If you want to get a handle on Japanese society, you can always waste your time going to the nearest tourist office and picking up a load of brochures on cormorant fishing, Zen mediation, and flower arranging. A more surefire way to achieve an understanding of Japan, however, is to look at common aspects of social behavior that are unlikely to feature in tourist brochures.

One of the most revealing is Japan’s phenomenon of love hotels, the subject of a book of photography by the Texas-based photographer Misty Keasler, whose work has also appeared in prestigious magazines like Harpers and Time.

Although ‘explaining the Japanese’ does not seem to have been the driving force behind Keasler’s photographs of Japanese love hotel interiors, there is undoubtedly a lot we can learn from the surroundings that the Japanese choose for their most intimate moments. The most obvious fact is that under the influence of passion, people’s good taste apparently deserts them. Where or when else would you take pleasure in fluorescent pictures of whales and a sofa made in the shape of a giant condom?

This and other examples of Las-Vegas style excess – like a lobby with a Santa mannequin playing piano or a hallway with actual trees – might have a kitschy appeal that Westerners can at least understand. But what are we to make of the Hello Kitty SM room? Although SM is as much a time-honored tradition in the West as anywhere else, conflating it with a lovable children’s character seems peculiarly odd.

Although Keasler is content to push the button with no comment on her choices (most of which are located in the Kansai area), the book also features a well-written introductory essay on love hotels by Natsuo Kirino, one of Japan’s top thriller writers, who is becoming increasingly well-known in the West through translations of novels like “Out.”

“I think the real reason behind the development of the love hotel system in Japan can be found in the ie, or traditional family system,” she writes, explaining that the demi-monde of adultery, prostitution, and guilt free sexual liaisons – bread and butter to the love hotel business – is the flip side of the country’s rigid family system, which sees unwed mothers account for a mere 0.2 percent of all births.

“A dual system develops, in which a person’s emotions are divided into two separate spheres, public and private,” Kirino explains. The public sphere means maintaining one’s ‘official position’ as a father, husband, mother, or wife, while the private sphere is “a secret space set aside solely for sex.”

The interesting point about love hotels is that they cater to this ‘private’ aspect in a very public way and give it clear and unambiguous forms. This means that anyone with a few thousand yen can, in effect, gain access to the nation’s sexual subconsciousness and capture it on film. The result is another PR disaster for Japan, as Keasler’s snaps reveal that sex in Japan is heavily reliant on titillating perversion.

“Did love hotels come about because the Japanese like sex so much?” Kirino asks rhetorically. “Not really. They lack the energy or physical stamina…when Japanese have sex they need a sense of unreality accompanying it. Rather than sex itself, Japanese love the sense of unreality accompanying it.”

Examples of the ‘unreality accompanying it’ include gynecological chairs, a bondage crucifix, a caged chamber with a potty training toy, a ‘Subway Room,’ equipped with everything you can expect to find on a train and ideal for acting out chikan fantasies, and a ‘School Room,’ complete with chalkboard, desks, uniform, and ….erm…manacles.

The picture that emerges is not a pretty one and suggests that male fantasy is the driving force. This is not surprising as it’s usually men who pick up the bill. But the result is that mainstream sexual activity in Japan, taking its cue from sex clubs and prostitution, is becoming something increasingly weird and unnatural.

The comedian Woody Allen once asked, “Is sex dirty?” before replying, “Only if it’s done right.” In Japan ‘doing it right’ involves the possibility of a woman being manacled on top of a Hello Kitty bedspread or being led into the ‘Alien Abduction Play Area.’

6th April, 2007
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