Sex and Work: Japanese Host Clubs and Hentai into Context
The week that our class discussed sex work was definitely the most intriguing and insightful classes we’ve had this semester. A lot of the discussion revolved around the idea of porn and watching porn. Dchin expressed discomfort while watching the documentary Live Nude Girls Unite! because of specific details while the girls at The Lusty Lady were stripping. It wasn’t exactly the blatant nudity that bothered her, but the scene where one of the customers is watching the stripper strip. She said, “It didn't strike me as odd while watching the film that I wasn't uncomfortable seeing the women's naked bodies but instead uncomfortable watching one of the male patrons watching the women dance.” She explains why saying that it made her feel like she could easily be in the position of the stripper and the power of the gaze would be too invasive for her. She couldn’t imagine being the same place as the stripper and being watched in such an intrusive manner.
Another topic that sparked a lot of conversation on the discussion board about sex work was the idea that rape sex was both okay and feminist. What kinds of fantasies are acceptable and what aren’t. Why aren’t all fantasies accepted and what does it mean for our culture that we are attracted to rape scenarios in porn. Some defended rape porn, naming it a legit fantasy and those fantasies don’t necessarily determine the kind of person you are. Other spoke against calling it feminist because it blatantly puts women in a submissive roll and in a position of weakness. I could see both sides to the argument, personally.
A lot of what we talked about really centered on the different opinions of what porn and sex represent to women and men. What makes sex a touchy topic? Why is it “bad” to watch porn? Should people be ashamed of the sex they have or the porn they watch if other people are watching you do it or because your kinks might be promoting forced/non-consensual sex? How does the industry of sex make sex degrading and why is sex work (porn, prostitution in its many forms, the selling of one’s body) so stigmatized in America today? Why is there such a variation of opinions when it comes to sex work as degrading or empowering?
Dchin and epeck investigated the raw opinions of average Americans at 30th Street Train Station on sex work for their final performance, but felt uneasy about the answers they got. Surprisingly, many people were not shy to talk about sex work, but epeck expresses her disconcert in her reflection about “whether the interviewees' perceptions of us influenced their answers… two of the men, respectively, stated that there was a "safe" answer and a "better" answer, which none of the women did.”. Arguable, peoples’ reactions to sex work vary depending on their proximity to the diverse population of the city, but the fact that those men were conscious of the sensitivity surrounding the subject of sex work makes me feel that even in a city like Philadelphia where there are an assortment of different kinds of people, means that sex work is honestly a touchy subject.
Thinking back on our most intriguing topic we had in class, I can’t help but remember my own personal beliefs that I brought with me before I took Critical Feminism. Sex work wasn’t something that I thought about. I knew there were people who got paid to do sex acts or selling their bodies, but I had never really thought of them concretely. To me, they were just abstract concepts, something that just existed. I didn’t have a strong position on either side of the debate. I didn’t think they were objectifying themselves seeing as most of them (or at least some of the women in the documentary we watched) chose to do sex work, but I didn’t think it was very empowering either. But even though I didn’t think much about sex work, I did feel that there was a reason why it’s become such a taboo to talk about in our society. Love and sex are very personal and socially penetrating topics that people engage in and because of its emotional ties to our daily lives, the selling and commodifying of it really turns people off. To commercialize a part of life that people strives to obtain for years is selling love as a form of labor. Does selling love degrade it instantly though? Does selling sex make sex any more or less moral? If you separate what sex workers do as just “work” instead of “sex”, does the taboo of sex work diminish? And not only that, but is this taboo of sex work being degrading to the essential life goal of love a view that is relevant to only America or does it span farther than just this country? This paper will delve into the practices of sex work in the foreign country of Japan and the practice of Host Clubs in Tokyo and other popular cities. How are Host Clubs received by the general public and how Host Clubs have sky-rocketed into being an essential part of the Tokyo Nightlife. I will also talk about the contrary popularity of Hentai (Japanese animated pornography) and how the portrayal of sex acts through non-real humans relates to the selling love/sex.
