What Roppongi is Like Now, or “Death of a Red Light District”

The house I always stay at here in Tokyo is a five minute walk to Roppongi’s main drag and the favoured lodging for the women who come to Tokyo to make their money in Roppongi’s stripclubs, hostess clubs and bars.

Right now it is quiet. So quiet. Quiet enough that I can almost hear the whispering ghosts of 2005 – 7; the hustle and bustle of early evening when 20+ ruthless bitches battled for the use of two showers and the corners of too few mirrors to prepare for a night at the club — always with the rising optimism that this would be the night, the night you “make.” Make money.

The previous Australian manager’s — long gone now; settled in Sydney with a husband and three kids — friendly but firm notices are still tacked up around the house. Clean up after yourself. Ta! Keep the doors closed as cats are getting in. Ta!

But none of them are there anymore.

There are some nightlife workers carrying on the house’s tradition, but they are few: a Ukrainian on the third floor, a Japanese hostess working in Ginza, and a couple of Estonians who only leave the basement to tell us to be quiet.

The near-empty house is a reflection of Roppongi’s current nighttime state. It’s like this because — after the carnage of a financial crisis, puritanical governmental clean-up campaign, and masses of raids and deportations — who in their right mind would come here to work anymore?

Well, my friend C, desperate for money, returned in 2011 and, somehow she is still here. Lucky, she says. She overcame police, cheap customers and coworkers who unlevelled the playing field to not only survive, but to do OK as well. Not like before, but OK.

Up and down Gaien Higashi Dori there are signs warning both the flyers (touts: the mostly Nigerian men who bust their asses to bring customers into the clubs) that they are not allowed to approach potential customers, and potential customers that if they allow themselves to be guided into a club by a flyer, they will most likely have their credit card abused.

Warning Sign on Gaien Higashi Dori
New Roppongi: Warning Sign on Gaien Higashi Dori

How the flyers can make money now, I don’t know. C suggests drugs.

I walk up and down the street looking for faces of the flyers that I knew and cared for, but there’s none. I wonder about them and where they have gone. Snippets of information suggest that generally their fates have been an unholy trinity of arrest, deportation, or death, but I hope for something more gentle like retirement; a flight back home.

I look also for old clubs; places I worked, places I knew. Most are gone either replaced with a new name or with just a dimmed neon light that stands as a memorial to a place, and time, that used to be.

Yesterday I met with an anthropologist studying the Japanese sex industry. She bought me lunch at Cafe 8 near the Grand Hyatt.

The anthropologist told me that the era I worked was an infamous time in Roppongi’s history and something that even she didn’t know a lot about.

The word “era” suggests closure. That the time was and no longer is. Though I am physically here in Tokyo, and I fit back into Tokyo as if I had never left, that Tokyo, the Tokyo where life happened in the nighttime, is, for me, gone. I can’t help feeling nostalgic.

The High Touch Town sign has even been replaced
Old Roppongi: The High Touch Town sign has even been replaced
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The Fate of Lucie Blackman

I had this piece on Richard Lloyd-Parry’s book about the murder of Lucie Blackman published at Matador recently.

I was a little concerned about the editing, in which my introduction was just lopped off leaving the reader with a book review that doesn’t introduce the topic of the book. Readers familiar with Lucie’s name will do fine without an introduction, but for anyone else: Lucie Blackman was an English woman who was murdered in Japan while working as a hostess in a Tokyo club. Her accused murdered, Joji Obara was found guilty of multiple rapes, a murder, and of the disposal of Lucie’s body, but not of actually killing her.

The name of Lucie Blackman frequently comes up whenever I talk about hostessing in Japan. We worked at the same club, not at the same time but the same era; we were the same age, and both British. The flurry of media attention when she disappeared inspired in me a selfish frustration that my secret wasn’t a secret anymore. My story about working in “a bar” in Tokyo became increasingly implausible with each breathless report about the “seedy Tokyo underworld” that foreign girls were “helplessly lured into” (according to the gutter press.)

