From traditional culture to the latest in “Cool Japan,” Japan has a lot to boast about. Yet there’s another side to the island nation which has stirred up international contention over the past few decades.
Even those unfamiliar with specific components of Japanese popular culture have likely heard about the popularity of high school girls in Japan, as school uniform-clad girls often appear in the latest advertising, music videos, TV anime, and other forms of the country’s media. Dig a little deeper and you can also find a service industry which involves high school girls providing a range of services to older men in return for payment. Known colloquially as the “JK business” (the “JK” is derived from joshikosei, or “female high school student”), this phenomenon often includes such services as “JK walking” or “JK massages,” which may or may not be veiled fronts for prostitution in actuality.
Today, we’d like to introduce you to the darker side of the JK business through the lens of a short foreign documentary which has raised considerable debate online.
■ Girls who are sold as commodities in Japan
International news channel Vice News caught the eye of our Japanese team of reporters with their recently shared documentary “Schoolgirls for Sale in Japan.” Curious to see which aspects of the JK business the channel would cover, they watched the approximately 18-minute video and were subsequently more than a little surprised to learn just how heated the YouTube viewer comments were on the subject.
Without further ado, here’s the video below. You can view subtitles in Japanese by choosing the “translate captions” option under the video settings button (note: they can be a bit unnatural at times).
■ High school girls galore in Akihabara
To explore the JK business, Vice News reporter Simon Ostrovsky heads to the district of Akihabara, Tokyo’s mecca of electronics and all things manga and anime. While Akihabara is generally known for its profusion of otaku goods and maid cafes, the JK business is also evidently booming there. As Ostrovsky walks along the local streets, he indeed spots several groups of schoolgirls and a number of signs advertising their services. Somewhat ironically, as the camera pans to capture as many of the girls as possible, a man who appears to be overseeing the girls comes over to demand that they stop filming the “underage children.”
▼ Uniform-clad girls and signs advertising JK services on the streets of Akihabara, Tokyo
While Ostrovsky acknowledges later in the video that Japan is by no means the only culture to sexualize young girls, he uneasily admits that there’s “something unique, and especially unsettling about the fact that right out in the open, schoolgirls are available for rent by the hour in one of Tokyo’s busiest neighborhoods.”
■ Men who rent high school girls by the hour
Ostrovsky continues on to a nearby venue where high school girls sing and dance in front of jam-packed crowds. Many idol groups in Japan, including the mega-popular AKB48, often base their concept on the image of pure and lighthearted schoolgirls. This particular group of performers, called Akishibu Project, is no exception. Ostrovsky witnesses an overwhelming number of enthusiastic adult male fans participating in the concert and afterwards in a handshake event with the girls for a fee.
▼ A handshake event after the concert
Ostrovsky next decides to try out a session of JK fortune-telling where he can chat and get his fortune told by a high school girl (half an hour is priced at 3,000 yen [US$24.34]). However, he leaves within a mere ten minutes after feeling extremely uncomfortable by the thought of adult men seeking out under-aged girls for this sort of thing.
▼ The girl who chats with Ostrovsky during his fortune-telling session
To gain some more insight into the JK business, Ostrovsky also speaks with Jake Adelstein, a journalist with over 20 years of experience dabbling in the Japanese underworld. Adelstein explains that the JK business largely picked up steam after the fairly innocuous “compensated dating” (enjo kosai) phenomenon of the 1990s, and adds his own opinion to the mix: “This society is one of the most misogynistic, sexist societies in a developed country in the world. I would not want to be a woman here.” When asked what he would say to those who claim that he’s just imposing puritanical western views on Japan, he replies that the island nation has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and should strive to uphold its promises against child trafficking.
▼ Jake Adelstein speaks about the origins of the JK business and its connection to child trafficking.
■ What convinces girls to work in the JK business?
The JK business is such that even seemingly harmless services touted as “walks around town,” “foot massages,” or even “fortune-telling” have the potential to lead to sexual exploitation of the girls. So why do any of them take jobs in this industry to begin with, whether voluntarily or not? Earning some pocket money and sheer curiosity are two possible motivations, but as Yumeno Nito, a representative from high school girl support center Colabo reveals, there are often overarching life circumstances which compel the girls to enter the business.