Before I go into the history of host club first, it’s important to understand, if only a little bit of, the society that Host Clubs (and Hentai) were created in. The country of Japan was founded in the religion of Shintoism which is supposed to represent the indigenous spirituality of Japan. Its diligently performed practices are ways to establish a connection between modern Japan and ancient Japan, harnessing a common way of life. The Shinto religion recognizes neither good nor evil, so the concept of sin, commonly associated with Western Culture and religions such as Christianity, does not exist in Japanese Traditional Culture. Many people acknowledge that Japan seems to be a bit looser with sex than most countries. With evidence such as vending machines that distribute soft core pornographic magazines or “Love Hotels” where lovers are able to pay by the hour for a hotel room specifically to have sex due to the lack of privacy in their own small apartments in Tokyo, many would see Japanese culture as very open to sex and all that comes with it. The catch is, a lot of what is stigmatized is the actual act in using or doing any of these things. Because of the anti-prostitution law that passed in 1956, Japan has found a way of creating many loop holes around prostitution, offering everything you can possibly image besides sex. Part of the stigma around sex is that it is to be a private matter, not discussed with just anyone outside the immediate family. It is one thing to go to a love hotel and do what you want with your lover, but it is an entirely different thing to be seen going to a love hotel or to be seen buying one of these pornographic magazines from those vending machines. Japan has become an outlet of sorts that allows for people to enjoy themselves, but not in private spaces of clubs and other shops that can give them access to sexual play. Of course there are very conservative Japanese people, but much of Japanese culture is fixated on this underground industry of sex and believes that sex and love do not mix in most relationships.
As a part of the nightlife in Japan, hundreds of Host Clubs have gained in popularity over the years, luring women in with handsome men vying for their attention. Host clubs started in Tokyo in 1966, spawning from the already popular Hostess Clubs where the men were the customers instead of the women. Women of many ages (though the stigma is that only lonely older, rich women go to Host Clubs) come to Host Clubs and pay an entrance fee. Normally, the clubs will have starter prices from $50 to $100 to entice new customers. After the new costumer enters, they ask them to pick their favorite host (which is most attractive to them) and that host will be serving them for the rest of the night. Later the host will be rewarded with the money earned from part of the costumer’s bill. The host’s goals are to get their customers to keep buying expensive alcohol as the night goes on since most hosts get paid by commission. They pour drinks and provide various types of entertainment such as “magic tricks or charisma with which to tell a story” as well as just conversation, hanging on every word. The conversations never get too personal because the point of that night is to make the customers enjoy themselves so much that they come back and ask the same host again. Like a lot of the underground sex industry that Japan is famous for, there is no actual sex between the customer and the host. The hosts aren’t typical prostitutes, selling sex for money. They are selling the idea of romance and attention that attracts women to places like Host Clubs. And with 12,000 male hosts in Japan, 700 host clubs, and revenues from up to 1.8 billion US dollars a year, they sure are selling romance well.
One host goes above and beyond as far as selling romance and Host Clubs and that’s Takashi Totsuka, more famously known as “Reiji”. Reiji is part psychologist, part entertainer, but full-time businessman. He’s been in the business for about 17 years and is growing into a celebrity in Japan. Reiji uses his TV appearances to help change the image of Host Clubs from “that of a sleazy dive where prostitutes went for solace after work to a place where respectable businesswomen can go for a bit of fun and ego-stroking”. Reiji is in charge of two of his own clubs now that rank up about $10 million total and he is convinced that the one thing that every business needs to know and take advantage of his how to sell their product to women. Every company should know what women want and, in Reiji’s opinion, women want attention. He expands, “In real life it takes a long time for a man and a woman to understand each other. In the host business you have to understand a woman right away, you have to adjust yourself to them… The most common trick is to make them feel romance has blossomed by listening to them attentively as they pour out their feelings,” Reiji approaches Host Clubs from a purely entrepreneur standpoint. This type of sex work is unique because it’s not selling sex. It’s not prostitution. It’s selling the idea of love, selling the fantasy. And in selling this fantasy, Reiji takes the “sex”/taboo aspect of Host Club out of the picture and sees it solely as work.