Parry’s book was one of four I have read in the past year or two that take Tokyo’s shady nightlife business as its topic — the others are Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein, Roppongi Crossing by Roman Adrian Cybriwsky and Illicit Flirtations by Rhacel Salazar Parrenas. All are refreshingly free of the sensationalistic writing that had characterized almost everything I had read about Roppongi, hostess clubs and the women working in them — like this book Inside the Shocking World of Tokyo Nightclub Hostessing (serialized in the Daily Mail, natch) that genuinely and without irony asks if Lucie’s murder was “exquisitely Oriental.” Like Susana Jones in her rebuttal to Campbell’s book, I had grown tired of representations of Japan and the Japanese and sex in Japan as weird, sick, crazy, something to to poked at, examined — as if those things are so clear cut in any other country.

Again, something was lost in the editing of my piece, but I hope that the point made it across. Sorry, Clare Campbell et al, but after several years of Tokyo nightclub hostessing, I can genuinely say there was very little “shocking” about the job that Lucie and I performed. The truth of her death was, as Parry writes, “sad and mundane.” She was “very, very unlucky.”

Foreign Fuzoku

I wrote the following article in mid-2008 and it was published in the dearly departed $pread Magazine the following summer. As such it is quite dated, and somewhat inelegant (OK, horribly written).

I was reminded of the piece by the recent publication of this book: Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo by Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, (hat-tip to Tits and Sass for introducing me to it) which seems to cover some of the topics I touched on, namely the effect of the U.S’ TIP report (in which the United States smugly assigns every country a grade on how well it believes they are doing in the fight against trafficking), subsequent policy changes, and the effect on migrant workers in Japan.

From the back cover:

“In 2004, the U.S. State Department declared Filipina hostesses in Japan the largest group of sex trafficked persons in the world. Since receiving this global attention, the number of hostesses entering Japan has dropped by nearly 90 percent—from more than 80,000 in 2004 to just over 8,000 today. To some, this might suggest a victory for the global anti-trafficking campaign, but Rhacel Parreñas counters that this drastic decline—which stripped thousands of migrants of their livelihoods—is in truth a setback.

Parreñas worked alongside hostesses in a working-class club in Tokyo’s red-light district, serving drinks, singing karaoke, and entertaining her customers, including members of the yakuza, the Japanese crime syndicate. While the common assumption has been that these hostess bars are hotbeds of sexual trafficking, Parreñas quickly discovered a different world of working migrant women, there by choice, and, most importantly, where none were coerced into prostitution. But this is not to say that the hostesses were not vulnerable in other ways.

Illicit Flirtations challenges our understandings of human trafficking and calls into question the U.S. policy to broadly label these women as sex trafficked. It highlights how in imposing top-down legal constraints to solve the perceived problems—including laws that push dependence on migrant brokers, guest worker policies that bind migrants to an employer, marriage laws that limit the integration of migrants, and measures that criminalize undocumented migrants—many women become more vulnerable to exploitation, not less. It is not the jobs themselves, but the regulation that makes migrants susceptible to trafficking. If we are to end the exploitation of people, we first need to understand the actual experiences of migrants, not rest on global policy statements. This book gives a long overdue look into the real world of those labeled as trafficked.”

The book arrived in the mail this morning. As always I am grateful to hear that there are people writing nuanced (and non-hysterical) pieces on trafficking and, especially, the problems of U.S. imposed “anti-trafficking” policies — see also Cambodia.

Also, I spent over a year working alongside other migrant women in the hostess bars of Tokyo. I will write more on the book when I finish it, meanwhile here is my piece from a few years ago:

Foreign Fuzoku: $pread Magazine

One of the most familiar images of Japan is Tokyo’s Kabuki-cho district where sex clubs in a myriad of different forms openly display services. Given the openness of the Japanese sex industry, it may be surprising to learn that the 1958 Anti-Prostitution Law still stands today. Prostitution is referred to by the euphemism “fuzoku”—a word that encompasses the wide range of possibilities within the sex industry. Activities are largely tolerated and authorities generally turn a blind eye.

But turning a blind eye is not the same as supporting sex workers. Reports on the Japanese sex industry state that this is an estimated $13 billion industry, yet Japanese resources for sex workers are rarely heard of. Two organizations which have formed to work for sex worker rights are SWEETLY (Sex Workers! Encourage, Empower, Trust and Love Yourselves!) and SWASH.

