in a culture based on non-human contact, why are so many eager to pay for affection?
Out of Japan’s celibacy syndrome has sprung an exciting, neon-lit array of Love Hotels, Cat Cafés and Circus Bars, but what do these two opposing cultures say about the Japanese longing for affection? Artist Scottee investigates…
All good transactions in Japan come in the shape of a vending machine; hot green tea in a can, the used knickers of a "genuine school girl", children's anime figurines in gaccha gaccha machines (small towering vendors at child's height that eat 100 yen coins in return for a plastic egg filled with a mystery prize) and touch screen menus outside restaurants to place your order. Using outdated technology to eradicate human contact and the potential embarrassment that might come with a real life interaction is the preferred method of consumerism, so why, in a culture that's made a conscious decision to rid small talk, are so many eager to pay for affection?
Like most Westerners I'm drawn to what I believe are the more perverse normalities of Japanese culture; wearing gloves to bed to keep your hands youthful, complete silence on public transport and Love Hotels - short stay "love bedrooms" where lovers love. Essentially these are rent by the hour, themed rooms for having it off in. Attempting to get to the bottom of this very Japanese phenomenon I arrive with loaded expectations, I'm looking for seediness, dirty old blokes in rain macs and underground prostitution. I quickly realise this is my very English baggage about sex commerce and none of the aforementioned are to be found.
After working out how to get into the hotel via a complicated maze of privacy shields designed for one to leave and enter the building discreetly (the irony was not lost on me), my friends and I are stood in the foyer staring at a wall of flashing lights. A voice over asks us to "make selection, please". We opt for the "European Romance", I begin to wonder what European Romance might look like and if the transaction was culturally appropriative. The lift opens and a light above it flashes to indicate we should step in. Cue lift music; a cover version of Mariah Carey's seminal Heartbreaker sung in Japanese-English (Jinglish - yes it's a thing) and an abrupt stop. Arrows flash and point us into the direction of our room. Inside the pink satin boudoir are even more vending machines. Sex toys can be rented at 400 yen, additional condoms can be bought should the ten provided run out and food can be ordered directly to your room - obviously we opt for Dominos. 20 minutes later a small hatch opens in our room, we see the torso of a maid, she hands the food through the hatch and we tuck into a surprising Japanese favourite - potato smiley faces (who knew?), we talk about how awful it all tastes.
I ask Sumi, our guide, why Love Hotels are so popular; "We still don't talk about sex openly and you don't really take your boyfriend or girlfriend home unless you are getting married. We rarely talk about sex with parents and most of the younger generation still live with their parents - I've been to one [a Love Hotel] when I was a teenager for this reason. I lied to my parents and stayed out with my boyfriend." In the UK we like to think of ourselves as beyond such spaces but the impetus for using Love Hotels is similar to why young men across the western world pay for sex - the desire to desire or be desired. On the surface, Love Hotels might seem perverse but perhaps the Japanese have a healthier, more honest relationship with getting their leg over.
The need for affection comes in many forms; the most recent trend that has exploded across the country allows you allotted petting time with cats. Cat cafes are upmarket establishments with bare light bulbs and overpriced coffee, affording you time to make feline friends without the complexities of human friendships. Customers stroke and play until its time to carry on with real life. The trend kicked off in Tokyo's Akiharbara district, a place where young people buy niche anime, drool over tech and hang out with the 48 members of Japan's biggest girl band AKB48. The latest "geek-town" activity is
Co-Sleeping Specialty Shop (the name alone is worth the trip on the JR). Owner, Masashi Koda, spotted a gap in the affection market and decided to open the world's first cuddling room, "Yes, it is just cuddling," Koda tells me. £20 to lay next to a girl for 10 minutes, an extra £10 could have you stroke her hair, additional services like ear cleaning, "staring longingly" and kawaii costume choices are also on the menu. One cuddler tells me, "Most people are single and young, this is a surprise for me". She goes on to reveal, "I don't want the hassle of husband". I think the "hassle" she refers to is more complex than just a preference for single life. Pay disparity in Japan is the highest of any other developed nation at 66%, and the pressures of married life and the expectation from families to have children is suffocating - perhaps this is what has turned Japanese women onto non-committed encounters?
Even the simple art of socialising has been franchised with the well established host bar scene - whether you like your suitor to be clad in "Frank Perry" suits in mock British pubs or prefer the company of fat women eating rice balls whilst stomping around in piggy costumes - host bars offer its punters a diverse companionship. Men and women pay hosts for their company, some even them buy overpriced jewelry and development ownership over "their host". In return the hosts offer conversation and the occasional compliment. After spending the evening fulfilling the contract their client desires, the hosts themselves go on to spend all of their earnings in other host bars, creating a circle of loneliness.
At 9pm one Tuesday evening, I'm lost in a maze of back streets in downtown Osaka, but our guide eventually finds us and takes us to yet another ominous elevator. We've asked to see some cabaret, and as we enter the Universe Show Bar we realise our interests have been lost in translation. Show bars are drinking dens for the older businessmen to swig bottles of Scottish whiskey whilst watching circus shows, it just so happens the performers are all semi-nude. An amazing aerialist called Bambi, tells me, "I think they are popular with Japanese businessmen because they are easy-going open places for sexualised entertainment.I like my job - it's more about entertainment than being desperate for sex, like a call girl". Cuddling here is far less innocent than in Akiharabara - games of rock, paper, scissors are played with the audience - if we win we're encouraged to touch the performers breasts, this sounds seedy but the reality is quite juvenile in a 1970s sort of way.As a westerner it's easy to want to defend those offering themselves to others for financial gain - in our own culture the sex trade is affiliated with human trafficking, severe drug addition and abuse - but in experiencing these quirky routes to human contact I found no visible or even hinted exploitation. I'm not saying it doesn't exist in Japan but the craze for closeness is far less seedy or even sexual than you might expect.
So what is the downside to a society focused on non-human contact? The quickest population decline in the world! More people are over 50 there than are under 15, they're not getting married or having babies, and cyber boyfriends are more preferential than real life ones. Who knows what this means for the future of Japan, but in an already over populated country and the world at bursting point is this a bad thing? And what is to blame for this very Japanese attitude towards affection? Is it a feminist movement kicking back at patriarchy, a movement that's giving young women more control? Is it the work ethic of a nation that is driven by financial success? Or is it just shyness? After all, the transaction of love is less revealing than the actuality.
Personally, I think the Japanese are just more honest about how we consume affection in the 21st Century - we want it on our terms, when we want it, just the way we like it. So before you write this off as an issue of those kooky Japanese folk, ask yourself what it is you're looking for the next time you swipe left on Tinder.