Two weeks ago a female pop group called The Margarines debuted via a Tokyo news conference. Since Japanese show business has no shortage of young women who want to sing and dance in order to “fulfill their dreams,” the new ensemble needed a gimmick.

At first, the premise seemed clever enough: All the members are in debt, and will thus be singing and dancing to pay off those debts. The appeal for fans will supposedly be watching them become solvent, so the singing and dancing is beside the point, but then it usually is with idol groups.

As pointed out in an editorial in this newspaper, what The Margarines are really selling is an implication of sexual availability, which is also true of most idol groups and makes the gimmick all the more disturbing. Human traffickers for the prostitution trade often prey on girls and women who are destitute or in debt. Some people will say that’s reading way too much into The Margarines’ business model — that these girls just want to be entertainers and this gives them an opportunity to do that — but this argument ignores the selling point, which is that they willingly make themselves available to fans in order to sing and dance and, in turn, get out of debt.

By that token, the group not only fits an uncomfortable stereotype, but sends a message about the limited options of women who are in a similar position, a message that, despite the claims and efforts of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to help them attain better jobs and pay, seems to be as strong as ever, especially among adolescent girls.

A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun points out that the so-called JK business is thriving more than a decade after the term joshi kōsei was popularized by the media to describe casual sex-for-money deals involving adolescent girls. The piece is disturbing enough in the way it portrays this sort of commerce as being successful, but what makes it doubly queasy is that many girls enter it not because they’re poor and desperate, but because it’s something that gives them a certain measure of self-esteem. They’ve already become so used to the idea that young girls are sexual objects before they are anything else that they feel it’s normal.

The Asahi reporter joined a “study tour” of the Kabukicho and Akihabara districts of Tokyo, where the JK business has a strong presence. These tours are organized by 24-year-old Yumeno Nito, whose nonprofit group endeavors to help teenage girls “who have no place in society.” In many cases these girls are dropouts and runaways, but there is an increasing number who are from stable homes and who still attend school regularly and even get good grades.

Anyone can sign up for the tours, whose purpose is to help the public “understand these girls’ situations” and, by doing so, publicize the fact that those situations can become dangerous. First they walk around Kabukicho, and Nito points out young men who scout girls on the street for JK work. The tour group sees two high-school-aged girls handing out flyers for a fortune-telling establishment. Nito explains that JK businesses get around anti-prostitution laws by ostensibly offering noncontact services. The first euphemistically named trade was “refresh business,” where minors met customers in private rooms for undesignated reasons. The police cracked down on this type of business and then there arose so-called sanpō (strolling) services, in which a customer pays a girl to just walk around with and talk to him, but the police eventually figured out that these paid encounters sometimes ended up indoors. So now it’s fortune telling, where the girls divine their customers’ futures.

In Akihabara, the home of the superstar idol collective AKB48 and the birthplace of maid cafes, the tour finds one side street that is almost entirely lined with teenage girls waiting to be picked up by customers. Some of them hold leaflets advertising services as “tour guides”: 30 minutes for ¥5,000. The reporter comments that there’s nothing unusual about the girls’ appearance. Most don’t wear makeup, and look “like regular teenage girls you would find anywhere.” They are not shy and talk to anyone who strikes up a conversation with them, including members of the study tour.

One girl says she’s 15, another 17. When asked why she is “doing this,” a girl answers, “Because it’s easier than other part-time jobs and you can make a lot of money.” When the reporter asks another girl how many customers she gets a day, she answers that this is only her third day. Nito says it’s a lie, since she’s seen this particular girl here before. Their employers tell them to say that in order to make them seem less jaded.

Nito knows this situation from the inside because when she was a teenager herself she hated school and spent every day in Shibuya. She points out that at the time there were no established JK businesses in the area. What has helped these businesses grow in the meantime is the emergence of social-network services among teens and the way these businesses have learned to exploit a young girl’s need to be liked and complimented. The attention they receive from their handlers and customers is interpreted by them as an affirmation of their worth. They have learned from the media that cuteness is not just a physical attribute, but a coin that you can trade for something else you want. As Nito explains, the men who run these businesses provide a “sense of achievement” to their charges just by saying they are charming, even though they have achieved nothing.

What makes the idol model insidious is that it comes with a misleadingly happy ending. The young women in The Margarines will sing their way out of debt. The women in AKB48 “graduate” from the group, thus suggesting future lives of adult responsibility. But initiative and accomplishment have little to do with these happy endings. It’s all about being chosen, doing what you’re told and hoping for the best.

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