East of Eden

Orgies, whippings and some tender moments at "happening bar" in Japan. Noy Thrupkaew takes a look into this sexy, sordid and sometimes surreal world these establishments offer and ponders the escape this alternative reality offers to its patrons.

By Noy Thrupkaew
August 3, 2005

Language is lost in strange patches, forgotten while ordering coffee, remembered in a conversation about literature. For me, I'm rusty when I speak Japanese, but can still make out the messages behind the language's elaborate politesse. The trick? Ignore the distractingly flowery frame, and focus on the empty space of what's unsaid. The results often sound like Miss Manners run backwards.

For example, over the last piece of pizza:

"Oh, I couldn't possibly." (I'm still hungry, bitch.)

"Please eat without restraint." (You hog, I'm gonna out-polite you!)

When someone kindly corrects my Japanese, a common occurrence when I lived in Tokyo nine years ago, I know they mean: You are pretty good, but will never master our superior language. When someone says my Japanese is good, a common occurrence now: Wow, you are hideous, but don't lose hope!

So when I step off the train in Japan and find myself face-to-face with my former roommate, the skill comes in handy.

"Oh!" he says. "You've really grown up." (Into a porker!)

I haven't seen N-chan, as I'll call him here, since I was twenty-two. We lived in a gaijin ghetto, an apartment owned by a landlord who operated outside of Japan's foreigner-phobic rental system. Two bedrooms, two "Happening bars" are like swingers clubs where kinky Japanese have orgies, or gawk. 

Couples comprising three foreigners and one Japanese guy, a.k.a. N-chan, is my friend Miriam's boyfriend. We lived together in Japan's grey zone. As Americans outside of the social order, we were novel, intriguing, like a bunch of carnies you wanted to look at but not necessarily have as neighbors. And as for N-chan, he was a bona fide member of Japan's underworld.

N-chan worked a staggering array of jobs in the gambling and sex industry. He had killer stories, and I sat, wide-eyed, through many of them at our kitchen table. We got on well, but had waged a recurring battle over the toilet seat, which N-chan insisted on dressing in a fuzzy terrycloth cover. United in our disgust, the gaijin would sabotage him, throw it away. He'd buy another. It was a brutal war of attrition.

Now, we walk down the train platform, him carrying the bag he's wrested out of my hand.

"I threw away my toilet seat cover today." (I'm glad to see you.)

"Oh, I'm such a bother. You didn't have to do that . . . " (Me, too.)

Living with N-chan in 1997 allowed me to catch a glimpse of Japan's underground. This time, he's my full-on guide, having added to his long list of fascinatingly illegal jobs. He now works as the manager of a "happening bar" - a sort of swingers club, where kinky Japanese gather to couple-swap, have orgies, spank each other, or just gawk, like me.

N-chan is a little nervous about his babysitting assignment. "Happabars can be a bit . . . weird," he says. "Aren't you sort of . . . " He puts on the Madonna. "Like a virgin?"

"I'm working on a story!" I insist. "It's fine!"

Back drop of the main bar
Happening bars started appearing in Japan in the late '90s. They're another addition to the sexual smorgasbord provided by the country's entertainment districts, which teem with hostess bars, strip joints, massage parlors, love hotels, and every kind of club catering to every erotic whim. The realm of the mizu shobai, or "water trade," first became institutionalized in the Edo era of the 1600s, when the wary shogunate decided to centralize the capital's bawdy houses, seeking to control the spread of brothels, and their use as gathering-places for anti-government elements.

This segregated world has only gained strength as a "tacitly tolerated theatre of indulgence," a vital counterbalance to the country's notoriously stressful school and work systems, according to Nicholas Bornoff, author of Pink Samurai: Love, Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan. The economic boom in the '80s aided the growth of the floating world by fostering a nation of consummate consumers, hyper-aware of trends and demanding of unique services - sexual and otherwise.

