In the predawn hours of Oct. 1, a fire broke out at an Osaka video parlor, killing 15 people and injuring nearly a dozen others, including one who died later. Kazuhiro Ogawa, a 46-year-old unemployed man who had been in the parlor, was arrested on suspicion of arson and murder.

Media coverage now focuses on Ogawa’s troubled personal life and his motives for allegedly setting the blaze, and the building codes and fire safety regulations the crowded parlor violated.

Critics have long warned that so-called private video parlors are not only social hazards that encourage antisocial behavior but are also, like Net cafes and karaoke rooms, dangerous fire hazards that blatantly violate safety regulations.

What exactly are private video parlors?

Unlike normal video rental shops, where patrons take their videos home to view, private video parlors include small, usually one-person cubicles for viewing in individual privacy on the premises.

Cubicle charges are usually based on 15-minute, 30-minute or one-hour increments. Charges vary, but in major cities rates run between ¥500 and ¥1,000 per hour.

Adult videos constitute up to 90 percent of the selection at most private video parlors. The nonadult fare often includes Hollywood action films, Chinese martial arts films and Japanese “anime” (animation). Most customers are men.

A typical private booth will have a large, comfortable chair that, in some cases, can be extended into a bed. A TV set with DVD player, VHS recorder and remote control are always present, and most cubicles have earphones. There are also tissues and wet towels.

The more upscale private parlors are similar in design to the more upscale Net cafes and karaoke rooms, and offer similar services, including refreshment areas with free soft drinks, coffee and tea, and light snacks. A visitor can usually bring food and drinks into a private booth.

Some parlors have a small library of “manga” (comic books) and periodicals, including serious news and tabloid magazines, and pornography.

Do private video parlors provide sexual services?

Some places do. In recent years, a growing number of establishments have started offering female “customer service representatives,” women who knock on the door while the customer is watching a video and for a fee offer a variety of sexual services.

In a study of Japan’s underground economy published last year, economist Takashi Kadokura noted the rates for such services range between ¥2,000 and ¥5,000 on average, about 10 percent of the cost of a “soapland” sex parlor and a third of the cost of a visit to a “fashion health” sexual massage establishment.

The advantage to the women, Kadokura said, is that they keep half or more of their pay, and the quick turnover of customers ensures high profits for both the women and the establishments.

In addition, police warn that men who use private video booths run the risk of being secretly filmed, as some establishments have been caught selling videos of customers to magazines and video production companies that target the gay community.

Net cafes are notorious for having lots of squatters. What about private video parlors?

Many such establishments do have squatters. Between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., a private room can be rented for around ¥2,000 in Tokyo or Osaka, making it considerably cheaper than a hotel and often cheaper than a Net cafe or karaoke room.

In addition, police report that the recent media attention on the problem of Net cafe refugees has led a growing number of establishments to kick them out or refuse them entry, leaving many with little choice but to head to private video booths.

What kind of dangers are associated with these establishments?

Since the Oct. 1 fire, the government has ordered prefectural and police officials nationwide to inspect private video parlors, karaoke boxes and Net cafes. The government ordered establishments found in violation of safety codes to be shut down until they comply.

Osaka city fire officials found that among all these types of establishments, 90 percent were in violation of fire and safety codes. About 70 percent of the city’s 344 private video parlors were not up to code. Most establishments did not conduct fire drills, did not post safety or evacuation information, or did not have fire extinguishers or sprinkler systems.

Other establishments were discovered to have had blocked windows and exits. Of course, if the private video salon allows smoking, there is the added danger of a fire starting after somebody falls asleep in a private booth with a burning cigarette.

Why are these establishments allowed to get away with such lax safety standards?

Even though video parlors often serve as de facto hotel rooms for many (some establishments even offer showers), they are not, legally, hotels. Therefore, they are not under the same legal restrictions as hotels and “ryokan” (inns).

Many parlors are located inside buildings with other businesses, and under current law police and fire officials cannot enter them as easily as they can hotels to check for safety violations.

But the Osaka fire has led to nationwide calls to strengthen the laws governing the safety of such establishments.

It was reported after the Osaka fire that the manager of the building, which had other businesses, turned off the alarm when it started ringing out of the belief it was a false alarm.

In an effort to discourage people from hiring a prostitute and then using not only video parlors but also Net cafes and karaoke rooms for sexual liaisons, Osaka police have submitted a bill to the prefectural assembly that would ban the operation of establishments that introduce customers to women and establishments providing sexual services. The bill is expected to be debated later this year.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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