Another aspect in the Japanese sex industry is the prevalence of Hentai, Japanese animated pornography. Since the Meiji period, the use of the term “Hentai” has had a parallel history in both science and psychology. The translation of German sexologist Krafft-Ebing's text “Psychopathia Sexualis,” or “Hentai seiyoku shinrigaku” in Japanese [The psychology of perverse/abnormal sexual desires] was the beginning of Hentai and how Hnetai got to mean what it means now. The book became very popular for its explicitness and started a growing fascination that continued with more publications focusing on sex advice and sex knowledge, but as the texts started getting more perverse, they became more censored due to the war in the 1930s. After the war though, there was a surge of Hentai shown publicly, via posters and advertisements, and then in magazine form still titled under scientific names like “Human Research” and “Sex-customs science” (translated). Now Hentai is a booming market of subgenre manga (comic book styled) and anime (TV show with episodes) with entire shops selling Hentai.
Since this category of erotica is animated, it separates the personal facet of sex and sexual play, creating a divide between reality and cartoon. Not only does Hentai lack the actual physical interaction between two real people, but it also lacks real people in general. Traditional “live action” porn and the actors in porn at least have the fact that they are actual people, but the absence of real people in Hentai forms a wall that makes Hentai feel less personal. Many people who are fans of Hentai like it because they aren’t real women, though. They like that the women in Hentai comics of videos are perfect. They never smell or have to shave, things like that. Also, another part of what makes Hentai the kind of erotica it is is how a lot of it still stays true it the original “Hentai” meaning, unusual or abnormal. There are many categories of Hentai that involve evil monsters and young girls, incest, and other bizarre taboos that have become part of what people think of when they thing of Japan. By creating these odd pairings or situations for the characters to have sex, it makes the sexual encounters even more unrealistic. Even though Hentai involves actual intercourse between individuals, unlike Host Clubs, it still lacks the personable quality that actual sex and romance have. In this lack and in the act of selling Hentai, Hentai is a lot like Host Clubs because it’s just selling a fantasy with no personal connection for market value.
The idea that sex and love are not interchangeable or do not belong together is something that is very popular in Japanese culture today. Red Light Districts are essential places for sexual fun that many Japanese people find nothing wrong with. They believe sex is a natural part of life and should be celebrated; love complicates the raw passion of sex in most occasions which is part of the reason why love and sex should not be together. There is a common phrase in Japan that a man is married twice, once to his wife and once to his company. Extra marital affairs are common and are not the main cause of divorce in Japan. The thought that love and sex should not mix is a lot like keeping work and play separate, love being work and maintenance, and play being pure sex.
In American culture, this disunion of sex and love is something that is only thought of as both uncouth and lowly. When you think of sex without love, people would think of blatant prostitution or “sluts”. To have sex without love is shameful. It points to the type of person one is, someone who has sex to have sex and not because they have an actual connection with someone. Many popular religions in the states would say that sex that is not meant for procreation is a “sin” and so spawn an ideology that is shared throughout the country, sex is between two people that love each other (and so starts the debate of homosexuality). Only during adolescence do people get away with sleeping around, but once they becomes adults and are thrown into the real work, that desire is all but beaten out of them by the stigma that goes along with having sex with many random people. Our culture says there is no room for respectable sex outside of a committed relationship and that love and sex should always be together—or at least never be apart.
I think part of Dchin’s anxiety with watching those men watch the strippers in the Lusty Lady might have been the fact that you could see those men clearly enjoying the pleasure of sexual content without love or care for the stripper as a person, just raw sexual needs being fulfilled. I also feel like a lot of the problem with rape porn was that we could not separate business and pleasure; we could not separate the idea of lusting for a certain thing and actually acting on that lust in real life.
This was the problem I had with sex work to begin with. I didn’t agree with the fact that they were selling feelings and using people’s fantasies to make money. I didn’t like that they were taking sex and romance, some of the most personal and emotional connections a person can have in their lifetime, and turning it into profit. Whether or not it is their own choice to do sex work in order to feel more empowered by the fact that they can use their bodies for their benefit or if they didn’t choice to do sex work and are forced into doing it, I still found the very act of sex work concerning and unsettling for me. But I don’t want to be unsettled. Like them men in dchin and epeck’s interview, I know there is a right answer. I know I should be open to people’s choices and just other people’s lives in general. And still I feel like I would have the same initial reaction to the question “what is sex work” as many of the people in the interview. I have the same problem with sex work as many of the people in the interview might have had. I just cannot separate sex from work, the personal from the business. But I’m trying, trying to be a bit more Japanese.
-- Dchin’s post: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/12195
-- Dchin/epeck performance: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/12294
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