When they first appeared on the scene, happening bars just seemed like another super-specialized space: they originally served as watering holes for swingers. But they've expanded their clientele since then, including a surprising number of women, who seem to appreciate the strict rules and extreme secrecy.

The clubs just broke into mainstream consciousness last year, when pro-wrestler/porn star Chocoball Mukai was arrested after putting on a sex performance at a club in Tokyo. He had announced the event on his website in a public breach of the polite, boundary-respecting restraint with which the underworld is supposed to operate. A flagrant foul - the police had to respond.

N-chan and I climb the subway steps into Fukuoka's sizzling neon-lit entertainment zone, a strip of bars and hostess clubs that cater to drunken, red-faced salarymen. Just past a 7-Eleven, we hang a right and take an elevator up to the club's entrance. N-chan whisks us past the security cameras and the double door. The club is one of five scattered through some of the major cities in Japan - part of the largest and most successful franchise in the happening-bar genre. The bar business is just one of his boss's many ventures, the most profitable of which is a website where customers can download porn, free of the irritating mosaics Japanese law imposes over the naughty bits. There's a bit of business cross-pollination - sometimes a porn director calls N-chan, who then rustles up customers willing to appear in a shoot at the bar. But most of the time, the bar is just a bar, where things might or might not happen.

A night here is a potentially expensive gamble, at least for a single man. The club operates on a carefully calibrated pricing system to balance the need for profitability with the need to prevent an ick-inducing sausage party. All men have to pay a one-time membership fee of 15,000 yen (around $150), and then another fee (10,000 yen) each time they show up alone. Single women pay 1,000 yen; male-female couples pay 5,000 yen.

The front hallway is festooned with costumes that customers can borrow free of charge: sailor suits, a leopard-bunny ensemble, raunchy merry widows, a slutty lamb outfit, nurse-, policewoman-, flight-attendant garb. The locker room boasts a cellphone disrupting signal ("keeps police from phoning in to HQ," he says), an immaculate bathroom ("The bathroom is the face of any establishment."). A lit display of panties, vibrators, lube for sale.

The main bar
The long, blue-lit bar opens out to the couples-only floor, which solitary men cannot enter. Red-vinyl couches hug the walls; the shelves under the black coffee tables hold neatly folded towels, condoms, boxes of Kleenex. Off the couples' floor is the SM room - which holds sofas, chains, handcuffs and a cargo net - and a "playroom" lined

with red wrestling mats. The club also has a VIP room, stocked with rococo, oversized furniture and paintings of cupids. It's Vegas gone Viagra. The rest of the bar is done up in Eyes Wide Shut black paint and Mardi Gras masks, with plenty of one-way mirrors and windows so patrons can get their peep on. The overall effect is luxe kitsch. And very clean.

I look through the flipbook of photos that N-chan uses to entice prospective members. A guy in a rumply Don Johnson leisure suit is holding up a V-sign with his fingers, grinning, getting a blowjob. In another pic, a gang of women are gloating over their trussed-up male victim, who's got electrodes attached to his balls.

I admire the tiny, charming nipples on another guest, like pink rosettes on a cake. I turn the page. Someone is shocking the woman's cute nipples.

N-chan wants to ease me in slowly, so he's brought me to the bar before opening time. I return later to a club that's completely transformed. Patrons loll at the bar, playing with a strap-on. The guests range in age, although there seems to be a dearth of younger men - the membership and entrance fees are probably too expensive for them. Couples coo on the sofas. I let my eyes adjust to the dim light, and see N-chan, now in a sharp suit, trotting towards me.

"I called one of our customers to come meet you. He gets naked really fast. Foom!"

"Oh! Ah... Thank you."

He nods, gets me a tea. Then he settles me into a corner next to a lissome young woman twined around a sweet-faced, balding man. They're quite eager to chat - a friendliness helped along by the alcohol the bar provides free of charge.

