New book on sex workers in Japan reveals their “healing” role in society

At a point when the sex industry in Japan is under economic and social pressure — demonized by politicians and the media for spreading the coronavirus, deserted by customers — comes a timely reminder of the “healing” and affective nature of sex work, and its curious status in society.

Recently reviewed in the Japan Times, Gabriele Koch’s book Healing Labor: Japanese Sex Work in the Gendered Economy (2020, Stanford University Press) argues that Japanese sex workers regard their work as necessary to the social and economic well-being of society.

The book is the result of nearly two years of ethnographic fieldwork among sex workers in Japan. “One surprise was how the sex industry is more or less accepted as socially necessary in Japan — and there is a long history to this,” the author told the Japan Times. “But despite this acceptance, sex workers still face a lot of stigma.”

Before he was prime minister, Shinzo Abe once told a TV audience that, “There are people in [the sex] industry who take pride in what they do, and the industry also includes ‘traditional’ Japanese occupations.”

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The industry in Japan comprises some 22,000 legal businesses — and of course, many illicit ones, too.

Street solicitation has been criminalized since the early 2000s, and so the industry has shifted to a delivery, escort-based model, in addition to “soapland” sex parlors and other mainstays established after the Prostitution Prevention Law in 1956. One of the currently most popular offerings is deribari herusu (which literally translates to “delivery health”), where a sex worker is dispatched via a website to a private home or hotel.

Perhaps the most striking — and controversial — part of the book is to learn that sex workers connect their jobs to feminine care and male healing (iyashi), which they believe reduce sex crimes and serve to benefit the economy. Based on a pragmatist view of men’s sexual needs and a work culture known to push workers to utter exhaustion, sexual release supposedly helps to replenish male productivity. “Now I’m ready to face anything again,” many customers are quoted as saying.

Koch’s book suggests that the female sex workers are forced into the industry by the lack of other attractive economic choices in a sexist society. In other words, sex work, and its ambivalent toleration by society, is a consequence of Japan’s culture and economy that frequently puts women at a disadvantage.

However, she also argues against an interpretation of the women as only victims, since her interviewees’ own take on their circumstances was more proactive. They are, in a way, making the most of the lucrative opportunities offered by the industry.

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