Japan's Pink Kink

The Japanese sex industry, often referred to as the “Pink Trade”, looks inexplicably kinky and oddly ritualized. But as strange as it seems, it is also pervasive and very lucrative. A recently published book, Pink Box: Inside Japan’s Sex Clubs by photojournalist Joan Sinclair (Harry N. Abrams, 192 pages, 155 full-color photographs) offers a rare and unique look into a world that few outsiders will ever glimpse.

Delving into a wide variety of sex venues, Sinclair's photo documentary reveals aspects of kink that may be new even to seasoned observers. Still, in many ways the book only reinforces the wacky and wild view of Pink Kink.

Trying to understand the Japanese love of kink can be hard to grasp for many foreigners. Elaborate bondage rituals, a fascination for women in uniforms, the passion for looking up the skirts of school girls or groping on public trains is difficult for those outside of these fetish cultures to understand, much less appreciate. But as one of Sinclair's interviewees, a male customer puts it, "I think all men are universally perverted; it's just that in Japan we do something about it."

They do quite a bit about it, it seems. The book showcases clubs that cater to men with a fetish for fat girls, “host clubs” that entertain lonely women and everything in between. The introduction by James Farrer cites economist Takashi Kadokura who said, "The commercial sex services sector in Japan accounted for 2.37 trillion Yen, or about USD $20 billion." Which makes it Japan's second largest industry second only to automobiles.

Farrer has other insights that help the uninitiated understand why Japan's passion for kink takes the form of uniformed schoolgirls, nurses, policewomen, stewardesses, secretaries and just about any other get-up one might imagine.

He calls the sex trade “Japan’s most public secret” and notes that red light districts are ubiquitous, located near almost every train station while catalogues advertising sex services are available in every convenience store. The root of the kink, Farrer writes, "May lie in the strict social norms governing everyday life in Japan. Japanese social life has often been described as having two layers, a surface (tatemae) of formal and rule-bound social relations and a reality (honne) of real emotions, antipathies, and attachments.

"Japan remains a society in which people must speak in polite, formal language to superiors and exercise social restraint in relationships with coworkers," he says. "Uniforms, a common requirement in schools and companies, symbolize this surface of polite deference. The world of fuzoku (the sex industry) is in many ways an eroticized take on this dichotomy of social fiction and underlying reality, in which beneath the veneer of social roles and uniforms lurks a world of rampant sexual desires."

Japan's sex industry offers men the relief they yearn for from this formal world. In her photos and commentary Sinclair gives the reader a look into an industry full of women dolled up as schoolgirls, stewardesses and office workers–all standard fare for Japanese kink. She photographed themed bars that cater to very particular fetishes, such as one that capitalizes on the train groping epidemic by having a replica train car in its bar staffed with willing girls in short skirts, along with bars that offer bondage; or “happening bars” where people can go for group sex.

There is even a helpful “Pink” glossary explaining terms like “manaita”, a sex show that likens the lucky customer to a knife-wielding chef and the woman to a fish on a cutting board. Offensive? Certainly. But the range of perversions is undeniably fascinating. There are also degrees of sex on offer. Many hostesses stay in the clubs and simply entertain wealthy clients with conversation and little else. Those who are available for additional services are “makura” companions, “pillow” girls who will go to bed with customers.

Sinclair's photos are clear, sharp and technically impressive — not what one would expect from an amateur photographer. For several years Sinclair worked in Japan as an English teacher before returning to the US to become a lawyer and settle down with her husband. When he mentioned starting a family, she decided that there was one thing left for her to do in Japan.

While teaching English, Sinclair was introduced to fuzoku, the sex industry, by friends who later, at her request, gave her a first-hand look when she returned for her photo documentary effort. In the process she had to overcome suspicion, xenophobia and gender discrimination to accomplish the task.

Her photos are reminiscent of Orientalia: Sex in Asia by Regan Louie, a seasoned photojournalist and student of kink who is cited in Sinclair's acknowledgements. He apparently assisted the novice in her work, and to positive effect.

In Orientalia, Louie took readers all over Asia for a tasteful look at sex in many ports; but Sinclair focused solely on Japan. Her contacts, Japanese experience and work with Louie proved fruitful for Pink Box.

Though Pink Box shows a world that most will never see, the text and pictures largely ignore some underlying controversies facing the pink industry, including the fact that Japan has been teetering on and off of the United States State Department's list of nations that support human trafficking. Indeed, the often forced employment of Central Asians, Colombians, Russians, Thais, Filipinas, and Chinese, is not exactly a fuzoku secret.

In fact, international pressure last year led Tokyo to reduce the number of visas to Filipina “entertainers”, a thin euphemism for prostitution. In Manila and Bangkok, for example, it is an open secret that Yakuza recruiters from sex clubs troll the go-go bars looking for fresh talent. In the Philippines, the term “Japayuki” has been coined for girls who “entertain” in Japan.

On this point, Sinclair's glossy images come up a bit short. Where are the trafficked Filipinas, Colombians and Russians? There is only one picture with foreign women swimming half nude in a huge aquarium, catering, one presumes, to a mermaid fetish.

Sinclair explains her take on the industry in her Photographer's Note, allying herself with those who see sex work as a viable choice for women and even a means of empowerment. The argument is not unlike that heard from some college students in the US who see lap dancing as an easy way to finance their education. Sinclair says she hopes "that viewers not assume that this profession is inherently degrading. It is more complicated than that. These women are not powerless, they are not on drugs. They have made conscience choices; they have there own dignity."

Indeed she may be correct that many Japanese sex workers willingly choose the profession. But the presence of so many foreign women working in Japanese bars may raise too many complex questions; perhaps that is why Sinclair focused primarily on Japanese workers.

This is the central focus of the book anyway Japanese sex clubs in Japanese culture and society. For a glimpse into the powerful economic and psycho-sexual relationship between the fuzoku workers and their clients, it delivers a rare and unique insight.

Copyright 2006 Asian Sex Gazette and Asia Sentinel.