I Was No Tourist: My Travels Through Tokyo's Sex Underworld

In Depth

After Tokyo’s bubble economy burst, the Roppongi district—once an upmarket quarter with exclusive nightlife—became known for its massage parlors and sex clubs, largely staffed by foreigners. It was here that I found myself, one steamy August night, sitting in a darkened strip joint while the police knocked on the door.

Roppongi’s unseemliness was tolerated for a while but by the early years of the 21 st century, with an Olympic bid on the horizon, Governor Ishihara had initiated a “Clean Up Tokyo” campaign aimed to make Roppongi respectable again by replacing the clubs with department stores, five-star hotels, luxury residences, and shiny new luxury store/hotel/residence. But as Roppongi was rising skyward, I was descending deeper into the area’s underworld.

I went traveling just about as soon as I was able to leave home. It began with a flight to Tokyo, where, aged 19, I spent three months working in a hostess club, then made a loop around the southern hemisphere before returning back to the U.K. for college. A few years later, armed with a degree but few prospects for making anything of myself, I returned to a place where I could at least make someone else of myself and earn a pretty good amount of money doing so: Roppongi.

I returned to Tokyo early 2005. As I had done seven years earlier during my first stint living there, I found work at a hostess club. Hostess clubs are on the outer fringes of the mizu shobai orwater trade,” a euphemism for Japan’s sex trades. All hostesses were required to do was to look pretty, top up drinks, light cigarettes and make conversation with customers. It was a basic service job dressed up in evening gowns and low lighting. I had enjoyed hostessing the first time around; it was good money and I had liked the artifice of it all, pretending to be a party girl. And it felt just far enough removed from the sex industry to feel safe. Two years after my first trip, however, there had been a murder. An Englishwoman named Lucie Blackman had disappeared while out with a customer beyond the confines of the club—a platonic date known as a dohan. The club charges a fee to the customer for taking the hostess outside and the hostess is required to form an artificial relationship with the customers. The relationship must be convincing enough so that these patrons are willing to pay extra for her company. Many of the clubs have a strict requirement that their employees go on at least one dohan per week; they fire those women who cannot meet the quota, so the pressure to accept a dohan, even from someone who might seem a bit creepy, is strong.

As the investigation into Lucie’s disappearance proceeded, it became clear the man accused of her death, Joji Obara, had been drugging and raping women on dohans for years. Police hadn’t taken complaints about him seriously, allegedly because they came from women working in the mizu shobai. “The mizu shobai woman,” writes Anne Allison in her book on hostess clubs, “is constructed as a female who transgresses her nature.” In an interview given to TIME magazine in 2001, one hostess club owner talked about the time he went to the police to report an assault on a staff member: “I am a club owner, and she was a hostess,” he said. “They looked down on that. They refused to open a case.”

Obara was eventually found guilty of the earlier manslaughter of an Australian hostess, in addition to dismembering and disposing of Lucie’s body (which was found seven months later). He was not, however, convicted of her actual murder. Stung by criticism that the police didn’t care about women working in the mizu shobai, Tokyo police showed their compassion with a new focus on busting on them. This nicely coincided with the Clean Up Tokyo campaign, with a particular focus on criminal foreigners.

Determined to stay in place, my fellow mizu shobai workers and I took precautions. We walked to and from work via backstreets, wearing nondescript clothes and our hair bundled under baseball caps. We stored our customers’ phone numbers under coded names because we had heard that the police were stopping women and going through their phones hoping to find evidence of illegal work. Although none of us actually knew anyone this had happened to, we became inured to the atmosphere of paranoia.

The story of Lucie’s murder hung heavy around Roppongi for years afterwards, always within easy reach of a customer—particularly the self-described “playboys” who’d been frequenting the clubs for years—who wanted to scare, or maybe impress, us with their familiarity with Lucie or the suspect. My Tokyo life seemed to orbit around the case. I worked in the same club as Lucie. I was there two years before her disappearance; later the club changed its name and I returned after four years. Barely two months later I was fired for not getting enough dohans, so I moved on to another club.

One beautiful spring afternoon when the cherry trees were in full bloom, I was in my room phoning customers and asking them to take me on a dohan, when another girl in my guesthouse told me she worked at a club where no-one cared if you went on dohans or not. It took a while for her to tell me this was actually a strip club, but by that point, I didn’t care. Tired of the dohan expectations and general bullshit, I finally quit hostessing altogether; I wanted to make more money without having to maintain pseudo-relationships with customers, so I started stripping. Coincidentally I found myself again in the same building as where I started, working in a strip club one floor above the club where Lucie had met the man who would eventually dismember her. But the new club was just my kind of place: totally relaxed, no delusions of sophistication like in the hostess clubs or in the “classy” strip clubs where you were expected to wear evening gowns and do your hair and nails. In other words, it was a dive.

