Japan's Pink Kink
A new book explores the epic weirdness of Japan's sex industry
By William Sparrow
The Japanese sex industry, often referred to as the "Pink Trade", looks
inexplicably kinky and oddly ritualized. But as strange as it seems, it is also
pervasive and very lucrative. A recently published book, Pink Box: Inside
Japan's Sex Clubs by photojournalist Joan Sinclair (Harry N. Abrams, 192 pages,
155 full-color photographs) offers a rare and unique look into a world that few
outsiders will ever glimpse.
December 8, 2006
Delving into a wide variety of sex venues, Sinclair's photo documentary reveals
aspects of kink that may be new even to seasoned observers. Still, in many ways
the book only reinforces the wacky and wild view of Pink Kink.
Trying to understand the Japanese love of kink can be hard to grasp for many
foreigners. Elaborate bondage rituals, a fascination for women in uniforms, the
passion for looking up the skirts of school girls or groping on public trains
is difficult for those outside of these fetish cultures to understand, much
less appreciate. But as one of Sinclair's interviewees, a male customer puts
it, "I think all men are universally perverted; it's just that in Japan we do
something about it."
Farrer has other insights that help the uninitiated understand why Japan's
passion for kink takes the form of uniformed schoolgirls, nurses, policewomen,
stewardesses, secretaries and just about any other get-up one might imagine.
They do quite a bit about it, it seems. The book showcases clubs that cater to
men with a fetish for fat girls, "host clubs" that entertain lonely women and
everything in between. The introduction by James Farrer cites economist Takashi
Kadokura who said, "The commercial sex services sector in Japan accounted for
2.37 trillion Yen, or about USD $20 billion." Which makes it Japan's second
largest industry second only to automobiles.
He calls the sex trade "Japan's most public secret" and notes that red light
districts are ubiquitous, located near almost every train station while
catalogues advertising sex services are available in every convenience store.
The root of the kink, Farrer writes, "May lie in the strict social norms
governing everyday life in Japan. Japanese social life has often been described
as having two layers, a surface (tatemae) of formal and rule-bound social
relations and a reality (honne) of real emotions, antipathies, and attachments.
"Japan remains a society in which people must speak in polite, formal language
to superiors and exercise social restraint in relationships with coworkers," he
says. "Uniforms, a common requirement in schools and companies, symbolize this
surface of polite deference. The world of fuzoku (the sex industry) is in many
ways an eroticized take on this dichotomy of social fiction and underlying
reality, in which beneath the veneer of social roles and uniforms lurks a world
of rampant sexual desires."
Japan's sex industry offers men the relief they yearn for from this formal
world. In her photos and commentary Sinclair gives the reader a look into an
industry full of women dolled up as schoolgirls, stewardesses and office
workers-all standard fare for Japanese kink. She photographed themed bars that
cater to very particular fetishes, such as one that capitalizes on the train
groping epidemic by having a replica train car in its bar staffed with willing
girls in short skirts, along with bars that offer bondage; or "happening bars"
where people can go for group sex.
There is even a helpful "Pink" glossary explaining terms like "manaita", a sex
show that likens the lucky customer to a knife-wielding chef and the woman to a
fish on a cutting board. Offensive? Certainly. But the range of perversions is
undeniably fascinating. There are also degrees of sex on offer. Many hostesses
stay in the clubs and simply entertain wealthy clients with conversation and
little else. Those who are available for additional services are "makura"
companions, "pillow" girls who will go to bed with customers.
Sinclair's photos are clear, sharp and technically impressive - not what one
would expect from an amateur photographer. For several years Sinclair worked in
Japan as an English teacher before returning to the US to become a lawyer and
settle down with her husband. When he mentioned starting a family, she decided
that there was one thing left for her to do in Japan.
While teaching English, Sinclair was introduced to fuzoku, the sex industry, by
friends who later, at her request, gave her a first-hand look when she returned
for her photo documentary effort. In the process she had to overcome suspicion,
xenophobia and gender discrimination to accomplish the task.
Her photos are reminiscent of Orientalia: Sex in Asia by Regan Louie, a
seasoned photojournalist and student of kink who is cited in Sinclair's
acknowledgements. He apparently assisted the novice in her work, and to
In Orientalia, Louie took readers all over Asia for a tasteful look at sex in
many ports; but Sinclair focused solely on Japan. Her contacts, Japanese
experience and work with Louie proved fruitful for Pink Box.
Though Pink Box shows a world that most will never see, the text and pictures
largely ignore some underlying controversies facing the pink industry,
including the fact that Japan has been teetering on and off of the United
States State Department's list of nations that support human trafficking.
Indeed, the often forced employment of Central Asians, Colombians, Russians,
Thais, Filipinas, and Chinese, is not exactly a fuzoku secret.
In fact, international pressure last year led Tokyo to reduce the number of
visas to Filipina "entertainers", a thin euphemism for prostitution. In Manila
and Bangkok, for example, it is an open secret that Yakuza recruiters from sex
clubs troll the go-go bars looking for fresh talent. In the Philippines, the
term "Japayuki" has been coined for girls who "entertain" in Japan.
On this point, Sinclair's glossy images come up a bit short. Where are the
trafficked Filipinas, Colombians and Russians? There is only one picture with
foreign women swimming half nude in a huge aquarium, catering, one presumes, to
a mermaid fetish.
Sinclair explains her take on the industry in her Photographer's Note, allying
herself with those who see sex work as a viable choice for women and even a
means of empowerment. The argument is not unlike that heard from some college
students in the US who see lap dancing as an easy way to finance their
education. Sinclair says she hopes "that viewers not assume that this
profession is inherently degrading. It is more complicated than that. These
women are not powerless, they are not on drugs. They have made conscience
choices; they have there own dignity."
Indeed she may be correct that many Japanese sex workers willingly choose the
profession. But the presence of so many foreign women working in Japanese bars
may raise too many complex questions; perhaps that is why Sinclair focused
primarily on Japanese workers.
This is the central focus of the book anyway Japanese sex clubs in Japanese
culture and society. For a glimpse into the powerful economic and psycho-sexual
relationship between the fuzoku workers and their clients, it delivers a rare
and unique insight.
Copyright 2006 Asian Sex Gazette and