Kaname Yukiko founded SWASH (Sex Workers and Sexual Health) in 1999 and makes HIV/AIDS education a priority. A 2003 report by SWASH found that “53 percent of massage parlor workers never ask customers to use condoms even though they are aware of the risk” and that some brothel owners have banned condom use. SWASH wants legislation encouraging condom use to be instigated, however, due to the 1958 Anti-Prostitution Law–which SWASH wants overturned–instigating a 100 percent condom use law would be impossible.

So far, SWASH has only Japanese members, so what about the foreigners working in the Japanese sex industry?

Foreign sex workers are heavily discriminated against, being blamed for introducing HIV/AIDS to the country, and for increasing criminal activity in Tokyo’s red light districts.

Such attitudes towards foreign sex workers seem to be rooted in the ‘Matsumoto Incident’ of 1986 in which a Filipina sex worker in Matsumoto contracted HIV. When her infection was discovered—having gone to a clinic for a blood test—the woman was sent back to the Philippines on the pretext of “visa violations.” Eric A. Feldman writes in The Ritual of Rights in Japan that “there was no protest about potential violations of her civil rights, i.e., why and how her test results reached the immigration authorities.”

The issue of foreign sex workers and HIV/AIDS is one that persists and is conflicted. A 1994 survey by the School of International Health found that “the overwhelming majority of FFSW (foreign female sex workers) are aware of the risks involved in the unprotected sex and (are) attempting to prevent it…contrary to the accusations that they are the major route of HIV transmission in Japan.” Yet a 1997 report by Shiokawa Yuichi said “foreign women are an important source of AIDS infection in our country.” More recent investigations of the issue are difficult to find, and it is reasonable to believe that the marginalized status of sex workers–especially foreign sex workers—makes it extremely difficult to collect data. This could possibly have a connection to the “Clean-Up Tokyo” campaigns that began in the early 2000s.

The far right governor of Tokyo since 1999, Shintarō Ishihara initiated a “Clean-Up Tokyo” campaign in 2003 promising to rid the city of crime and sleaze. Similar to Giuliani’s Times Square crusade of the mid 1990’s, the campaign has resulted in raids and closures of businesses, arrests and the installation of surveillance cameras on the streets of Kabuki-cho and Roppongi.

Many of the raids on sex clubs have been focused on those with foreign owners and those with majority foreign staff. Images of groups of foreigners being rounded up and marched out of a club and into police vans score points for the likes of the Governor—committed to “cleaning up” the streets of Tokyo. Indeed such images are sometimes broadcast on television.

There may be a case for saying that this clean up campaign is focused less on regulating the sex industry and more on regulating migration.  The hostility towards foreigners working in the sex industry was highlighted when the Mainichi News reported in 2007 that a Chinese sex worker in Tokyo was kidnapped and assaulted, and then arrested for visa violations when the police were alerted.

Additionally, even persons unwillingly trafficked are often treated as “overstayers,” because, says Kinsey Alden Dinan, a Columbia University researcher, for Japanese officials “it’s easier to deport them than to deal with them.”

“When there’s clearly a demand for these people (foreigners) to work in your country, you have an obligation to work out a system that they can do it in legally and safely,” she continues.

The ramifications of the closure of visible places of business is that sex workers are said to be moving to more underground, poorer working environments. This is particularly true of undocumented foreign workers who fear not only the stigma of the sex trade, but also the possibility of immigration raids. There is an inherent contradiction in blaming foreign sex workers for spreading HIV/AIDS but not allowing them the power to insist upon condom use, or accessibility to health resources.  Surely it would be in everyone’s best interest to promote sex worker health, rather than singling them out for blame as the source of infection.

The 2004 Trafficking in Persons Report of the United States placed Japan on the ‘Tier 2’ watch list, which stated that it was not complying with the minimum standards toward the elimination of human trafficking.  The TIP report described Japan as a “destination country for a large number of… women and children who are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.” Following such criticism, the Japanese government has spent the last few years trying to show that they are indeed committed to eliminating trafficking.

