In the Tokyo district of Shinjuku 2-chome there are bars that specialize in “Urisen”, young guys who have sex with men. Featuring candid interviews and interspersed with animation detailing the awkward, sweet, and sometimes horrific situations these young sex workers experience, the boys for sale boldly tell their stories of life in the Tokyo underground. This documentary is an illuminating look into a rarely seen world that tantalizingly shows the humanity of sex work.
Urisen means rentboy or male prostitute (the Japanese uri translates to “sell”). The documentary Boys for Sale (売買ボーイズ) has only been shown for the second time in Japan. Even gay festivals here have failed to demonstrate an interest in screening the movie, though one of the producers (Ian Thomas Ash), who also attended the second screening event, hosted by Sophia University, explained that they had tried to get it screened multiple times. As I have been reading various books tackling prostitution in Japan from a historical perspective, I was interested to see what insights Boys for Sale would offer in terms of modern sex trade.
Prostitution – no surprise here – has existed in Japan for a long time. Unlike the West, the culture that developed in the so-called ‘pleasure quarters’ (licensed brothel districts during the Edo period; the most famous one being Yoshiwara) became quite influential during Edo, for example, ordinary women looked to Yoshiwara dress code as fashion inspiration. Plenty of ukiyoe-prints depict this ‘floating world’, proof of the fascination this place held for artists. Shunga (春画), basically Edo-Porn prints, was popular too. One of Japan’s most important writers, Ihara Saikaku (井原 西鶴), wrote novels which dealt with the world of the sex trade and its demimonde. Namely Life of An Amorous Man [好色一代男]. Saikaku’s novel, sometimes actually quite base and pornographic in tone, uses a clever mix of references and alludes to a lot of Japanese classics, thus elevating its subject. Saikaku also wrote a collection of stories that deal with love between men (The Great Mirror of Male Love (男色大鏡)). Indeed, unlike in the West, homosexuality was dealt with in popular discourse as well and without the moral stigmatisation that it was so closely linked to by western religious institutions.
The historical roots of Japan’s relationship with homosexuality can still be found in today’s modern sex trade. While shudō, ‘the way of the youth’, described a practice between a younger and older man following strict rules and etiquette. In shudō a younger and an older male would enter a sexual relationship in which the older man would always be the penetrator (exceptions were possible but only under particular circumstances). These days the rules are not as strict, of course, but the fascination for young men still appears prevalent. Men can purchase sex in Tokyo’s gay quarter, Shinjuku 2-chome, without problems. Japan currently has a prostitution law that prohibits coitus whilst other sexual practices such as oral and anal sex have remained legal. Therefore the urisen bars that are shown on screen are not illegal.
Boys for Sale focuses on the experiences of these so-called urisen. It interviews a bunch of boys that are selling their company and their body to other men (though females can purchase their service as well). Gay sex is considered inappropriate in Japan, therefore these bars solve a problem for homosexual as well as bisexual customers that come from all walks of life. Thus, the urisen is also “selling a dream” to their customers. The bar that is portrayed in the documentary advertises the boys being up to 26 years old. Just like in historical Japan, the boys that are younger are generally more desirable, and if you look young then your age certainly doesn’t matter. So, the age of the interviewees ranges from 19 to 30, because what counts is your physical appearance. Not all urisen are gay, in fact, most of the boys in the movie consider themselves to be bisexual or straight (nonke), and some even have girlfriends.
The stories of the urisen are very similar; most men have acquired debt and, in at least one case, have lost everything after the disaster in Fukushima. Having no girlfriends at the time and interested in what job would pay a lot of money, their internet searches led them to apply to urisen bars. Often, when the boys turn up to a job interview the practicalities of the jobs are concealed from them (you just need to drink with customers or in some bars women are also hanging out in the bar, so the applicant thinks his customers will be female) thus they are deliberately deceived.
The bars seem to operate very similar to hostess bars. The customer can choose from a ‘menu’ of boys from which he wants to drink with. For every half an hour, the customer is billed. If the customer wants to have more, he is able to take the boy to a private room or a love hotel and purchase further services.
The payment, unsurprisingly, is not necessarily great. Some of the urisen live just above the poverty line. Often the urisen live together, cramped in small apartments. Trash is piled up high on the floor and in the bathroom, with mold taking over. Though the boys have zero privacy, many of them emphasise that this shared experience of working in this type of job brings them closer together, and forms some sort of camaraderie between them. One even described it as a form of “school trip”.
Certainly, most disturbing for me was how little knowledge the boys had about the potential danger of unprotected sex and contracting sexually transmitted diseases. It is sickening to see when the manager of one of this establishments claims that his boys get training, just to see in the next shot all of the urisen say the complete opposite. The youngest urisen is in fact startled when he hears that men can contract STDs as well: “Oh, men can get those too?”
According to Ian Thomas Ash, Japan is also the only developed country in which the contraction rate of HIV is growing. No wonder, because sex education does not happen in schools. Given that the movie has also been shown here only twice, it indicates that certain types of sex (or homosexuality for that matter) are certainly seen as taboo, at least in public discourse. AKTA, a NGO, distributes free condoms and pamphlets in these bars, helping to raise awareness of this issue, but the customers’ wishes still trump safe sex in the end.
Another interesting point was raised in the discussion after the screening, as Ian Thomas Ash also attended the event. Some of the boys said that they had been raped by customers and one audience member wanted to know how likely it is that the urisen would report these crimes. Ash pointed out that while the English subtitles use the word ‘rape’ when the boys narrate their experience, the protagonists themselves don’t use it. Therefore, Ash questioned that the boys did perceive themselves as being victims of rape. As a translated word ‘rape’ does exist in Japanese, but according to my Japanese friend who attended the event with me, the boys used yarareru, which is the passive form of yaru, meaning ‘to have sex with someone’.
The movie itself doesn’t contain any explicit scenes but instead uses manga to illustrate some of the boy’s experiences. This was a very effective method, as it never came across as being there for the titillation of the audience. One scene showed, for example, one of the urisen receiving a blowjob from a customer, while he says that he finds it difficult to get an erection when he has sex with another man. Instead, he imagines getting a blowjob by a woman. Here the manga really works well to illustrate the difference between phantasy and reality for the urisen.
Overall, I thought this was a very interesting documentary that treated its protagonists with a lot of respect and provided much food for thought. It never overdramatises or is exploiting its protagonists by focusing solemnly on their sensational stories. Partly, I think this is due to the fact that the documentary does not probe too much to extract emotional responses of the urisen. Personally, I am curious if Japan will regulate these businesses in the near future in an attempt to ‘clean-up’ Tokyo ready for the 2020 Olympics, and to show a pristine image to its international audience (Side note: When the anti-prostitution law was passed in Japan in the 1950s, it was argued that if Japan wanted to redeem itself on the stage of international affairs, it would also need to regulate sex work. When Shinjuku 2-chome was cleaned up after the anti-prostitution law was passed, the sex industry catering to the gay community moved into the area.) Without a doubt there is the need for more sex education and ensuring the urisen‘s safety, physically as well as mentally.
Deleted Scenes of Boys for Sale (more deleted material has been uploaded to YouTube)