There are many subtle and obvious differences between Japanese society and that of Western countries. In making observations about the former, it must be born in mind that the Japanese land mass, of which over 80% is mountainous, is small and houses a population of around 126 million. These features have had profound formative effects on life in Japan, and the way society works.
Visitors to Japan soon notice that despite large numbers of people in most urban areas, movement is orderly. People are used to queuing and waiting, whether as pedestrians or motorists, and do so patiently. Pushing and shoving, or breaking into queues is rare, and the word for excuse me, sumimasen, is used without hesitation by anyone who might accidentally bump another in a crowded area.
Compensated dating – enjo kosai
In Japan pressure to follow a fashion style, or to acquire the brand items most favoured, is intense among young teenage to twenties females, creating a continuing need for cash. Although the part-time jobs commonly held by these young women aren’t difficult to come by, they’re low paid. A significant proportion of these women find it easy to set aside moral scruples and accept money or goods in return for providing their company, which might or might not include sex. Rarely would the teenagers be physically attracted to any of the men paying for their company.
The term enjo kosai first appeared in 1994, to describe the use by schoolgirls of their nubile charms to pay for their increasingly acquisitive habits. The practice has become the cause of some consternation, but as it’s the very types of middle-aged males seeking and gladly paying for the female company who are also the pillars of the male-dominated society, and usually the only ones with the responsibility for and power to bring about change in it, little has been done to minimise or reduce the practice.
Neither is it just a skin-deep or passing issue, because the Lolita syndrome is very prevalent in Japan, forcefully portrayed in the sexually explicit comic books avidly read by a sizeable proportion of the adult male population. Many of the female cartoon characters are depicted attired in school uniform, the preferred outfit for girls on the lookout to be picked up, even if they are past school age.
Any young woman, whether dressed in a school uniform or not, hanging about in one of Tokyo’s entertainment districts stands a good chance of being approached by a man, with a request to accompany him to a karaoke bar to sing together, or to go to a teashop for refreshments. About half the men will offer to buy the girl a present.
Studies have shown this inclination of middle-aged men to approach teenage girls and ask them for a date grew rapidly in the early 1990s, at about the same time the number of magazine stories about high school girls, especially those projecting them as objects for sale, dramatically increased. This time coincided with the opening of many new stores selling schoolgirls’ uniforms and used underwear.
Enjo kosai is considered a reflection of two powerful trends in Japan: the portrayal of young women as playthings for the enjoyment of males in a male-run society, and the emphasis on money and goods in a corporate dominated society. Whilst a concern is that when these girls grow up and marry they’ll resort to the same behaviour to get extra money, a countering view is that it’s a form of empowerment and emancipation of young females, who are simply providing a service in response to a demand.
It would be erroneous to label enjo kosai as simply a form of child prostitution, as although sex is part of the deal in some liaisons, in the majority of cases it isn’t, the primary exchange being company for cash. Commonly it might take the form of a group of schoolgirls, or young women so attired, sharing a karaoke session with a group of men, and receiving payment for their time. Or a single girl meeting an older man for a coffee and cake in a coffee shop. A number of films, TV shows and anime series have used enjo kosai as their main theme, in most cases moralising against the practice.
Yakuza and bozozoku
Perhaps the best known sub-group in Japan is the yakuza, Japanese mafia. This group had its beginnings in the tumultuous period of the 1850s, when the Shogun was supplanted by the Emperor as national leader, and many of the retainers employed by the Shogun, and the next level, Daimyo, lost their jobs, turning to professional crime for their living.
Originally gambling was the main source of income for yakuza, with some involvement in prostitution. However, hard times after World War II, when most people were short of money, forced them to branch out, initially into the black market, then further afield, into prostitution, extortion, money-lending, the manufacturing of illegal drugs such as amphetamines, and smuggling, including of guns and women for Japan’s sex business.
Nowadays, notwithstanding legislative action by the government criminalising some usual yakuza activities, being a member of a yakuza gang is still a career path chosen by some, probably disaffected, younger people, and those with family histories in these areas. The government has been tardy in taking action to eradicate yakuza activity, or at least reduce it, the obvious reason claimed by many to be that members of parliament have long been the beneficiary of large cash donations by yakuza affiliated businesses, especially in the construction industry.
It’s also claimed the high profile right-wing extremist groups, whose noise and influence far outweigh their size and level of popularity, have yakuza links, so laws impacting on yakuza activities are likely to be frowned on by these groups, which have the ability to make life very difficult for individual politicians they decide to target for special attention. At times in the more recent past, police have been known to draw on connections with yakuza gang members for the purposes of crowd control and other socially useful purposes.
