It started with an email from a 20-year-old college student called Emi, who told me she was looking for a Showa umare no dansei (昭和生まれの男性, a man born in Showa, i.e., born before 1989). Next was Norika, a bored housewife in her early thirties asking me to spend some himajikan (ヒマ時間, spare time) with her. She informed me that she was willing to pay for all expenses, including restaurant and hotel bills. I was even more surprised when only a couple of days later, a 33-year-old chief executive named Saori offered me a larger sum of money if I was willing to enter a tokubetsu na kankei (特別な関係 special relationship) with her. Though being a married man, I couldn’t help wondering about this new trend of Japanese women looking for partners in such straightforward ways.

If you get such messages too, you may ask yourself the same question. The simple answer is, these women don’t exist. They are a product of the strange world of Japanese meiwaku mēru (迷惑メール, spam mail). The Japanese musician Kenzo Saeki took the trouble to react to a larger number of such messages in order to see what happens if someone should take them for real. What he found was that, as expected, all of his attempts to get in touch with some real applicant at the other end of the line quickly took him to a stage where he was requested to reveal personal information about himself, including mobile phone number and credit card details.

According to Saeki’s account, published in his book “Supamu mēru taishō (『スパムメール大賞』 “Spam Mail Grand Prix,” Tatsumi Publishing 2005), spam mails with fictive women looking for sex have been around since the early 2000s. The first messages that offered money to male dating partners, thus reversing the well-known pattern of enjo kōsai (援助交際, compensated dating) into gyaku enjo kōsai (逆援助交際), occurred in 2005. They have been spamming around ever since, sometimes with offers of absurdly large remuneration for prospective males.

From a linguistic point of view, these messages make for most interesting data. As their main topic is sex, they can tell us a great deal about how the Japanese language handles this lexical minefield. That’s why in April 2009 I started a sociolinguistic research project on the topic. Retaining all messages of this type that arrived in my inbox, I collected over 2,000 such texts within three years. After all duplicates had been deleted, I still had a sample of more than 400 different messages left for a closer analysis of the Japanese language of sex spam.

What, then, are the main ways to express sexual taboos in Japanese? As in other languages, one obvious way is use of euphemisms. Thus, the most frequent term to describe the somewhat indecent relationship that is searched for in the messages of my sample is warikitta kankei (割り切った関係, clearly separate relationship). Other terms that frequently occur are otona no kankei (大人の関係, adult relationship) or even more innocent expressions such as the 特別な関係 mentioned above, or just tanoshii kankei (楽しい関係, pleasant relationship). Though there are terms more straight to the point, these are much less frequent than their euphemistic counterparts.

Another common way to communicate sexual taboos is the use of English loanwords. Most interesting in this respect is the term ecchi (エッチ), a summarizing expression for various sorts of sexual states of minds and activities. It has a rather complex history, deriving from the term hentai (変態 perverse), romanized and reduced to its first letter, “H,” which in Japanese reads eichi (エイチ). Pronunciation later changed to ecchi, probably in order to avoid causing offense when merely spelling the alphabet.

Taboos can also be expressed by hiding certain letters of a word, though only to such an extent that the word itself remains understandable. For example, the messages in my sample frequently contain a word that starts on “S,” ends on “X” and has a black or double circled dot in the middle. Despite this little fig leaf, most readers should be able to figure out that the message they got is not about woodwind instruments or the square root of 36.

Another noteworthy thing about Japanese taboo words is that they frequently start with a beautifying お (o), called bikago (美化語) in Japanese. This may come as a surprise to Japanese language learners who, like me, have been taught that the prefix normally occurs in such honorable words as o-sushi (お寿司 sushi) or o-cha (お茶 tea). The language of spam mails is a good way to learn that the beautifying “o” also may embellish certain parts of the body. I spare you the details.

So if you next find an ecchi na sasoi (エッチな誘い, indecent proposal) in your mailbox, you may consider this an excellent opportunity to brush up your Japanese, particularly at the more private parts of the language. Do not consider it an opportunity for anything else.

Peter Backhaus is Associate Professor at Waseda University, School of Education. For more on this project see “You’ve Got Spam: A Textual Analysis of Unsolicited Japanese Dating Invitation Mails.” In Contemporary Japan Vol. 25 (in print).

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