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Hard Times Put the Squeeze on Sleaze Industry in Japan

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Associated Press Writer

Rika returns from an “assisted bath” with the day’s first customer. The humid air hangs heavy with the sweet smell of soap, and she listlessly leafs through fashion magazines in a packed back room with other young prostitutes.

“If I get five customers, that’s a good day,” she said, flashing a confident smile from beneath a dyed-red bob that matches her checkered sundress.

For the past month, this has been Rika’s new job -- selling sex at a top-class “soapland” brothel in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara red-light district, a grid of quiet streets immortalized in centuries-old woodblock prints of kimono-clad courtesans.

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Smut has been a near recession-proof industry in Japan, despite the country’s decade of economic slump. All told, the Japanese spend an estimated $13.9 billion a year on sex.

But hard times are putting the squeeze on the sleaze.

Given Japan’s sour economy, Rika, 25, calls soapland “a move up” from her old job waiting tables. She sometimes pockets $8,200 a month. It pays for her $1,500 shopping binges and gets her closer to her dream of retiring at age 30 with her own house.

But for other women, Japan’s red-light underworld is a last resort, not an opportunity. Record unemployment and soaring bankruptcies are forcing more women into the flesh trade -- at cheaper rates and in more desperate conditions.

For Hitomi, 24, a streetwalker from Thailand, it’s about survival, not spending sprees.

She was laid off from a refrigerator factory, stripped of her work visa and company housing. Now, a good night for her means recouping the $65 in protection money she shells out to gangsters on her street -- and not having to work until dawn.

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The pricey soaplands, where hourly rates reach $820, are giving way to low-end “pink salons” and cut-rate foreign prostitutes. Cheap thrills there go for as little as $65.

The number of soaplands has declined to around 1,200 from about 1,700 in the booming 1980s, said Takashi Kadokura, an economist at Dai-Ichi Life Insurance who published a two-year study of the underground economy earlier this year.

By contrast, the nation’s 1,800 fly-by-night sex shops, where customer turnover may be as fast as eight minutes, have seen revenues jump 50% to $5 billion since then. Kadokura, giving an admittedly rough figure, estimates that the average shop gets 32,800 visits a year.

Increased competition has sex clubs resorting to wilder antics, younger women and lower prices.

Phone that call-girl flier in the mailbox and you’re likely to get a housewife working part-time. An estimated 5% of girls in Tokyo’s middle and high schools have turned tricks to buy the latest fashions, which are pricier but still viewed as necessities.

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Japan outlawed brothels in 1956 after centuries of sanctioned sex-selling in glamorized “licensed zones” like Yoshiwara. But there are loopholes.

Train stations are surrounded by “pink salons” promising sexual massage and “telephone clubs” where men line up liaisons with teen-age girls. Convenience stores stock brothel guides as thick as telephone books. Household mailboxes are stuffed with “delivery health” ads emblazoned with color photos of lusty schoolgirls.

Surveys by anti-prostitution groups suggest that up to 40% of Japanese men have paid for sex at least once. But last year, there were only 1,032 arrests.

Most of those were pimps because Japanese law targets sex brokers rather than prostitutes or customers, said Takeshi Koyanagi, deputy director of the Justice Ministry’s research department. “It’s very hard to prosecute,” he added.

Soaplands duck the law by billing themselves as assisted bathhouses. The tacit understanding is that whatever else happens inside is a matter between consenting adults.

A little more than 100 years ago, Rika’s predecessors in the “Nightless City” were prisoners displayed behind barred windows, with little hope of buying freedom.

Today, the moats are paved over and Yoshiwara isn’t even marked on most city maps. The workers get a week off every month and regular health checkups, plus enough cash for regular trips to Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza shopping district.

But soaplands -- even in bastions like Yoshiwara -- are vanishing like the geisha.

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Nothing symbolizes Yoshiwara’s seedy flip side more than Tokyo’s Kabukicho district, where women like Hitomi prowl the frenetic, neon-bathed alleys.

Prostitution has always exposed women to disease, violence and extortion. But activists say Japan’s bad economy makes women more willing to risk low-end work.

Women at soaplands can hit a panic button and alert a tuxedo-clad bouncer to trouble. But on the street or in a gangster-run massage parlor, there are no such safeguards.

Conditions are especially bad for the estimated 12,000 foreign sex workers like Hitomi, said Yayori Matsui, director of the Tokyo-based Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Center.

Many of them were trafficked into the country and indentured by debt. The economic slump means that it takes them up to a year to buy back their freedom.

Matsui says it’s an uphill battle, in part because of changing mores.

“There is also a growing point of view that it is a woman’s right to engage in prostitution,” she said. “I feel helpless against this trend.”

Like many foreign workers, Hitomi was lured to Japan with the promise of a job -- in her case, a real job inspecting rubber seals for refrigerator doors.

But a year later, she was fired as part of the company’s restructuring plan.

There was no shackling debt, but also no money to pay her way home. Other Japanese employers wouldn’t hire her for lack of proper papers, qualifications and language skills.

“In Japan, with the economy so terrible, foreigners are the first to get fired. So they told me, ‘We’re sorry,’ ” she said. “I don’t like sex work, but I have to eat.”

So she took a tip from a friend and started selling herself outside an hourly rate hotel with peeling wallpaper and no towels. It’s just enough to pay rent for the one-room apartment that she shares with four other Thai women.

Hitomi says she came to Japan full of hope that she would make money, return to Thailand and start a family. But since she traded her factory smock for a low-cut denim jacket and fuchsia lipstick, she says, those aspirations seem more like fantasies.

“I can’t think about marriage or kids because I’m not a good woman. The future is only dreams,” Hitomi said. “What would you do if you were me?”


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