Yakuza members are not shy about being openly known as such, instantly recognisable from the garish clothes they usually wear, the cars they drive, body tattoos and the occasionally still observed lack of the tip of a little finger. It has long been yakuza practice, graphically portrayed in the Michael Douglas movie Black Rain, that this appendage be cut off as punishment for any transgression of club rules, or even as a form of initiation. Once completed of course, the person is marked for life, although some former members, seeking to go on the straight and narrow, have been aided by surgery in which the tip of a small toe is removed and sewn onto the little finger.
One grouping within yakuza gangs that has come under more intense scrutiny and pressure by government and police is sokaiya, people who purchase small shareholdings in companies so as to gain the right to attend annual meetings. They then either disrupt the meetings, asking embarrassing questions and being generally noisy, or threaten to do so beforehand, unless they receive a payment to keep them quiet. Large numbers of companies, including household names, have for many years willingly handed over substantial cash payments, in return for a question-free presence by sokaiya, who as part of their service would then physically prevent any other people from asking questions.
It might be hard to believe that such a role at the top of major Japanese corporations could still be played by criminals in an era of transparency and global business operations, but some of the accounting and reporting practices, and responsibility to shareholders, considered normal business practice in the West have always been absent in Japan. With internationally accepted practices finally entering the business sector, increased representation of overseas businesses at board level, and more prevalent and effective government-supported police action to prevent and prosecute perpetrators, sokaiya are being forced to reduce their activities or stop all together.
To try and keep corporate activity legitimate, the Tokyo Stock Exchange requires any company seeking a public listing to prove they have no yakuza connections. Another method has been for large numbers of public companies to hold their annual meeting on the same day, a practice slightly decreasing as the influence of sokaiya wanes. But some continue to operate, including publishing the magazines they use to extort money from companies, and using threats of physical violence to intimidate the more accessible company executives.
Members of yakuza gangs are among the few private citizens in Japan who possess guns, most of which are smuggled into the country from Russia or parts of Asia. The carrying of a weapon is uncommon in Japan, although a minor trend emerged in the latter 1990s for male teenagers to carry knives, with occasional stabbings resulting. Killings by gun are usually isolated to feuds, perhaps over territory, between yakuza gangs.
The name of all yakuza gangs has the suffix gumi, such as the country’s best known gang the Yamaguchi-gumi, attached to it. The meaning of this word includes group, club, society or association, and correctly indicates that not all activities of yakuza gangs are of a criminal nature. They can be places of employment for people who might have difficulty in finding a job in a normal business enterprise, such as people of Korean ancestry, members of burakumin families, and people who cannot fit into a legitimate business structure. The gangs are also known to give financial assistance to those in need, such as widows and the elderly.
An accepted recruitment area for the yakuza is the bozozoku motor bike riders, whose illegal riding styles and other activities are in part intended to attract the attention of yakuza recruiters. It is in such groups that young teenagers can find the solace of membership that they need, having been unable to fit into any acceptable groups for their age.
As the bike-riding activities of these gangs are mostly nocturnal, members need to rest in the daytime, foregoing school and a usual working life. Illegal pursuits then become the only way they can make an income.
It can be scary, but fascinating, to see bozozoku in action, always riding two to a bike (a mini group within a group) and unhelmeted. It seems incredible that in a society of such strict conformism, some individuals can act so blatantly in contravention of the law, ignoring traffic signals, riding stolen bikes, intimidating motorists, playing hide and seek with the police, and at times endangering lives. True to the group ethos, whilst their actions and appearance – style and colour of clothes and hair – put these motorcycle group members well outside the mainstream of society, they are still instantly recognisable members of their own groups, doing nothing as individuals, always as at least pairs. They shouldn’t usually be crossed either, as through the use of mobile phones their numbers can soon swell when the need for support arises.
Use of this word first appeared among a group of cartoonists in the 1970s, followed by more widespread relatively negative airing the next decade in references to people who were heavily into anime and manga. The closest English description would be nerd or geek. The term has since widened, to describe people who have an obsessive interest in anything, such as computers, video games, trains, cars, cameras, pop stars or groups, and costumes. Yet it remains primarily associated with people whose lives revolve around reading, viewing, collecting and character-playing anime and manga. It now has less of a derogatory connotation.
The main thing that defines otaku is their unrelenting pursuit of information about their subject of interest, to become a walking, breathing encyclopedia about it, to the exclusion of information about virtually everything else except what is required for daily life.
While railway depots might be popular places for tetsudō (railway) otaku, military displays are a draw card for gunji (military) otaku, pop concerts the logical place to catch sight of wota otaku (extreme fans of pop stars), and Akihabara is the best-known meeting place for the main kind of otaku, the collectors of manga and anime. Shops here cater to their every specific whim and compulsion, whether it be something to read, look at, play with or wear. A common sight is young women dressed up as maids or anime characters, who work as waitresses at maid cafes, or take visitors on guided tours around the area.