K-san tells me she's twenty-eight, which I find rather hard to believe, so complete is her adherence to the kawaii aesthetic, Japan's cult of cute. She stands in front of me, knock-kneed, peeping in a childish treble on very adult topics.

"This place is really for the enjoyment of women," she says. "It feels empowering, to make one's interior fantasies real."

The fetish room off the main bar
M-san, as he is known at the bar, agrees. "We feel really indebted to N-chan. He made a safe place where we can explore everything we can't talk about in the outside world - sex, SM, fetishism. It's a relief. Without that, we'd be scattered everywhere, trying to satisfy ourselves alone. And perhaps it's a bit dangerous to do so..."

M-san is between jobs at the moment. He was a truck driver before. Ever since coming to the club, he's discovered the joy of women's feet. Although fellow guests call him M-san, for "masochist," he confesses he doesn't really like pain - it's more of a role-playing quid pro quo arrangement.

"I like the role of the M, you can be sort of selfish," he explains. "I can get a light whipping to entertain others, and then I can ask the mistress to use her feet on me. It's a good way to play."

"Yes," squeaked K-san. "Don't you want to play with us? You're so pretty." M-san concurs and coyly runs his hands over my hips.

"Maybe you can come help me pick out a costume," K-san says, dragging me into the hallway. After I nod approvingly over her favorite, a maid outfit, she ducks into the bathroom and re-emerges - Hello Kitty kink. She plops fuzzy bunny ears on my head, and we return to the bar. M-san is nowhere in sight.

"That's weird," I start to say, but then I see M-san slinking down the hall, nothing on but a towel. Foom!

"This is a little... awkward... " he says. "I'm so bad - don't I deserve a spanking?" He wags his pert ass at me.

I decide to call upon the work-play divide that is so sacrosanct in Japan.

"Oh no," I demur. "I'm terribly sorry that I can't, as your bottom is very charming and also naughty. But I'm working."

M-san lays his towel down on the floor. K-san tickles his junk with her feet, which are clad in little lacy schoolgirl socks. She sits on him. Our little tableau has attracted the attention of some of the bar patrons, including a stout auntie who helps K-san tie up M-san's hands. K-san sets to, working M-san with lube and some finger vibrators. She's a bit rough; M-san is wincing a bit. The older woman begins offering a handjob tutorial, and another middle-aged man - a fellow journalist who's a member of the club - offers pointers as well.

"I don't really know much," confesses K-san. "But they teach me! It is like school, or a family - they're like my mom and dad."

My head is reeling at the school/family/sex mixed metaphor, and at the twist our conversation is starting to take. The patrons are musing over what makes this space Japanese. They embark on something like a Communist self-criticism session: We are bad at communication, we live in a such an insular, hierarchical country, a sick one that puts women down, forces us to come here to relieve stress and find our strength...

I mull it over, my eyes on M-san's erection. "But wait - do you talk about it this way when I'm not here? Or is it just because I'm a foreigner that you are talking about the bar as 'Japanese' or 'not Japanese'?"

They puzzle over it for a while. They don't know. I don't know. There is a handjob to finish. They roll a condom on M-san - to make clean-up easier, explains the journalist.

Suddenly N-chan is waving me over with some excitement.

"Noy-chan, they're here! The Supercouple."

The Supercouple turns out to be an SM pair with incredible staying power. They are N-chan's secret weapon - every time they come, the action really kicks up. Patrons start pouring in. It's like magic.

The club's VIP room
I peer into the SM room and see a tall man chaining up his naked, diminutive girlfriend - they both have the dyed-brown hair that's so popular in Japan these days.

He fires up a vibrator. When I check back a little later, a husky stranger is fucking her slowly and thoughtfully while her boyfriend massages her with the toy. Third time, a skinny guy is pounding away while she looks beseechingly at her partner, who's still working her with the vibrator. I'm in awe at her stamina, but also a little unsure whether she's enjoying herself or not.