This included introducing a new law requiring all visitors to Japan to be fingerprinted at the airport, and by changing the conditions of the “Entertainer” visa, which many sex workers previously used to enter the country. The TIP report said the number of entertainer visas issued by Japan was extremely high compared with other countries and the visas are “often used by traffickers to bring victims” into the country. The number of entertainer visas issued to Filipinas in 2006 was reduced from 80,000 to 8,000, from 8,500 to less than 5,000 for Chinese, and from 6,000 to 3,000 for Russians.   However this does not improve conditions for these workers. On the contrary restrictive immigration policies, which impede the legal means to enter the country, create opportunity for abuses, not to mention the traffickers they are supposed to prevent.

With fewer opportunities to migrate legally, foreign sex workers may rely upon third parties to provide passage into Japan–often accruing debts as they do so. This dependency increases the possibility of exploitation of an already vulnerable group of people.


Light and Dark in the Øresund

Oresund

This piece I had published at Matador got me thinking again about Sweden. My last visit there was last summer, and it was the first time I had seen my friend–a Tokyo mizu-shobai compatriot–in her home country. I arrived in the bright Sweden of Midsummer and the difference was tangible: back in Tokyo we lived under the darkness of night.

We had been like vampires in Japan; by night we transformed into our invented characters. We’d had fake names, fake backgrounds and spent most of our time under fake lighting in a dingy club in Roppongi. Here I was in Sweden visiting the real girl beneath the fake Tokyo lifestyle; the Swedish sun couldn’t have contrasted more with the life we had known each other in there.

And neither could the lifestyle. Days were filled with good, wholesome activities like strolling through the leafy Slottsträdgården or along the boardwalk at the Western Harbour. We packed picnics and drove out to secluded lakes in the countryside. Our activities never got any more risqué than a nude dip at Ribbersborgs kallbadhus open-air bath. It was a postcard picture Sweden; we gulped the fresh air like we did champagne in our past Tokyo’s lives.

And the sun just kept on shining. At this time of year it sits boldly in the sky until late, too late. After a few days the constant sunlight was beginning to give me a headache; the sugary sweetness of the strawberries sold on every street corner from kitschy-looking, brightly-painted kiosks were giving me nausea.

“Let’s go out.” I suggested. Julia agreed and I saw a flash of Nina, her Tokyo-at-night character.

“But in Copenhagen, not here,” was her sole concession. I had the feeling that nighttime was incompatible with her Swedish life.

Though the days stretched unnaturally into night, service hours remained as rigid as any other time of year. Drinking in bars was expensive and if you wanted to cushion the blow by drinking a little at home first, you would need to have stocked up before 6pm, the time that Sweden’s state-run alcohol store—the only place you could legally purchase booze in the country—closed.

Systembologet: State-run liquor store

We had planned ahead and filled our baskets late in the afternoon with beers and various cans that displayed pictures of strawberries, rhubarb and “forest fruits” on their labels. Even drinking was infused with this syrupy, summery sweetness.

The cans we didn’t finish at the apartment, we packed into a plastic bag and headed for the Oresundtrain that would take us across the Sound and straight into Copenhagen. This trip across international waters took all of twenty minutes and we managed to sink another couple of cans along the way. They may make it difficult to acquire the booze, selling it from only one store, but you can pretty much drink it wherever you want without raising any eyebrows.

The sun had finally gone down by the time we arrived in Copenhagen and stepped out of the station and into the neon glow of a Carlsberg sign. We paused for a drink at Kung Fu Izakaya on Sundevedsgade, where cocktails called “Hello Kitty” and “Hentai” made us briefly question exactly how far out of Sweden (and into our pasts) we had traveled. We drank up, turned our thoughts back to Denmark and made our way to one of the city’s most popular clubs, Vega—housed in a ‘50s trade union building in Vesterbro, a former worker’s quarter.

Standing at the coat check I felt exposed without the jacket I had just handed over. I shriveled in my jeans and shirt as I looked around at a group of girls done all up in what must have been their best, most expensive dresses.

At the bottom of the staircase up to the club I pointed to a fallen punnet of strawberries, their flesh already squashed into the floor, and tried to remember the Swedish word for the fruit. “Jordgubb…jordgubbar” I pronounced, tripping over the letters as a group of girls turned to me with eyes slit and whispered something indiscernible. No one smiled.

Everyone looked too neat and shiny and the wide-open space of the club gave me a feeling of uneasiness. Vega was a place to be seen and neither of us particularly felt like being noticed.

