Sexnomics: Japan’s 100 Billion Dollar Sex Industry And The Pink Zone

UPDATED: Japan’s semi-legal sex industry exists on a mind-boggling scale, yet there are very few books or articles which even give a rudimentary idea of how big a role it plays in the national economy. Japan has laws which forbid prostitution but set no punishment for the prostitute or the customer. Selling uncensored pornography depicting sexual intercourse is a crime but paying for actual sexual intercourse at an established Soapland establishment is not. It’s not that the sex industry exists in a grey zone in Japan, it exists in a pink zone–it’s overwhelmingly legal except for when the authorities decided to make token crack-downs.

Takashi Kadokura (門倉貴史), the economist who rose to fame with his white-paper on Japan’s underground economy, has written the penultimate guide to Japan’s sex industry in his book SEXONOMIC: PROFITS IN THE GLOBALSEX ECONOMY・世界の「下半身」経済が儲かる理由 . It deftly lays out and explains how the varied sexual service industries in Japan (fashion health, image clubs, soap land)  work on an economic level and some alarming trends.

If you are an anthropologist, an economic researcher, or simply interested in the seedy side of the sun, than this book is a treasure trove of strange and useful information. For example, the “fashion health” (euphemism for sexual massage to include fellatio/hand-jobs/frottage) industry, which is perfectly legal in most places, brings in ¥678,000,000,000 a year (8 billion dollars).  That’s only a fraction of the sex industry. In addition to “fashion health” there are also “image clubs”, in which similar sexual services are provided but the women wear uniforms (maid, nurse, policewoman, office worker, pregnant mother etc) and the sex shop often has special facilities, like a subway car.  Think of mini-sexual theme parks and you have a good idea of what an image club is like.

According to the book, based on field studies and calculations, an established  fashion health/image club brings in roughly 3 million dollars a year in revenue, is visited by 32, 5000 customers, is open 12 hours a day, and the average waiting time for service is 20 minutes. There are 1,021 such shops in Japan. In recent years, S & M sex shops, have also seen a booming business. Dominatrixes (女王) are more well-paid than girls working as “the slaves” because it requires a certain level of dramatic skill and physical strength to be a dominatrix.

Japan's S & M clubs are also whipping up big business. The more social status a male customer has, the more likely he is to ask for M service.

The book also explores Japan’s teenage prostitution problem asserting that 1 in 10 Japanese men has a “lolita complex” (pedophiliac tendencies) and that 15% of the male population has viewed child pornography, while over 10% of the male population owns child pornography. The statistics were not pulled out of thin air but come from a Japanese government survey. In addition, the book notes that there are an estimated 170,000 junior high and high school girls engaged in prostitution each year in Japan, charging higher than the standard market rate (30,000 yen) or roughly 50,000 yen ($600) per customer. The teenage prostitution market is estimated to be as high as 54,700,000,000 yen per year (approx. 700 million dollars).

The book explains also the mechanisms which drives Japan’s human trafficking problem, although the failure to mention the growing problem of domestic trafficking does date the book.

If you want to know why love hotels prosper in Japan, how many there are, and the turnover (no pun intended) rate, this book will also tell you more than you want to know. While the book focusses on Japan, it does examine the sex industry in the US, China, Italy, Thailand and other countries which gives perspective on Japan’s situation.

The book is not all titillation and speculation. The final section “What can be done about the sex industry?” makes a good argument that Japan should abandon the grey zone laws it has now, where prostitution is illegal, but the client and the sex worker can’t be arrested–and legalize and regulate the industry. Many may disagree but he makes a good argument that clarifying the status of the sex industry would better protect the rights of sex workers, increase tax revenue, and also prevent the spread of sexual diseases amongst the general population, including the sex workers and their customers. Of course, his advocacy of realistic and extensive sex education should be a a no-brainer for a modern society, especially Japan which is not bound by ideas that sex should be limited to marriage.

If at times, slightly tongue-in-cheek, the book does convincingly convey the scale and problems of Japan’s sex industry and is worthy addition to the library of anyone studying the underside of Nippon. Recommended. (In Japanese only.)