“Almost all of the girls come from troubled homes, or feel isolated at school,” she explains. A teenage runaway herself, Nito says she was lucky never to be coerced into joining the industry, but had many friends who were, some of whom even committed suicide soon thereafter. She now patrols the streets late at night, seeking out girls who are in need of a place to sleep and emotional support. While her efforts have so far helped over 100 girls get their lives back on track, she states that “This problem won’t be solved unless the adults who buy and sell disappear.”
▼ Yumeno Nito, an advocate for high school girls without a voice
▼ Nito often provides home-cooked meals for the girls, for many their first in a long time.
■ Voices of non-Japanese viewers
To say that the documentary evoked strong reactions is an understatement. YouTube comments showed that viewers tended to be polarized in opinion regarding the JK business, with some seeing nothing wrong with the practices and others being extremely apprehensive of the “services” involved.
Let’s take a look at some of the viewpoints on both sides of the issue:
“This is pedophilia[,] borderline or not, anyone who tries to defend it should be ashamed.”
“Also people saying that western people force their morals on the japanese people…Every normal human being would want to stop underaged prostitution. This has nothing to do with culture.”
“To be frank, paying an underage girl for company is pathetic. Paying her for sex is criminal. There is a lot to be done for [these] children but allowing this idiotic service to continue is only going to make matters worse in time.”
“Most people on here are saying, ‘They are freaks.’ ‘Uneducated, unlike us…’ ‘That should be illegal.’ Why?? I say, make prostitution legal. Look at Germany, they figured it out. There is less violence for the women and less [STDs] for everyone….”
“There is nothing ‘going on’ under the surface. There is zero sex involved. Japanese men are notoriously emasculated, not to mention [otaku] culture is centered in Akihabara. If anything, based on the rates these girls charge, [it’s] the men who get scammed in the end.”
“There’s a lot of using the world ‘underage’ in the video. Don’t they know that age of consent in Japan is 13? Yeah, I know that some local laws override this but people just don’t care generally. And that remark about ‘the most misogynistic society’ is total bullshit. Woman is the head of the house in the most modern Japanese families and [they are] holding the family budget. Actually, it could be one of the reasons of this JK thing.”
Writer’s note: The minimal age of consent in Japan is indeed 13 according to the Japanese Penal Code. However, “all prefectures and districts have (largely similar) ‘obscenity ordinances’ (淫行条例) that forbid ‘fornication’ (淫行) with anyone under 18 years of age, but exempt sex in the context of a sincere romantic relationship (typically determined by parental approval).” (Wikipedia)
▼ Ostrovsky speaks with a woman who wished to remain anonymous about her experiences working in the JK business since she was 16. Sometimes, she admits, her outings with older men led to sex.
In addition, other commenters focused their attention on other aspects of the video, including the JK business in a larger societal and world context:
“The language of the description makes it sound like this is a recent phenomenon, but this is an extension of the world’s oldest profession.”
“To say that Japan is a misogynistic society is a biased and prejudiced view.”
“This business arose because of several problems. 1) Japan has a much less inviting and open social culture. Leading to social interaction being a premium commodity. 2) Marriage and dating are much more difficult because of the long work hours. 3) Japan is still a very conservative country in terms of its views on women. 4) Japanese tend to ignore problems in order to ‘save face.'”
“I’m concerned about this kind of practice and would love to raise awareness on how it is tied to underage prostitution, human trafficking, what have you, and deter people from it.. but while the business itself remains legal, should we really try to fix it?”
“Seriously though, doesn’t Japan [have] like one of the lowest percentage of sexual assault-related crimes? Shouldn’t we be focusing our attention [on] places where it is actually a problem like South America, India, or even the United States?”
“Maybe visit to [Saudi Arabia] and check on [12-year-olds] in set up marriages with 40+ yrs man. Or Egypt and one day marriages of young girls with old rich man’s. Japan have education and is developed, i think they can deal with this problems them self.”
“As an economist…I can say with pretty significant certainty that if you want to stop it…you have to reduce demand. Probably the only way to do that would be to go after the men and make it significantly not worth the risk for them to pursue the girls. Anything short of that and it will continue.”
While the documentary clocks in at almost 18 minutes, it’s well worth your time to gain a deeper understanding of the controversy regarding the JK business, which is something that you’ll likely see in some form or other if you visit Japan. Where do you stand on your side of the debate?