, but I thought we were in the clear because they were also doing legitimate manual labor,” he was reported as saying.
The establishment charged customers ¥5,000 for 40 minutes of gazing at the panties of young girls in their high school uniforms. The place at times was packed with as many as 30 girls between the ages of 16 and 18, with some of them making bead jewelry instead of paper cranes. A series of one-tatami-mat-size rooms were lined up, with each girl separated from her customer by a one-way mirror, so no actual physical contact took place — a fact Fujii apparently couldn’t stress enough. It has been reported, however, that customers could pay a premium to set the mirror aside and touch the girls’ legs.
Establishments like these are known as JK sagyōsho or “workshops,” one of the myriad variations of JK business, along with the aforementioned JK o-sanpo, JK refure (from “reflexology,” where high school girls massage customers), JK satsueikai (where you can get your photo taken with a high school girl in a uniform, bathing suit or something else), and so on. All these businesses try to skirt the letter of the law by claiming the girls are engaged in some sort of legitimate work, be that photography, walking, massage, origami or whatever.
So what does the law have to say about all this sordid JK business?
Any girl under 18 years old is considered a minor according to the Labor Standards Act. The Child Welfare Act likewise deems them to be children. Article 62.2 of the Labor Standards Act states:
An employer shall not have persons under 18 years of age engage in work involving the handling of poisons, deleterious substances or other injurious substances, or explosive, combustible or inflammable substances, or work in places where dust or powder is dispersed, or harmful gas or radiation is generated, or places of high temperatures or pressures, or other places which are dangerous or injurious to safety, health or welfare.
A related ordinance also prohibits those under 18 years old from “working as special entertainers to customers.” In addition, Article 34.1.9 of the Child Welfare Act prohibits “behavior that puts children under one’s authority with the purpose of having them conduct themselves in a way that is injurious to the child’s mental or physical health.”
Violations of the Child Welfare Act carry potential sentences of up to three years’ incarceration and ¥1 million in fines, much steeper penalties than those for Labor Standards Act infractions. The violation alleged in the origami case was of the Labor Standards Act, meaning the penalty will not be particularly severe in the event of a conviction.
But there have been some cases of arrests in JK cases for Child Welfare Act violations. Last year in Osaka the manager of a JK refure business was arrested in Osaka. The 17-year-old high school girl who worked for him wore a miniskirt while she massaged a man wearing only his underpants.
Management had a surveillance camera installed in the waiting room and docked girls’ pay if they were late or absent, making clear that the girls were under the authority of the shop’s management. The business was considered in violation of Article 34.1.9 because massaging a nearly naked man was deemed to be “injurious to the child’s mental or physical health.”
Unfortunately, most JK businesses tend to be prosecuted under the Labor Standards Act rather than the Child Welfare Act. What’s more, perpetrators keep coming up with ideas to slip through the legal net.
What we must not forget is that it is the clients that keep JK enterprises in business. The continued thriving of JK business is not just a matter of legislative inadequacy — it touches upon how society treats young women as highly valued commodities.
As soon as a girl gains self-awareness, she is indoctrinated with the idea of her “market value” as a female. She may be showered with compliments on her appearance — being told that she is kawaii (adorable), a bijin (beautiful woman), kirei (pretty) or sutairu ga ii (that she has a good figure).
Some girls are praised constantly, others never. Many jump to the conclusion that the former are happy, the latter unhappy. However, it may be that those girls and women who are always complimented become obsessed with their own market value as females and in fact end up hindered in their ability to live free, autonomous lives.
Many women struggle to attain —and maintain — perceived high market value. Yet a girl or woman’s own eyes in the mirror cannot bestow this quality. It is others — the world — alone that can render such a judgment. Note the headlines in female fashion magazines — “Become a loved woman,””Cosmetics to make you adored”; they often use the passive voice because it is by the world that one’s appearance is appraised. Daniel S. Hamermesh explored this issue of the economic impact of appearance in his recent book “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful.”
Like sponges, vulnerable schoolgirls’ brains absorb these values floating around our society. They figure their market value is highest while they are young, since so many men seek them out, and reason that they might as well “sell high” while they can. “As long as it doesn’t technically involve sex, well then . . . ”
What counsel should we adults offer these young girls? Should we tell them that their youth is being exploited by adults? Should we condone them making a little pocket money while warning them to be careful and to avoid dangerous men? Should we go further and tell them that the very men who adore their youth now will find no use for them a few years down the road?
I don’t know what to tell them. All I know is that I despise this society that makes women suffer so much. It’s time for a change.
Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached at tozen.okunuki @gmail.com. Each month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law. Labor Pains appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Your comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org