In a previous article here on Otaku Lounge discussing gyaru street fashion and subculture, I made brief mention of something called ‘enjo kosai’ – translating roughly to ‘assistance relationship’, but probably better understood by the term ‘compensated dating’. Today I’d like to expand on this by taking a brief look not only at the background behind the term, but also how it’s been viewed by Japanese media and the general public.
The simplest explanation of enjo kosai probably makes it sound about as literal as the above term suggests: participants – usually high school and junior high school girls – are paid for their time and companionship given to older, often reasonably wealthy men. Sometimes this payment is simply in the form of money, although for the gyaru who supposedly began the trend, gifts of expensive brand-name items are also fairly common. Contrary to the image of scantily-clad schoolgirls standing about on street corners or approaching possible targets themselves in the hopes of luring in a benefactor however, arrangements are usually made through phone or email clubs, where girls list their cellphone numbers or otherwise register online via webpages specifically geared towards enjo kosai.
However, what actually constitutes enjo kosai is still a matter of opinion. While a common perception of the practice essentially paints it as a form of child prostitution, in which girls sell sexual favours in exchange for money or designer goods, others insist that the exchange of a girl’s company, and nothing more, make up the vast majority of cases. Anthropologist Laura Miller, for example, argues in a journal article (‘Those Naughty Teenage Girls: Japanese Kogals, Slang, and Media Assessments’, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14) that most enjo kosai ‘dates’ consist simply of groups of girls accompanying groups of older men to karaoke bars for several hours and then being compensated for their time, with physical intimacy having no part in the exchange.
Regardless of this kind of debate, enjo kosai is largely perceived as being an extension of Japan’s long-growing focus on materialism, especially among groups of teenage and young adult women. In particular, the practice of enjo kosai still seems to conjure images of the classic 90s kogal look as previously described here – shortened school skirts paired with baggy white socks held up with sock glue, artificially tanned skin, and bleached hair paired with a thick layer of pale makeup… though needless to say, this style has evolved somewhat since then. The criticism remains basically the same, however; critics condemn gyaru, particularly those engaging in enjo kosai, as shallow and obsessed with conspicuous consumption – women who support their lifestyle by leeching from either their parents or their skeevy patrons. Conversely, admirers portray them as active, exuberant, and ‘the women of today.’
Some worry that girls involved in enjo kosai will grow up to be unfit wives and mothers, stemming from fears that, as adults, they will be quick to abandon their familial commitments in exchange for material benefits – in other words, the antithesis of the ‘Good Wife, Wise Mother’ as coined by Japanese educator and Confucian scholar Nakamura Masanao in 1875. This much-espoused ideology places a large emphasis on women mastering domestic skills such as cooking and sewing, and fulfilling their patriotic duty by bearing children. Although this rather patriarchal philosophy began to significantly weaken following the Second World War, some historians argue that it was still very much visible up until the 1980s and still plays a part in the Japanese consciousness today. Certainly Japan cannot be said to be a nation that prizes gender equality or emancipation – small wonder then that many are quick to denounce the seemingly very selfish and improper behavior surrounding enjo kosai.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, select feminist groups and individuals such as sociologist Ueno Chizuko view this as a practice of empowerment, since girls participating in enjo kosai are seen as rejecting traditional Japanese virtues of female modesty and restraint. Enjo kosai therefore becomes an act which, according to Miller, undermines the “patriarchal models propriety used to evaluate and control women” by asserting control over their bodies and the means by which they support themselves.
Unsurprisingly largely frowned upon by the Japanese public, a television poll carried out in the late 90s, when enjo kosai reached peak social saturation, said that 70% of respondents opposed the practice of enjo kosai. Sensationalist media attention on the subject at the time meant that many perceived it as a widespread phenomenon and large-scale social issue. To combat the problem, some prefectures instituted a program in which plain-clothes police officers and volunteers approached young women who appeared to be participating in ‘juvenile delinquent behaviour’ (staying out past 11pm, underage smoking or drinking, etc.) in order to offer guidance against such actions. Under extreme circumstances, police could take teenagers to a police station or specific centre for ‘formal guidance’ and enter them into a confidential police directory. The official objective of this program was not to ostracise, but rather to give assistance and attempt to steer girls away from what was seen as a dangerous and immoral activity. Ironically, other surveys carried out during the late 1990s concluded that fewer than 10% of all high school girls engaged in enjo kosai, while over 90% of interviewees attested to feeling uncomfortable with the exchange of any kind of sexual services for money or gifts.
