Sex and Schoolgirls: JK Culture in Japan


Vednita Carter believes prostitution is not only the world’s oldest profession, but its oldest oppression.

These thoughts that it is all right for a woman to be sexually exploited as long as a man pays and she is not physically abused are damaging to the global society. It paves the way for the excuses of “boys will be boys” and says that men’s sexual desire cannot be tamed. It paints a veil over men’s actions and thoughts about women and how these thoughts and actions affect the thoughts of women themselves.

Do Something organization reports that globally, the average cost of a slave is $90 and human trafficking generates a profit of $32 billion every year. Of this number, $15.5 billion is made within industrialized countries.

Forms of human trafficking include forced labor, sexual exploitation of women, sexual exploitation of children through tourism, trafficking for tissues, cells and organs and people smuggling.

The 2014 Global Slavery Index estimates that there are over 35.8 million people living in some form of modern slavery globally, and of that, it is estimated that 65.8 percent, or 23,542,800, of those people living in modern slavery are stationed within the Asia Pacific. All modern forms of slavery exist in the Asia Pacific region, including forced labor, forced marriage, and trafficking for sexual exploitation.

1.87 percent of Japan’s population, or 237,500, people are estimated to be living in a form of modern slavery, making it the twenty-second country with the highest enslaved population out of 167 countries studied. Despite the number, Japan has done little to combat the problem within its borders, ranking in as having the 84th best government response to slavery in the country. Japan’s low government response stands out because of its significant wealth.

The history of prostitution in Japan: Laws and gray areas  

Prostitution in Japan is classified as legally limited, dating back to the 16th century red-light districts like Yoshiwara before expanding to private ventures in the 17th century.

In the 16th century, feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the first to demarcate part of Kyoto as a red-light district.

“Hideyoshi knew that it would be easier for him to supervise the brothels if they were concentrated in a single location,” Kansai University Professor Yoshikazu Nagai said. “It also made it easier for him to collect levies from business owners.”

In 1957, the Japanese Prostitution Prevention Law was passed. With a closer look at the law, only vaginal sex was covered by the law; all other forms of sexual acts were considered legal. It also prohibited “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment,” making for specified persons or acquaintances to still be legal. Because pimping, prostitution, and brothels were made illegal, it opened doors for a gray area business like massage parlors. Instead of blatantly offering sexual intercourse, such services could be hidden in the sight of other innocent services. These businesses also argue that the people involved in sexual intercourse had some previous history with one another, making the acts legal.

Nagai spoke with Japan Times to explain how the soaplands, referred to as the “king” of fuzoku, or the Japanese sex industry, can stay in operation despite laws.

The soaplands are where clients go to have sex. Businesses must register with the police and operate within their registered category. The soaplands are registered as “special public bathhouses” where clients must pay an entry fee. They must turn away anyone under the age of 18 trying to enter or trying to be hired. The soaplands do not abide by prostitution laws because they do not provide straight intercourse and limit services to only massages.

The client pays a massage-service fee to the masseuse directly, identifying the woman as working independently and not involved with a brothel. This also makes the man and woman look as if they are acquaintances.

Trading the soaplands for schoolgirls

These forms of prostitution may be on their way out as individual women and young girls instead look to find partners through telephone call rooms, online and night walking.

Enjo-kōsai is the practice of younger women (mainly from school age to younger housewives) being paid for providing companionship to older men.

Joshi Kōsei, or JK, means high school girl. It has become an emerging business model for human trafficking and sexual exploitation of teenage girls in Japan. Popular in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, these girls stand outside of businesses and hand fliers to male passersby, selling massages or “walks” for compensation.

The part-time job frequently targets troubled young girls who are sometimes aware of the dangers of partaking in the activities. Despite the possible dangers, the job pays tuition and other expenses for young women in need. The money lures in those who may have otherwise dismissed the opportunity.

As more of the business  was exposed, tactics were changed. The teenage girls would instead distribute fliers asking potential clients if they would like to have their fortune told or simply chat.