While I've been checking out the Supercouple, the M-san scene has broken up. I sit at the bar with another tea. M-san returns, freshly showered, and begins donning his shoes.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," he says. "Is it rude in your culture for me to put my shoes on in front of you?"

N-chan leans over the bar. "Didn't you just have your penis waving around for everyone to see? It's a bit late to be worried about your feet, isn't it?"

We chuckle, then head off to dinner. It's 6 a.m.

Day two. I'm tucked into the same corner, nursing another oolong tea. Not many people here yet, so I'm scratching out little thoughts about something N-chan said yesterday.

"I just provide a space," he said. "An empty space, but full of invisible variables - the conversations and relationships within it, which we try to facilitate."

I chew this over. I don't really understand this space, despite the patient explanations, all my careful observations. Lost in translation? The fools in that movie had no idea.

It doesn't help that I've always had trouble understanding the extent to which space can shape behavior here - the quick-change nature of persona, as determined or facilitated by externals, setting, clothing. A "costume culture," Japan expert Donald Richie has called it. A Japanese colleague will be straight-laced in a formal setting, but once accessorized with a beer can in a bar, will unleash a bawdy id, becoming maudlin, horny, bawling out a love song, droolingly confessional. And then the next morning, sans beer can, at work, just as smoothly polite as before.

The bar clearly operates on the same principle. "We don't play with each other outside the bar - this place lies outside the rest of our lives," M-san said to me the night before. When I asked a question about including spouses in their fantasy play, my query was met with all-around horror. "No, we'd never come here with our wives," the journalist said. "The home is a world separate from fantasy like this, and the family is itself often a source of stress anyway. The family has nothing to do with fun."

A pressure release valve, a subterranean world, a pomo realm of costumes and power play - that's how a secretary in her forties explains it to me.

"It helps me relieve stress, you know," she says, "to hit a man I don't know." She grins. "You should try it."

While we're chatting, the bar slowly starts to fill. M-san shows up at my elbow, smiling sweetly. Then a crowd of fancy-looking businessmen, some glossy girls in tow. The Supercouple, I note with excitement. Saturday night, 11 p.m. - a good time for happenings to unfurl.

The secretary pulls me into the VIP room. M-san needs a whupping, she says. Soon enough, a gaggle of the suits and their molls are clustered on the couches. M-san gets naked - foom! - and then crouches on his hands and knees, making a fine show of his tempting ass. She raises the whip. Crack! I cringe. M-san reassures me that it doesn't hurt too badly and anyway, he deserves it. She takes thoughtful pauses between smacks - she's got the concentration and finesse of a pro golfer. Some of the businessmen start teasing the women, urging us to try it. The secretary coaches the one volunteer - raise your elbow, straighten your wrist. The volunteer is strikingly tall, clad in all-white, with a waterbird's stalky elegance. She's got a butterfly mask on. Smack!

After M-san's ass has been sufficiently reddened, he gets his treat. The secretary uses his penis as a foot massager, rolling the soles of her bare feet over the towel she's placed on his dick. Ms. Butterfly Mask goes in for a try. She's sporting sharp stilettos, which excite M-san to no end. Except, whoops, she mashes him in a tender spot.

"Ah! Kintama!" he says. "I mean, golden balls," he says to me in English.

In the VIP room, one of the businessmen has suited up for action, donning a high-school girl outfit. He's also decided that I need a special show - he's gotten wind that one of the patrons has a very large penis. Mr. Big is summoned in. He's got an innocent baby face, incongruous on his over-six-foot frame. After being entreated to show his thing, he agreeably assents. "I would be honored," he says, "but really I am not so special at all." He drops trou. M-san and the businessman decide to display theirs as well and the three stand in a line before us. Penis pageant.

"Well," asks the businessman. "What do you think?"

"Ah," I say, furrowing my brow in concentration. "I'm not really an expert... but they are all quite lovely." Nice lengths, straight, not gnarly. Mr. Big is indeed big. Like a baby's arm clenched in a fist. I feel a blush rising. Time for more tea. I escape to the bar.

