For a woman in her 30s who runs a sex business in western Japan, battling social stigma has always been part of her job. Such is the prejudice against her line of work that she couldn’t open a corporate bank account and was once told flatly she wasn’t allowed to attend a skill development workshop because of what she does for a living.

But when the Kansai woman was treated unfairly by the state, she drew a line. In this unprecedented age of COVID-19, the government has disqualified sex business operators from the latest batch of cash handout programs, prompting her to file a lawsuit over what she considers discrimination against her occupation.

“I thought it was nothing but discrimination,” the woman said, requesting anonymity for fear of a backlash. She runs a so-called deriheru (delivery health) service, where sex workers visit clients at their homes or hotel rooms.

“I run my business abiding by the law and pay taxes like everyone else, but the fact that the state singled out our industry — only us — and declared it ineligible for the benefits was shocking,” she said.

Her company — the plaintiff in a suit filed with the Tokyo District Court last month — is among the multitude of sex business companies excluded from a pair of government aid programs aimed at helping pandemic-hit small businesses stay afloat.

The lawsuit has ignited a fierce debate over whether sex businesses in Japan are legitimate enough to qualify for public subsidies, laying bare a deep-seated distrust of an industry often associated with immorality, crimes and exploitation.

Lawyers representing the plaintiff argue that the central government’s blanket exclusion of the sex industry from the COVID-19 relief measures runs counter to the principle of equality guaranteed by the Constitution, slamming it as “discrimination on the basis of occupation.” Denying business operators the benefits, they say, is not only tantamount to the state endorsing discrimination against this much-maligned profession, but risks imperiling sex workers’ access to safe work environments.

Backers of the exclusion, meanwhile, say the sex industry’s perceived ties with yakuza, as well as other issues such as child prostitution and tax evasion, fundamentally make it undeserving of public aid. The fact that the profession by nature requires physical intimacy has also added fuel to a debate over whether these businesses should continue to operate amid the pandemic.

‘Social norms’

The nation’s sex industry — commonly known as fūzoku — exists primarily in the form of deriheru parlors, which dispatch sex workers to clients. Among other types of fūzoku establishments subject to the latest exclusion are brothel-like facilities known as “soaplands,” short-stay “love hotels” and “fashion health” massage parlors.

The exclusion of sex workers from COVID-19 assistance is commonplace around the world, such as in the U.S., where they have been barred from a federal loan program, and in Canada, where they are essentially disqualified from government income relief.

In initiating the lawsuit against the government and firms in charge of processing the relief programs, the western Japan woman is demanding ¥4.5 million in damages, which includes the benefits she has been denied and “consolation money” for discrimination she claims she suffered.

Love hotels dot the vicinity of Uguisudani Station in Tokyo. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Love hotels dot the vicinity of Uguisudani Station in Tokyo. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

At issue is whether the state will be able to provide a convincing rationale for making the sex industry ineligible for the two handout programs in question — one provides businesses with a one-off lump sum of up to ¥2 million, while the other is designed to cover their rent to the tune of ¥6 million. For both programs, the sex industry has been deemed to be unqualified for the payment, putting it on par with political and religious organizations.

So far, government officials have brandished the vaguely worded concept of “social norms” to justify the debarment, the rationale being that due to such norms, not many taxpayers are likely to feel comfortable with their money being handed over to a controversial industry.

The government also “followed precedent” in repudiating sex businesses this time around, economy minister Hiroshi Kajiyama told the Diet in May, stressing that it is in line with past policies that similarly refused the sex industry public subsidies, such as those for disaster-hit areas.

Takahiro Kanai, an official with the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency — which oversees the programs — declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Endangered safety

Since most sex workers are not directly employed by business operators but technically commissioned to provide services as “sole proprietors,” they are, unlike operators, eligible for the benefits. This fact has been used by those in favor of the exclusion to argue that it does not amount to discrimination against sex workers.

But the plaintiff and backers of sex workers assert otherwise and are adamant that the fate of business operators is a “matter of life or death” and directly affects the well-being and safety of the women, and men, who work for them.

Should the parlors go belly-up as a result of the denied benefits, it is the sex workers who will bear the brunt, because they can no longer count on operators and their staff to protect them from unwanted advances and sexual violence by clients.

That’s of particular concern for Haru Imaga, 31, a sex worker who provides services for deriheru and soapland parlors in Tokyo and its surrounding area.

“Parlors play a huge role in protecting us. I know there are some women out there who directly solicit clients with no staff to act as a go-between, but some clients exploit the fact that women operate on their own to do them harm, like hitting them or running away without paying,” she said.

Sex worker Haru Imaga, 31, says she found the government exclusion of her industry from cash handout programs a testament to how little it cares about the survival of sex businesses. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Sex worker Haru Imaga, 31, says she found the government exclusion of her industry from cash handout programs a testament to how little it cares about the survival of sex businesses. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

Not all operators are as law-abiding and committed to protecting the well-being of sex workers as Imaga says they are. But it’s the most exemplary businesses who are facing the strongest headwinds, said activist Yukiko Kaname, head of advocacy group Sex Work And Sexual Health (SWASH).

“Businesses compliant with the law tend to treat their women with great care, but those scrupulous, hard-working establishments are now in a bind because they shut down their businesses in accordance with the closure request by the government during the pandemic,” she said.

Case in point: the Kansai plaintiff. The woman obeyed business closure requests by the government in April and May, even though it involved her incurring a 60 to 80 percent plunge in revenues from a year earlier.