Yumeno Nito, a 24-year-old activist who runs Colabo, a support group that helps to rehabilitate exploited teenage girls, says that men agree to these services “with the aim of meeting girls and exchanging contact information so they can later meet elsewhere and negotiate for sex directly.”

Nito says that girls will enter the business because “they feel isolated and have few people they can trust. Others are drawn to it for money for college, or out of curiosity. The girls in the business, by and large, have poor human relationships and feel neglected both at home and at school, thus taking emotional refuge in the backstreet industry. These girls are in a way homeless. They have a physical house, yes, but they have no home where they can build actual human bonds.”

Japan-native journalist Masakazu Honda wrote an article for Tokyo Business today about the Akihabara district from a native’s perspective. He took a stroll through the district himself and interviewed one of the co-owners of Cheers Café. He was told that there were two or three cafes in the area that offer services by high school girls, but the girls are limited in interaction with customers. The girls cannot sit and chat with customers or allow any physical contact. It was asserted that there were no businesses in the district that provided sexual services with the young girls.

Honda also spoke with a group of girls selling services in Akihabara Station who identified as being between 19 and 21 years old. Most said they were offering simple strolls around the neighborhood and the most they would do was accompany a customer somewhere.

More intimate services could be negotiated with young women who sold services in areas where flier distribution was prohibited. Many of the young women were around 19 and offered services like “the Lover’s Course” for 13,000 yen ($110 USD), where she would lie down next to the customer and “hugging however the customer pleases, for as much as the time allows.”

Honda asked if more intimate services would be negotiated but “the young woman did not give me a clear yes or no answer, nor did she deny the possibility.”

The dark side of JK culture

In May of 2015, three men were arrested for a JK business where high school girls would fold paper cranes wearing school uniforms with their legs spread open, revealing their underwear. Male customers would view the girls through a one-way mirror. The owner hired girls knowing that they were under the age of 18. At one time the business was boasting 30 high school girls and was taking in two million yen in profit monthly for about two years.

The owner insisted that he did not think any problems would arise because “I did not think it would violate the law if it were not heavy work, like folding paper cranes.”

For 5,000 yen ($40 USD) men could watch the girls for 40 minutes, but specific girls could be requested for about 900 yen ($8 USD) for five minutes. Police sources said that men could also pay for private rooms to partake in sexual activities with the girls for extra money.

One young girl who spoke with Vice News told her story of working within the JK business, identifying herself as “Lisa.” Living on the outskirts of Tokyo in poverty with her mother, she entered the business at 16. Lisa would wait outside of a maid café in Akihabara for men to ask her on dates. She said she was dressed provocatively to attract attention.

The men who approached Lisa varied in age, some as young as 20 and others as old as 80. Dates usually consisted of a walk or being taken out to eat. She would earn between $40 to $80 an hour. Some would buy her panties and she would resell them for over $100, always making sure to keep a few on her person at all times. In those times, Lisa had been lucky enough to avoid any sexual contact with customers.

At 17, a man in his thirties took her out to eat, bought her drinks and then took her to a love hotel. He assured nothing would happen, but he raped her and then threatened to expose her as a “little whore. That I didn’t pay you anything, and you’re shaking me down. And then you’ll go to juvenile prison for being a teenage prostitute.”

The U.S. Department of State produces an annual “Trafficking in Persons” report on modern slavery of countries globally. The report states that “the phenomenon of Enjo-kōsai…and variants of the ‘JK business’…continue to facilitate the prostitution of Japanese children.

Sophisticated and organized, Japan prostitution networks target vulnerable Japanese women and girls—often in poverty or with mental and intellectual disabilities— in public areas such as subways, popular youth hangouts, schools, and online; some of these women and girls become trafficking victims. Japanese men continue to be a significant source of demand for child sex tourism in Southeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, Mongolia.”

How kawaii culture influenced the JK culture

Japan is the homeland of various globally famous figures including Hello Kitty and Pikachu. The two characters are part of Japan’s kawaii culture, which is commonly translated as cute.

Misha Janette, founder of Tokyo Fashion Diaries and panelist on NHK’s Kawaii International show, describes it as “a delicate cuteness, like a weak, small type of thing. It’s also an embodiment of all that’s happy and positive.”