Vega felt cold so we headed for the second club, someplace more underground that had been recommended by a Danish friend. Dunkel—which roughly translates to dark and obscure—fit us perfectly. A tiny space with the barest of lighting and a sweaty, noticeably unpretentious crowd that just wanted to dance. Dunkel was what I had been looking for; I could blend into the corner shadows, closing my eyes to feel the bass, so close it was almost touching.

Hours and hours in the dark of Dunkel and daylight was visibly ready to interrupt. Over the heads of a crowd that was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, I could see the glow forcing itself in through windows. We checked our watches: six a.m. We fought it for another hour or so before giving in.

Out onto the streets and once again under the glare of the midsummer sun I felt greasy, in need of shower, a meal and bed. I realized that I could only flirt with the nighttime nowadays.

It was a Saturday morning and we hustled onto the train platform between families weighed-down with picnic gear and camping equipment. It was a feeling that everyone who is familiar with slinking back home in the early morning could recognize.

On the train back across the Øresund I drifted in and out of sleep, comfortable under the warming sun that streamed through the carriage windows. My vampire’s thirst for the dark quenched.

“The Great Happiness Space:” A Review of a Host Documentary by a Former Hostess

The idea of a host or hostess club may sound strange to Westerners, yet Japan counts hundreds of such clubs as part of its broad mizu-shobai (nightlife) industry.

The role of a host or hostess in a Japanese club is to provide a relaxing space for their customers who have  likely just finished work. The host/hostess is attentive to the customer; he or she refills the customers’ drinks, lights their cigarettes
and most importantly provides light and flirtatious conversation. The hostess’ goal is to become so attractive in the eyes of the customer that he will return often, purchase more expensive drinks, and invite her out to dinner — all earning the hostess a boost in commission.

The hostess club has made its way in to the Western media by means of Kate Casphaw’s character in the U.S. movie set in Osaka, Black Rain, and in scholarly work by Anne Allison and Lisa Louis, two American women who had worked as hostesses in Tokyo and Kyoto. The male equivalent, the host club had remained relatively unexplored until the release of the 2006 documentary The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief.

Directed by British filmmaker Jake Clennell, The Great Happiness Space takes place entirely in Osaka’s most popular host club Café Rakkyo. The main focus of attention is Rakkyo’s number-one host Issei and the female customers who come regularly to spend time with him. Issei is handsome and stylish, and the money he pulls in is extraordinary. Issei talks openly about the tried and tested techniques he uses to make this money. First, he says, he flatters and charms the customers: “Girls tend to appreciate superficial sweetness,” he says. Then “the girls start to open up and trust me… and then “we scold her”. Issei is shown scolding his customers, telling them to grow up and become better people, it appears as though this is out of genuine concern.

Now that he has their trust Issei finds it easier to ask them for the more expensive bottles of champagne and to manipulate his customers into coming to the club more often. When one asks him if he thinks they would ever have a chance at a real relationship outside of the club, he demurs and says that he only knows that his future girlfriend will “have to be a long term customer.”

The next part of the documentary focuses on the Japanese women who visit the club. It comes as a surprise to learn that all of Issei’s customers are also night workers – they describe themselves as fuzoku, translated in the subtitles as prostitute. The depth of connection between their jobs and the host club is revealed when one of the women says that if she had never started going to Rakkyo, she never would have started working in the sex industry. One customer says, “70 or 80 percent of a host’s earnings come from fuzoku clients…we can talk about anything and they don’t look down on what we do.”

None of this has gone unnoticed by Issei and his fellow hosts, despite giving the illusion of always having fun, they all admit to feeling guilty at times. The final part of The Great Happiness Space reveals a shadow over the endless party a host’s work appears to be. We see just how trying the job can be, from dealing with abusive customers to whom the host must not talk back to, to the tolls of drinking (in Issei’s estimation) ten bottles of champagne every night, to the emotional damage the job has left him with: “If there are 100 women in the room I can’t trust one of them.”

The result is a fascinating, in depth and well-balanced view of the Japanese host club. Through Issei and his workmates at Café Rakkyo, we see the good, the bad and the ugly of what might at first seem like the easiest job in the world.