I can't interpret with full clarity the words the patrons are using to talk about their encounters, the encounters themselves. How is this Japanese? How is it not? I can't even pretend to play hack anthropologist. I've spent two days looking at bodies in pain and in pleasure. When they've moved beyond language, I find it even more difficult to decipher the contorted expressions, the sex cries more befitting of helium balloons than humans. N-chan tries to explain.

"We think it's very sexy, the women's high-pitched voices. As if they are shy, slightly embarrassed of voicing their pleasure, but it just leaks out anyway..."

"Hm... it sounds so... weird to me... like they're in pain."

"Well, foreigners are always yelling 'Oh my God' and junk. What's God have to do with it?" He's laughing. "This is not a threesome, you know!"

N-chan and his staff had been unimpressed with my take on the happening bar the night before. It's sort of an inversion of Freud, I said hesitantly. The surface is all sex, but there is an incredible amount of emotional content underneath. The need for camaraderie, transformation, freedom. Some loneliness. Toying with the power they feel deprived of, or burdened with.

"Ah, sooo..." they said. "Interesting..." (Girl. Foreigner. Dummy.)

N-chan tried to set me straight later. "They're horny. They want to have sex. It's mostly about that, you know. They come here to forget all that stuff you're talking about."

But with my stubborn insistence on narrative continuity, I keep seeing all those elements that are supposedly outside the scope of this space. Many quite positive things: a warm, genuine companionship that seems all the more precious for their perceptions of social isolation. The delight in sharing sexual knowledge, the kindness and openness with which many of them seem to treat each other, and me.

But I also sense darker things. This is supposedly the realm where the unsaid can be spoken - where the silent parentheses become full-voiced utterance. But the realm of the mizu shobai is "a strange world," writer Shoji Suei told Pink Samurai author Bornoff. "Lying out on the fringe, it looks freer from the outside, but in fact it is just as tightly bound by both the same social conventions and different ones of its own."

I think of how women in the bar, seeking power and freedom, grew irritated when men told them how to wield the whip. How M-san doesn't really like pain but puts up with it to get what he wants. Is the role-playing a way to exorcise demons, or a way just to rub the trauma some more, to keep replicating all the things they want to escape from? "Open the door for another world, the key is yourself," is the bar's slogan. This separate world - is it attainable if you can't really leave yourself behind?

That goes for me as well, clearly. I brood over my tea, exhausted. Nearly everyone has left, including M-san, who has come over to shyly say goodbye. I slink off to the VIP room. Ponder. Fall asleep, and find myself dreaming of lawnmowers, of verdant bushes being weedwacked, of twatty topiary buzzing with life.

Sudden silence. I wake up with a start. The Supercouple has finally finished.

N-chan and I head home, where we'll talk for hours, dictionaries in our laps, desperate to close the gap of years and language. We patch together meaning - a tender, three-legged little dance, heartbreak and sadness and tremulous hope rendered in fragments, half-English, half-Japanese, funny drawings, kanji scratched on a page. We sleep, get up, straggle out into the night again, eat, talk, talk, talk, as much as we can, time is running out. Finally, soon, too soon, it is time for me to leave again.

"Thank you so much, N-chan. I'll be back soon." (I mean that.)

"Anytime." (Me, too.)

Noy Thrupkaew writes frequently on international affairs and culture as a freelance journalist and senior correspondent for The American Prospect. A former Pew fellow in International Journalism, she has lived in Thailand, reported from Cuba, Iran, Cambodia, and Morocco, and worked as a discussion panelist for Japan's largest English-language radio station. She has written for the Guardian (U.K.), Ms., The Nation, Kyoto Journal, and was an Online Journalism Award finalist for cultural commentary in 2003.

2005 Noy Thrupkaew and Nerve.com, posted with permission

2005 Asian Sex Gazette.
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