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.”
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.
…The book is also set for release in Australia. “They changed the name there from An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan to A Western Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, because, I guess, people don’t like Americans.”
The city itself is cinematic and is familiar even to those who have never been there; we can all picture walls of neon lights, screeching advertisements blaring from giant video screens and a great sea of humanity moving in sync with one another. It is no wonder that Tokyo is a source of inspiration for many writers, artists and movie directors.
Park Hyatt Shinjuku
In Sophia Coppola’s 2003 movie Lost in Translation, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson play Bob and Charlotte; two Americans adrift in Tokyo. Their first meeting occurs in the hotel bar of the five-star Part Hyatt located in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.
A night’s accommodation in the Park Hyatt is likely out of the budget of most travelers but you can still visit the bar for (like in the movie) a jazz accompanied cocktail, or the restaurant for lunch, dinner, or one of the most popular Sunday Brunches in Tokyo. Both bar and restaurant feature huge windows with views over the Tokyo skyline – perhaps best appreciated at nighttime when the hypnotic neon lights of Shinjuku and its red light district Kabuki-cho are twinkling in the dark sky.
One of not only Japan’s best clubs, but also one of the top-rated clubs in the world, Womb appears in the 2006 movie Babel. In the movie we see a group of young deaf girls taking their first hits of Ecstasy and going to the Shibuya club.
Despite Womb’s powerful Phazon sound system, the movie shows moments from the point of view of the deaf girl Chieko, drawing attention to the impressive laser system which, along with one of the world’s biggest mirror balls, is another reason for Womb’s fame.
The House of the Blue Leaves, setting for The Bride’s (played by Uma Thurman) final Tokyo showdown with the Crazy 88 was inspired by the Edo-themed restaurant Gonpachi. Whilst no movie scenes were actually filmed in the restaurant, Kill Bill’s set was built to resemble Gonpachi. The restaurant will look familiar to anyone who has seen the film.
At the crossing of Tokyo’s up market Nishi-Azabu district, Gonpachi is just a few minutes’ walk from the nightlife center of Roppongi. The restaurant serves simple Izakaya style foods – yakitori and soba are their specialties. Gonpachi is open for lunch and dinner, and stays open until five in the morning. Reservations are recommended as this is one of the most popular restaurants, particularly among foreigners, in Tokyo.
Besides the Quentin Tarantino movie connection, Gonpachi was in the news when then-Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi decided to take then-US President George W Bush here on his state visit to Japan.