HONG KONG - The practice of an older man taking a young, school-aged Japanese girl out on a "date" in exchange for money in Japan is referred to as enjo kosai, or "compensated dating". To say that enjo kosai is prostitution or - in a Western view - child prostitution, may not always be accurate. The date may not necessarily include sex, and the inherent cultural complexities can strain perceptions of the practice.
Enjo kosai does not automatically imply that sex is on offer. In some cases it is just dinner, some conversation and perhaps a walk holding hands. All too often, however, it does involve some sort of sexual interaction; maybe limited to fondling and groping, or even oral sex and intercourse. This sets off alarms about child
prostitution, at least in the eyes of the international community, as the schoolgirls can be as young as 12.
A 20-year-old Japanese girl named Aiko whom I met while she was working at the bars in Hong Kong "on a lark" while on "holiday", as she put it, said she had done enjo kosai since she was 14. "Why not, it's there. There are Japanese men willing to pay good money for nothing more than a tease. I could make huge money and get designer brands just for having dinner at a five-star restaurant and being his date," Aiko said. "If they later wanted sex, which in Japan is all about the tease and being unattainable, then that just makes the man invest more money in the relationship."
Japan has one of the lowest ages of sexual consent in the world; it's as low as 13 in metro Tokyo and the national age of consent ranges between 13 and 18 depending on the province. In fact, in Japan, the practice of having sex with teenage girls is not prosecutable if the young woman says "yes". This is where enjo kosai acts a loophole; any girl saying "yes, but for 50,000 yen" (US$495)immediately renders the situation illegal. The brunt of punishment, however, falls on the male customer, generally for solicitation and prostitution. Such cases can be aggravated by the fact the female is a minor, or under 18 in terms of recent legislation.
This is where the loophole becomes a pedophile's dream scenario. If he "dates" the underage woman, buys her gifts and occasionally provides her with cash ostensibly for shopping, buying books or spending time with friends, then the money or gifts were not technically provided on a sex-for-money transaction. Otherwise, this would equal prostitution and be punishable by law.
The young women practicing enjo kosai usually expect to be taken shopping and lavished in gifts, especially by men they "date" repeatedly.
Some of the girls working the enjo kosai trade are referred to as "kogals"*1, which is an amalgam of the Japanese terms kou, meaning "high", and gyaru, which translates as "gal" or "girl". Adorned in schoolgirl uniforms, hip designer goods, top-of-the-line mobile phones, the young women are stereotyped as drug using, promiscuous, greedy and stupid. They like trendy hangouts, such as Tokyo's Ikebukuro district, where they dine, shop, sing karaoke and, when possible, land an older man for a date.
Kogals are not the only subculture participating in enjo kosai, but they make up a significant portion and are certainly the "poster girls" of the practice. Still any teenage girl participating in the trade is practicing enjo kosai. There are no pimps or mamasans setting up the liaisons, but Japan has a host of pay-to-play phone and Internet matchmaking services that facilitate the "hook ups" of like-minded individuals.
Unless they speak fluent Japanese and are familiar with the cultural nuances the relationship requires, foreigners are extremely unlikely to have an enjo kosai experience. For foreigners, sex-for-hire in Japan is limited to paying imported Thai and Filipino girls at inflated Japanese rates; most Japanese clubs with Japanese girls do not permit foreigners.
As noted, prostitution is illegal in Tokyo, and in 2005 the city moved to make enjo kosai illegal as well. Penalties were established that could land the man in jail for up to a year. However, gathering the evidence necessary to successfully prosecute is dicey and few reports suggest that the ban is being vigorously enforced.*2
Even now, enjo kosai is common.A decade ago, the Tokyo Weekender*3 reported, "According to a recent survey of junior high school students in their final year, 17% thought there is nothing wrong with enjo kosai and 13% replied that they felt no reluctance in practicing it."*4 *5
At the same time, the daily newspaper Mainichi reported, "Despite extravagant media attention on what many had perceived to be a widespread phenomenon, only 5% of high school girls admitted taking part in enjo kosai - accepting money from middle-aged men for dates that sometimes include having sexual intercourse."*6
These numbers can only have increased in past decade. The media and the Internet have led to a more open view of sex and sexuality among youths throughout the world. Also, another problem with the enjo kosai industry is that the number of prospective punters far outnumbers the amount of willing schoolgirls. Some estimates have put the number of school-aged girls practicing enjo kosai at about 13%, and a Tokyo survey by Friday magazine found that an astonishing 75% of schoolgirls reported that they had been solicited by older seeking an enjo kosai relationship.*7
For non-Japanese observers understanding the cultural context of enjo kosai can be challenging.
Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that many girls in the enjo kosai trade do so out of spite caused by their own father's behavior. Many of whom are slavishly devoted to long working hours and spend time drinking at hostess clubs, having extramarital affairs and turning up late and drunk at home. Many of these girls think their fathers have their own kogals for enjo kosai, so why shouldn't they reap some reward from the practice?
Societies all over the world struggle with the issues of prostitution and under-aged sex. In the US, a country that had a sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, rather puritan and conservative laws still seem to rule the day. Many countries' laws somewhat arbitrarily define an adult as being over age 18, and anyone below 18 as a minor; sex is prohibited between these two age groups and violations are vigorously enforced.
With all the debate over "victims" and "predators" one must wonder which of these societies are really enlightened. Is it the US and Western countries that criminalize sex, or is it a country like Japan which does not prosecute when there are not clear victims? Of course, in any situation where there is no consent, or there is an abuse of authority or coercion, the case should be prosecuted. Certainly, any sexual contact with a person under 12 years old should be vigorously prosecuted as pedophilia.
But, considering that Japan had its so-called sexual revolution during the 17th century's Edo period, one can only wonder what the sexual "evolution" now sweeping across Asia will hold. As a leading industrialized nation, Japan has bent to the will of the international community: it has updated its laws, mostly concerning child pornography, but also those governing the realm of under-aged sex, though enforcement for both is lax.
Will Japan's neighbors adopt similar views on youth sex, or will they bend to the influence of the West? We can only wait and see ... and hope that creating legally defined victims and predators is limited to situations where victims actually exist.
William Sparrow has been an occasional contributor to Asia Times Online and now joins Asia Times Online with a weekly column. Sparrow is editor in chief of Asian Sex Gazette and has reported on sex in Asia for over five years. To contact him send question or comments to Letters@atimes.com.
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