This is of course not to say that those women who engage in enjo kosai are in a danger-free environment, and it’s worth noting that many of the men engaging in enjo kosai cannot be charged with statutory rape if any kind of sexual act does take place. The laws in Japan against both rape and engaging in sexual activities with a minor result in severe punishment for those found guilty, but the national age of consent in Japan is 13 (although it should also be pointed out that individual prefectures can and do have ordinances prohibiting sexual activities with anyone under the age of 18). There also exists a strong sentiment that sexual abuse is a shameful experience for the victim, and in turn for the victim’s family, which is likely to cause an under-reportage of incidences of rape. Sexual abuse lawyers within Japan might enjoy an extremely high conviction rate, but this is only assuming that victims speak out in the first place. The result is that some women become “double victims … firstly of sexual abuse and secondly of silence … She might have entered enjokosai with qualms, but to be raped and report it would double the shame.” (Jennifer Liddy, ‘Enjo kosai: “Compensated Dating”’).
Given the level of public awareness of enjo kosai, it should be no surprise to stumble upon depictions of the practice in fictional media as well. Common scenarios presented in films and on TV shows portray girls who are either truly desperate for money or else simply confused teenagers, attempting to find their place in the world by acting older and more street-wise than they really are – foolishly engaging in enjo kosai but eventually shown the error of their ways by a concerned friend or teacher. Anno Hideaki’s film Love & Pop and the televised drama version of Great Teacher Onizuka are two live-action examples of this, but there are also several manga and anime titles that feature enjo kosai as a plotline, particularly when attempting to come across as socially relevant. In most of these instances, characters dealing with financial or emotional problems or with peer pressure are seen as sympathetic, while those who are seen as actually enjoying the situation are viewed as immoral or irredeemable.
For example, Natsuki, the girlfriend of main character Takumi in the Initial D anime, engages in enjo kosai in the beginning of the series (although the English dub alters this plot so that Natsuki is spending time with her divorced father) – but by the third season, Natsuki has decided to get a job at a fast-food restaurant after Takumi saves her from being raped by the son of her former enjo kosai partner. In the gyaru-centric Super Gals! anime, top student Aya is involved with enjo kosai as a means of escape from her high-pressure academic life until main protagonist Ran helps her to see her own self-worth.
Enjo kosai has also been depicted in a more humorous light by titles like Ranma ½ and Mai-HiME. The former series features Nabiki, a money-hungry character who often accepts dates from classmates but then swindles them, blackmailing them with their own love letters when they threaten to inform others of her habit. In one episode Nabiki meets a girl just as manipulating as herself, and they agree to a challenge where the first of the pair to spend money on a date is the loser. The final showdown sees the two girls constantly foisting bills upon the other while skipping out on paying for themselves. The latter series shows a junior high school student named Nao who is suspected of engaging in enjo kosai when it is revealed that she arranges dates over the internet under the name Juliet. It is later revealed that instead of going through with these ‘dates’, she uses them as a way of mugging her would-be suitors, who for obvious reasons are unable to report the crime.
Aside from the odd article or mention in foreign media though, enjo kosai now seems to have become far less of a concern as far as public discourse is concerned. Whether or not the practice has truly been in decline over recent years, or whether the immediacy and newness of the phenomenon has simply worn off as people have become more tech-savvy, is up for debate. However, it may well be that Japan faces a new onslaught of social scrutiny and criticism as the country gains more attention in general during the build-up to major events such as the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Summer Olympics. VICE News, for example, recently released a short documentary titled Schoolgirls for Sale in Japan, which investigated the ‘joshi-kosei osanpo’ (‘high school girl walking’) dates and teenage prostitution. At this point, only time will tell whether these kinds of reports are mainly isolated news stories, or else part of a renewed wave of media interest.
Question of the post: What are your feelings on enjo kosai, and would they change depending on the ages of the participants and what the ‘dates’ consisted of?