Sharon Kinsella, Professor at the University of Maryland, noted characteristics of kawaii culture to be “sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak and inexperienced.” It had sprung from a trend of cute handwriting before the child-like cuteness became dominant in the entertainment world, influencing pop culture, fashion, games, toys, television shows, books and other aspects of life in Japan.

Girls in Japan will use the kawaii culture as a means of self-expression during their young adult years. These girls will use the latest trends to rework them to suit their personal tastes. It is from their personal comfort that most young Japanese girls and young women will embrace the culture.

There is a darker side of the kawaii culture named ero-kawaii. This is fantasized by Japanese men of all ages and then reinforced through anime and manga that take on sexual references. These references can be found in anime and manga that are sold to consumers of all ages. Sexual references for female characters are found in shows that can be targeted at teens and young adults, and is extremely popular amongst more mature titles.

This ero-kawaii culture can affect any and all anime and manga. Fans will create renditions of their favorite shows and books, writing and drawing their favorite characters in sexual situations. There is no age range for these types of characters in the sexually explicit drawings and writings. The youngest of characters are placed in situations with characters much older than them.

Characters like the protagonists in Sailor Moon, who are young high school girls aged between 13 and 14 are hyper-sexualized in the minds of those watching. These girls are then placed in sexual positions with each other or other characters.

It does not stop at the teenage characters girls portrayed as the youngest siblings in anime and manga are also targets of rape and incest in the minds of viewers who produce content.

Others will create original works with original characters and produce written pieces and manga of child-like characters and distribute these images across the internet for easy access for others who lust over the same images.

The female characters in anime and manga capitalize on two major cultures in Japan—the schoolgirl and the kawaii characteristics. Dressed in school uniforms with bright, round eyes and innocent and delicate natures, these girls bring together two fantasies for men to be aroused by.

Having art as a freedom of expression can start to blur the line of right from wrong when young girls and boys are depicted in artwork of all forms.

Anime, manga, and child sexual exploitation

Japan is notorious for being a hotbed of production and trafficking of child pornography. Despite banning the production and distribution of child pornography in 1999, it had not stopped customers from getting their hands on the illegal material.  In June of 2014, Japanese Parliament passed a bill banning the possession of child pornography. People found with photos or videos of child pornography could be imprisoned for up to a year and fined up to 1 million yen ($10,000 USD).

The law did not extend to explicit anime and manga that depicted child-like characters on their covers and within their pages and animations. These types of entertainment often blur the lines between women and young girls with every individual having his or her interpretation of the image presented. Many of these characters will look physically under-developed, with a body resembling a pre-teen or teenage girl and innocent, naïve faces.

Artists argue that the banning of explicit material involving minors or child-like characters could scare them away from creative expression. Ken Akamatsu, who lobbies lawmakers on behalf of the Japan Cartoonists Association said a ban would make “creators too scared to put pen to paper in case they risked breaking the rules.”

He argues that the characters in anime and manga are not real, so there is no real child suffering from the material published.

Shihoko Fujiwara ran Lighthouse, a nonprofit for exploited children and recalled a case where a predator used the explicit material in an animation to justify the sexual acts he or she wanted the child to participate in. “The pedophiles might bring the animation and say ‘this is how you practice with adults,'” she said.

Human trafficking in Japan primarily targets women and children with its shortcomings rooted in cultural attitudes towards women. The World Justice Project estimates that there are over $54,000 women and children forcibly working in the country’s $73 billion sex industry. In 2014, the National Police Agency reported that there were 2,489 cases where children were reported victims of sex crimes.

The problem with the Japanese sex industry is not the sex itself. Every country has its sex industry; it is the images that cloud the industry. Taking the image of a high school girl and turning it into a sexual object is a problem.

David Murata, adjunct professor for the Engagements for the Common Good class, Hands on Justice, has spoke with young women who have been able to escape from the business. “These girls come from poverty. They live with their mothers, but it is not enough to provide for everyone in the house. This is about survival; these girls need to make money in order to continue living.”