Lucie’s story was never too far from my mind and, on that muggy August night when the police knocked on the door, I thought of her again. She had lied to her family about what she was doing in Tokyo, as had many of us. Whenever I felt scared in Roppongi—of the police, of the customer who later stalked me, even of earthquakes—I couldn’t help thinking what might be said about me if I had been exposed as a hostess or a stripper. The British press had gleefully sensationalized Lucie’s job and mined her private life for clues as to what could have led such a nice girl to such an unseemly job. There was a sense from the police, the press, and the (alleged) murderer that a certain kind of woman gets what’s coming to her.

“It would be so humiliating to die here,” said one of my coworkers, a Danish dancer, as the glasses slid off the tables in the aftershocks of a small earthquake. She laughed, but I didn’t think she was really joking.

The strip club’s door was always locked because almost all of us were working illegally and couldn’t risk undercover cops just walking in and busting us when we tried to sell them a dance. This called for an elaborate scheme by which to get customers into the club. A handful of women soliciting on behalf of the club (in Tokyo these individuals were known as “flyers”) were charged with approaching potential customers on the street and striking a deal that would entice them into our club. She would then escort the customer upstairs, while another phoned mama-san to tell her to unlock the door and, if it had been a dead evening so far, crank up the music and wake the girls dozing on the sofas.

The fact that our club was on the seventh floor of a building that also housed Seventh Heaven, a glitzy American-style strip club with gorgeous, model-like dancers and proper DJs, was a gift to the flyers. They could play up their non-native tongue and pretend they had heard a target ask for “seventh floor” rather than “Seventh Heaven.” By the time the sucker had paid cover for our divey little club with strippers that would never make the cut at Seventh Heaven, a handful of dated hip-hop CDs and a chrome pole so inexpertly assembled in the corner of the tiny room that it popped out of the ceiling one time when my friend did a pole trick, it was usually too late to argue about how we’d misled him.

The night that we faced the fact that we might leave in handcuffs otherwise had some potential: I had been working a customer, but mama-san hustled him out of the door with some story, then killed the music and turned off the lights. It was never said but always assumed: the police were here. I leaned back into the overstuffed velvet couch, turning my head to look out the window. On the street outside there were three white vans. Experience told me that if the police got past our locked door and found us, those were the vans that would take us away.

Serena, the Ethiopian dancer, was confident it wasn’t our turn to be raided. She had a theory that the police focused on one ethnicity at a time: raiding the Russian clubs on Thursday, for example, and the Chinese clubs on Friday. It was a theory that was neither convincing nor reassuring: our club was run by a Nigerian-Cameroonian couple, staffed by Ghanian flyers, a Mongolian waiter, and strippers from Russia, Sweden, Kenya, the Philippines, Cameroon, Israel, and the U.K, drawn from all over the world to try our luck in Tokyo. How would we know which night was our turn?

The police had knocked on our door and, receiving no response, moved on. Serena might have been right that we were not about to be raided but, still, there was no way that we could leave the building without coming face-to-face with the police. We were all a little unclear of our rights in such a situation but knew we would have some difficult explaining to do if an officer saw us on our way out the door. It was safer to stay hidden.

At 5 a.m., assured that the police were gone, mama unlocked the door for us to leave. Across the short hallway, the owner of the Filipina club was locking up and ready to go home.

“They were here,” he told us. “I told them that you were closed.” We all hugged him expressed gratitude for his show of solidarity in a hard business. Three months later his club was raided and all of the women working there were deported. He later committed suicide.

Soon, Tokyo started feeling different. As winter set in, my friends were leaving one by one: some were burned out and headed for a Thai spa to detox, others were unable to renew their three-month tourist visa one more time. Everywhere I looked in Roppongi, things were changing. I had survived thus far, but my life was out of step with the time and I doubted I could cling on much longer. I stuck it out until the one-year anniversary of my arrival, when my fourth three-month visa expired, then left for the promised calm of a Thai beach—just like so many mizu shobai workers before me, and the many who would follow.

Karen Gardiner is a freelance writer from Scotland currently residing in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @karendesuyo.

Image via AP.

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