Sunday, September 20, 2009

Hostesses and Sexuality in Japan

--Originally Posted at Harlot's Parlour--

In the past month there seems to have been a piquing of interest in Japan’s hostess clubs. Having worked as first a hostess and then a stripper in Tokyo between 1998 and 2007, I was curious to see what was being written.

First of all there was the NY Times article about Japanese women “turning” to hostessing in a recession for lack of other options. The article was picked up by many sites, including Gawker who supplied this headline: Downtrodden Japanese Women Turn to Almost-Whoring in Droves and then there was the serialization of (in the Daily Mail of course) and publication of this book: Tokyo Hostess: Inside the Shocking World of Tokyo Nightclub Hostessing by Claire Campbell.

Firstly, I find judgments on the Japanese and the Japanese sex industry and how ”weird” they are tiresome. Going beyond that however I’m not sure exactly what point the NY Times was trying to make with this piece. Hostessing is far from new and it has been a long time since it was quite so ostracized as the article wants to make out. To give an example; Lisa Louis in her 1992 book Butterflies of the Night, quotes one mama-san as saying “There is much less prejudice than there was twenty years ago. Nowadays it’s just another occupation”. However the NY Times did an OK job of showing that hostessing can bring wealth and respect to women, without making it sound like a desperate, dangerous, miserable situation (the approach Gawker preferred to take.)
They then followed up the article with commentary from “experts” – several Japanese scholars, were any of them hostesses? Of course not. Rather they gave us academics worrying that such a profession as hostessing is getting “glamorized” by the media. I am of the opinion that a job “which can easily pay $100,000 a year and as much as $300,000” does a pretty good job of ‘glamorizing’ itself. However sociology lecturer Aya Ezawa sees it as a societal issue, that there is something wrong with a society in which a woman can earn great money by entertaining men.*

“At a time of economic downturn, it is worrisome that the media in Japan and abroad portray hostessing as a glamorous job and a woman's road to success. Instead of focusing on the hostesses, it would make more sense to examine the attitudes of the men who are willing to pay a high price for being entertained, served, and pleased by women with short skirts and heavy makeup.”

Anthropology professor Nobue Suzuki seems to try to equate the hostess business with something that poorer women with fewer opportunities do, again hinting at ‘desperation’ in taking such a job.

“Prior to the current boom of hostessing, for the past 30 years or so numerous immigrant women and men from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the former Soviet bloc have also taken up this job.”

She fails to mention that for decades Japanese hostess clubs have been filled with Western European, American, Australian and New Zealander women. Less so in the past few years due to an increased focus on illegal immigration, but there are still many there.

The white Western woman in Tokyo is the theme of Campbell’s book. It takes as its focus the 2000 murder of an English woman working in Tokyo as a hostess (Lucie Blackman) and tries to draw conclusions about Japanese ‘perversion’ from it. Anyone who remembers the Blackman case may recall the prevalence of the articles and TV specials that came out around this time like the Australian 60 Minutes special “Predators in Tokyo” discussed here.

“Every year, hundreds and hundred’s of bright eyed young Australian girls head for the bright lights of Tokyo, every one of them is in grave danger.”
— 60 Minutes, 27 February 2005

And this article from Time discussing Blackman’s murderer Joji Obara:

“Susumu Oda, professor of psychiatry at Gakuin University… says Obara is a "peculiar symbol" of men of his generation, "because he was obsessed with Caucasian women." “
-Death of a Hostess, Time Magazine 7 May 2001

Opinion at the time seemed to be that Japan is an inherently dangerous destination for young white women because Japanese men are ‘obsessed’ with them, and sick and perverted of course too. Campbell seems to take this approach as a basis for her book. Here’s some of the blurb from the publishers:

“… she did not know that behind the lights and excitement of Tokyo's nightclub scene lies a terrible darkness. Many beautiful blonde Western girls have found themselves lured into performing sexual acts for money, seeing their job slowly change from nightclub hostess into that of high-class prostitute. …. Clare Campbell lifts the lid on the often horrifyingly sleazy world of Tokyo nightclubs.”

As I was starting to write this, I found Susanna Jones’ review of Campbell’s book in The Guardian Jones rightly notes that writing on the murder of a British teacher in Japan does not fit in to a book called ‘Tokyo Hostess’. Lindsay Ann Hawker was murdered in Ichikawa, far from Roppongi where most foreign hostesses work. Including her murder in this book and somehow attempting to connect it to Blackman’s, because they were both foreign women in Japan, is really perpetuating the racist clichĂ© of ‘Japanese man obsessed with gaijin.’ On Hawker’s death Campbell writes "Was it exquisitely Oriental or just plain barking mad?" Jones counters this by mentioning the murder of a woman in Brighton, UK “Was it exquisitely British or just ‘plain barking mad?’”

Both the NY Times and Clare Campbell are taking something very specific and trying to draw conclusions about an inherent Japanese-ness in them: the “subservient” role of the hostess means women are oppressed in Japan; the murder of white women means the Japanese have a perverse fascination with Western women.

I have to agree with Susanna Jones when she concludes her review by saying that instead of thinking of it as “a place of murderous sexual deviants… we should grow up about Japan, stop wondering whether or not we can comprehend it and just try to get to know it a bit better.”

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