First-time visitors to Japan can be struck by cuteness overload: even in a city as cosmopolitan as Tokyo, adult women hold hands, giggle and wear bows in their hair. Many of the manifestations of “Kawaii”– or “cuteness” culture–are harmless: cartoon conventions, Hello Kitty “friendship festivals,” a preponderance of pink on products and billboards.
But the dark side to all this cuteness is not hard to infer: if adult women fashion themselves after young girls, the sexualization of actual underage girls can start to seem normal. Images of schoolgirls are used to advertise everything from cartoons and comic books to cafes and restaurants. In “Schoolgirls for Sale,” a new documentary from VICE News, reporter Simon Ostrovsky travels to Tokyo to investigate the sordid business of “Joshi kousei.”
“Joshi kosei,” or JK, translates as “high school girl” and describes an entertainment subculture whose stars are adolescent girls dressed in school uniforms. JK bands sing and dance to crowds of (mostly older) men, who can pay to meet the girls after the show. “JK dates” involve the pairing-off of an adolescent girl and an older man for anything from conversation and fortune-telling to massages and sexual favors. Tokyo’s Akihabara district is “ground zero for JK,” Ostrovsky reports; he and the VICE crew drop in on one establishment openly advertising dates with schoolgirls.
“It was probably one of the most awkward experiences for me,” Ostrovsky told Women in the World in a phone interview. “There’s this underage schoolgirl who you’re essentially paying money to spend time with.” Ostrovsky, at the insistence of the cafe’s proprietor, dons a pair of Hello Kitty slippers and is led into a private room, where he’s seated opposite a teenager in a schoolgirl uniform. They make small talk; she reads his fortune and serves him lemon tea. Though nothing sexual is insinuated, “It felt very weird, because of how artificial the entire exchange was,” Ostrovsky said. Half an hour of conversation there costs 3,000 yen, or about $30.
Not every male patron of the JK industry is looking for anything more than platonic company. “The implications aren’t just about child sex,” Ostrovsky said. “There are a lot of people who have fallen into the margins of Japanese society.” So-called “compensated dating” began to catch on in the 1990s, around the same time Japan’s economy began to stagnate. Yet as more people have found themselves unemployed or aged out of the labor market, “no social network has been put in place.”
And despite the benign intentions of some of the clientele, “the opportunities for this to turn into something nasty are manifold,” Jake Adelstein, a journalist covering Japan, explains in the documentary. At worst, JK culture is a front for underage prostitution. VICE meets one young woman who turned to the JK business to escape her unhappy home life; at 16, her mother was mentally ill, and her family didn’t get along. “I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere,” the woman tells VICE. “When I used to give out fliers in Akihabara, I could forget about my everyday life.” But before long, what had started off as an innocent form of escapism had taken a darker turn. “Things heated up quickly,” she recalled. “There were hidden options and weird things.” Without her understanding, her bosses negotiated “extras” with her clients: “options … such as touching my breasts, or getting the guy off.”
Japan’s shame-based culture helps keep the unsavory aspects of JK culture underground. Ostrovsky notes that there’s a major police station “literally a block away from the neighborhood where all this is going on. It’s happening under everybody’s nose.”
Though sex work is stigmatized all over the world, that stigma is especially acute in Japan. “The fear of letting down family or society dominates almost everything else,” Yumeno Nito, an advocate for JK girls, explains in the film. “They’d rather go into hiding and face hunger than seek help from family or friends.”
Foreigners might hesitate to condemn a culture they don’t understand, but Ostrovsky doesn’t see that as a valid excuse. “This isn’t a question of cultural relativism,” he said. “Japan has signed up to international agreements about protecting children, but they’re not living up to their own commitments.”
“These are real people who are going through real suffering.”