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Madame's Yen


Japanese men and women have a symbiotic relationship. The men are expected to make the money, the women to spend it. Thus has it always been and ever will be. Marriage is the most salient form this relationship takes, but there is only so much shopping the average Japanese housewife can do, even after she gives up her job upon entering the happy state of matrimony. So, inevitably, other women enter the picture.

From the most refined and ridiculously expensive geishas to the absurdly cheap hanabira girls taking turns to schloop rod in a darkened basement, they're all there, queuing up to take the money and relieve the stress of Japan’s industrious ‘salaryman’ army.

But now there's a new kid on the block, the good old fashioned mistress, who has recently been enjoying something of a revival thanks to a heady mix of a booming economy, growing social inequality, and Japan's low-profile and quietly insistent Puritanism, much of which, ironically, is driven by Japan’s underemployed wives.

Since the 80s bubble crashed in the early 90s, Japan’s business model of jobs for life and paying upper management slightly more than the janitor has been replaced by the vast inequalities of wealth that are typical in the West. The natural outlet for this excess of stress-generated wealth would be a vast increase in the number of soaplands, hostess bars, massage parlours, Columbian streetwalkers, and the other polymorphous forms prostitution has taken in Japan. Indeed, this is exactly what happened in the 1980s. But times have changed. Smouldering resentment against the yakuza and the influx of Thais, Filipinos, and Chinese sucked into the country by the sex industry, has combined with Nimbyism Far East style to cut off the natural expansion in the paid nookie supply.

Tokyo’s equivalent of the Reeperbahn, Kabukicho, a vast swathe of love hotels and mizu-shobai (water trade) establishments between Shinjuku's Yasukuni Avenue and Okubo has been undergoing something of a revolution. Ten years ago a stroll here would have introduced you to the exotic denizens of a dozen lands, convincing ladyboys from Thailand, South American hookers on bicycles, and even the occasional pumped up hippie Swedish backpacker chick in hot pants and pigtails. But, now, at the quiet insistence of the housewives who have always inhabited what was once a normal neighbourhood, the streets have been swept clear of streetwalkers, especially the foreign variety, and the creeping campaign of normalization has started its journey up the myriad staircases that lead to the sex clubs and brothels, slowly suffocating them in red tape and health and safety regulations. Although still vast by UK standards, Tokyo’s red light districts are under siege.

According to Shohichi Tanaka, a former editor of the nightlife magazine City Press, the crackdown has driven a large number of working girls to get on their bikes in a completely different sense.

"Many of the girls have migrated to Yoshiwara (a district in eastern Tokyo)," he explained. "However, that area has become saturated with women and many can't find work in the parlours."

This has led many of the better-looking ones, driven by their insatiable hunger for brand name designer goods or their tabs at the local host club, to freelance and seek patrons to support them on a regular basis, in other words, to effectively become mistresses. The women usually get their rent paid, receive an income of around 150,000 to 200,000 yen a month (£620 – £825), and get special presents. By making their own freelance arrangements they operate with almost no overheads and pay no commission. They also have plenty of free time while their sugar daddies are hard at work trying to earn the income to keep two or possibly more households going.

While economic restructuring has created vast wealth for some, it has also created job insecurity and low pay for others, usually working women who are only expected to stay in the job market until they get married, and as a consequence are seldom taken seriously by employers. While it would be quite a leap for the average low-paid office lady, supermarket stacker, or student to become a fully-fledged prostitute, becoming a mistress is a much smaller step. Spa!, one of Japan’s leading muck-raking tabloid magazines, recently interviewed Miho Nagakura, a mistress who met her patron, a 37-year-old cell-phone executive, when she was a 25-year-old graduate student.

"I could purchase as much designer-label stuff as I wanted, and twice a year we'd go on overseas trips," she recalled. "The most expensive thing he bought for me was a BMW, which I drove here today. That cost 6 million yen!"

Now Miho's patron has abandoned her for a younger woman, and she has been forced to re-enter the respectable job market, pulling in a paltry 180,000 yen a month (£742).

"I guess I won't be able to find another guy now as financially well off as him," she lamented. "The tough part is that I've grown accustomed to luxury, and so I'm praying that I don't sink into a level of poverty."

Kana Hikawa, a 26-year old, found her client by registering with an online matchmaking service.

"On the day after I registered, I was introduced to two guys and I picked the one most likely to have multiple mistresses," she recalled. "That way, he'd probably have more money, and I could also get away with meeting him less but still getting paid. I used every technique I'd ever learned with every other guy I'd slept with, put all my effort into the session and really tried to sell myself. I refused to be passive, jumping on top and spending at least 10 minutes performing fellatio."

The patron, a 45-year-old tax accountant was impressed enough to sign a contract giving her 100,000 yen in cash (£412) every time she agreed to meet him.

Although the growing number of mistresses in Japan may seem like a new trend, it is actually the revival of the ancient institution of concubinage, with the difference that the mistress doesn't live under the same roof as the wife. Concubinage can still be found throughout many Asian lands, where it is related to overpopulation and poverty. Impoverished fathers with large families are often happy to sell their daughters to rich men who will look after them. Japanese women’s obsession with brand names and consumerism, however, has created a new kind of ‘affluent poverty’ that has helped revive the phenomenon here.

Although Japan adopted monogamy when it modernized in the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), the practice of concubinage continued to be socially acceptable and has never become entirely unacceptable. After all, a wife has a lot less to fear from a concubine or a mistress than from her husband having a full-blown love affair.

The great tragedy of Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly, set in 19th-century Japan, is that Pinkerton, the American navy officer, adopts the local custom of concubinage, while his mistress Cio-Cio-san embraces the imported Anglo-Saxon institution of monogamous marriage. When she finds out that she is not a wife but merely the mistress, she resorts to that other Japanese custom, hara-kiri.



The Erotic Review
October 2007



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