‘Host Clubs’ in Tokyo Force Women Into Sex Work to Pay Off Huge Debts
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‘Host Clubs’ in Tokyo Force Women Into Sex Work to Pay Off Huge Debts

Yuko’s 24-year-old daughter thought she had found the ideal partner when she matched with a man on a dating app three years ago. They were around the same age and both at university, where he was studying medicine.

The “match”, though, was the beginning of a nightmare that saw the young woman rack up debts of millions of yen at host clubs – money that she is paying back by dropping out of university and working in Japan’s commercial sex industry.

The handsome young medical student was, in fact, a host at a club in Kabukichō, a Tokyo neighbourhood known for its bars and restaurants, giant Godzilla statue and LGBTQ+ district, but also for its seedy underbelly.

“He pretended he was working as a host to save money to pursue his dreams, and my daughter fell for him,” said Yuko, who spoke to the Observer on condition that her and her daughter’s real names not be published.

The young woman is not alone. The post-pandemic rise of “malicious” host clubs, as Japan’s media has dubbed them, has triggered debates in parliament and calls for a crackdown on the multibillion-yen host club industry.

Modelled on the hostess bars that came before them, host clubs offer women a place to drink expensive champagne and chat and flirt with young men hired for their looks and conversational ability. Sex is not on the menu, but it is not unusual for hosts and their customers to meet privately.

Hidemori Gen, who runs a drop-in centre in Kabukichō, has seen a dramatic rise in women who have been forced into sex work to pay their host club tabs. He has had 300 consultations in the last five months alone, mostly from parents who are too embarrassed to talk to friends and family, and know the police won’t act because no crime has been committed.

“We are talking about intelligent women with promising futures who become entrapped,” said Gen, 67, the founder of Nippon Kakekomidera [Japan refuge temple], a nonprofit that has been helping troubled youths in the neighbourhood since 2012. “Host clubs operate like cults. It’s a vicious business model that is no different from human trafficking. Host clubs are not selling champagne – they’re selling women’s bodies.”

As the pandemic wrought havoc on Tokyo’s nighttime economy – with bars and restaurants periodically facing fines for refusing to close hours earlier than usual – social media and texting apps quickly became the preferred mode of contact between ambitious young hosts and prospective clients.

With pandemic restrictions now a distant memory and clubs eager to claw back lost earnings, hosts have become even more aggressive in their pursuit of female customers.

Kabukichō has always had its unsavoury side, but the human costs of indebtedness and sexual exploitation are becoming more visible. On a recent evening, about a dozen women braved the cold and drizzle while they waited near Okubo Park in the neighbourhood for prospective clients, undeterred by the occasional passing police car.

Police in Tokyo say the proliferation of women soliciting on the street – once a rarity in Japan’s otherwise legal sex industry – is linked to the rise of ripoff host clubs. Between January and September, they arrested 80 women, aged between 20 and 46, near the park on suspicion of breaking anti-prostitution laws, compared with 51 arrests in the whole of 2022.

About 70% of the suspects were in their 20s, many unemployed or working in the fūzoku sector – establishments that offer everything from massages to oral sex. About 40% of the women said they were making money to visit host clubs or “concept cafes”.

Host clubs employ tried and tested tactics to lure women through their doors – and keep them coming back. An hour with unlimited alcohol on the first visit can cost as little as ¥2-3,000 (£11-16). The visit is followed by lighthearted, complimentary text messages from the hosts, who encourage the women to visit again. Sexual relationships are common, as are empty promises of marriage from the host.

“The typical pattern is for the cost of an evening to rise 10 times on each occasion,” said Gen. “By their third visit, women who have been tricked into believing the host is romantically interested in them are charged ¥300,000, and on it goes. The club takes photos of their ID as a way of pressuring them into honouring their debts.”

Few can afford to pay on the spot and they are encouraged to run up enormous tabs that the clubs attempt to justify by pointing to the luxurious surroundings and the high price of drinks such as Dom Pérignon Brut Rosé, which can cost several hundred thousand yen a bottle.

Industry insiders say the vast majority of the 6,000 hosts working at Kabukichō’s 300 clubs do not exploit their female clientele. Instead, they insist the women choose to pay large sums for high-end drinks and quality time with their favourite hosts in an environment reminiscent of a romantic manga [comic book].

“We’re happy if we take ¥1m on a weekday,” said Narumi, a host who has spent the early evening picking up litter in Kabukichō with other volunteers.

“That can rise to ¥3m to ¥5m at weekends, when people celebrate birthdays or other special occasions,” he said, claiming that the tabs only become a problem for a small number of customers. “We are talking about, say, 200 women among about 20,000 who regularly visit host clubs.”

But the negative headlines are having an impact. “The reputation of host clubs is really bad at the moment,” Narumi said. “The vast majority of customers have nothing to do with the debt problem, but they’re more reluctant to come because of all the media coverage.”

As pressure built on the authorities to act, representatives of several host club groups this month told local officials they would stop allowing customers to run up large tabs by April and ensure that they were aged at least 20, two years above the age of adulthood in Japan.

Takayuki Makita, head of the largest host group, apologised on behalf of the industry for the “inappropriate state of affairs” according to the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. “We won’t conduct business in a way that ruins people’s lives,” he said.

But victims’ families are sceptical. “The clubs make so much money from this system they have no reason to change their ways,” said Yuko, whose daughter works at “soaplands” – expensive bathhouses where women provide soapy massages and sexual services – in Tokyo and other parts of the country, sometimes spending weeks away from home.

And she is still with the host to whom she owes money. “It’s not even a relationship,” said Yuko. “It’s a form of abuse. My daughter will never be able to repay her debts. I wonder if she will ever come home. But it’s not just her. So many women have been deceived.”

Source : The Guardian