“It is those good parlors that we need to make sure will survive, but without cash handouts from the government, they will go under and disappear,” Kaname said.

Harmful by nature?

Kaname expressed concerns that the state’s exclusion of red light district businesses risks further alienating sex workers from mainstream society, enfeebling their access to professional help crucial to their jobs.

“Doctors, lawyers, tax accountants and police — these are the people whose support is essential to sex workers, but because of the latent prejudice against our occupation, it often happens that those professionals don’t want to get involved with us,” Kaname said.

“The state discriminating against us will further endorse that kind of attitude. … I want the government to acknowledge what sex workers do as a valid profession, and treat it equally with other jobs,” she said.

A team of lawyers for a sex business operator in western Japan who is suing the government for being ineligible for the state cash handout program, enter the Tokyo District Court in September. | KYODO
A team of lawyers for a sex business operator in western Japan, who is suing the government for being ineligible for the state cash handout program, enter the Tokyo District Court in September. | KYODO

Saitama-based social worker and anti-poverty activist Takanori Fujita, however, says there is a reason why the sex industry isn’t — and perhaps shouldn’t ever be — granted government assistance.

Over the past 18 years of his career, Fujita has encountered countless victims of the industry seeking his help, with their tales of exploitation, poverty and mental illness convincing him that the industry is problematic at its roots.

Fujita points to cases he has dealt with where runaway adolescents are recruited to serve for fūzoku establishments and have their ages falsified, only to be impregnated by clients. He has also witnessed girls with mental disabilities fall prey to the clutches of immoral employers.

Love hotels, for example, were used as venues for rape and indecent assault in 168 and 43 reported cases, respectively, in 2019, according to the National Police Agency.

With these cases in mind, Fujita supports the government claim that it is against “social norms” to extend financial assistance to the industry.

“From my experience as a social worker, I have to say the industry isn’t even worthy of being the recipient of government aid,” he said. “It’s an industry fundamentally based on sexism and one that capitalizes on poverty.”

Fujita’s opponents have argued he paints an oversimplified image of the sex industry as a hotbed of crime and exploitation when women are not necessarily forced into it due to poverty, but are drawn to it for its flexible work hours and other reasons. Fujita, too, concedes he can only provide anecdotal evidence, and that not all business operators have ties with yakuza or evade taxes.

Prone to virus?

But another aspect about fūzoku businesses that has galvanized Fujita’s crusade against them is what is feared to be their high risk of COVID-19 infections — even though no cluster has been born of the industry yet.

The job naturally involves physical intimacy and contact with bodily fluids, including saliva, which can host the pathogen.

Although paid-for sexual intercourse, euphemistically called honban (real play), is criminalized by the Prostitution Prevention Law, it is stealthily conducted in places like soaplands as something of an open secret. Other paid-for sexual acts are not illegal and remain pervasive even during the pandemic, including French kissing and oral sex.

Sex worker Imaga says that while her soapland parlor provides hand sanitizer and asks clients to wash their hands, gargle and brush their teeth at the beginning of a session, those measures don’t fully dispel her fears of contracting the virus.

“I still do French kissing sometimes if that’s what my client wants. The idea of exchanging saliva (in times of the pandemic) does freak me out a bit, but some clients won’t be satisfied if I don’t provide that service,” Imaga said.

“So if the customer happens to be a carrier of the virus, there is nothing I can do.”

Tokyo's Ikebukuro district is notorious for its flourishing sex industry, including
Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district is notorious for its flourishing sex industry, including “soapland” quasi-brothels and love hotels. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

Despite such extreme intimacy, the fact remains that the sex industry has seen no cluster emerge yet — only a smattering of sex workers have reportedly tested positive in prefectures such as Aomori, Tokushima and Gifu so far.

In a headline that had many users on social media networks screaming in disgust, the emergence of virus clusters at hostess bars on the downtown street of Susukino in Sapporo was reported earlier this year, including those where girls let customers lick their nipples.

Legally speaking, those establishments, dubbed oppabu — which literally translates as “boob pubs” — are not categorized as sex businesses but as restaurants on par with host clubs and hostess bars. But such is the highly sexual nature of services they provide that oppabu tend to be misconstrued as part of the sex industry: The news of Susukino clusters, as a result, arguably reinforced the public misconception of the industry as a virus spreader.

“In oppabu, customers basically take turns licking the same girl’s breast. I’m assuming girls wipe off saliva each time they take on a new customer, but some residue may have remained. I’m not surprised at all there was a cluster,” Kaname said.

Soaplands and deriheru are much cleaner, with sex workers and clients typically taking showers and bathing together, she said. Given that most of these services are conducted in private rooms, the risk of droplets flying all over, she said, should be lower than in crowded places like host clubs, hostess bars and oppabu — all of which are eligible for the cash handout programs her industry is barred from.

But ultimately, the risk of infections shouldn’t matter in determining whether or not an industry qualifies for the benefits, said Yusuke Taira, the chief of the team of lawyers defending Kansai-based plaintiff.

Nowhere in a provision detailing eligibility of the programs is there a mention of infection risks, with the fundamental spirit behind these benefits being that they can be doled out to “all kinds of industries.”

Among the likes of sex businesses disqualified from the programs are those that don’t necessitate close human contact at all, such as sex toy shops and porn video streaming services.

“So whether an infection risk is high or low doesn’t matter at all. That should be besides the point,” Taira said.

Tokyo's Ikebukuro district | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

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