Prostitution may be (technically) illegal in Japan – it has been since the 1950s – but the sex industry itself is very much alive and kicking. Want to be chatted to by beautiful women or pretty boys over some pricey drinks? The hostess and host clubs have you covered. Feel like being bathed by an attractive lady who uses her naked body to apply the soap? No problem, that’s what soaplands are for. Got a highly specific itch you want to scratch? Get your cosplay and setting fetish needs met down to the last detail at an image club. Some institutions are a bit odder or less infamous than others, however, and Japan’s sex industry is in many ways quite different than it was in the 80s, 90s, or even early 2000s.
Look, but don’t touch
Here’s something that seems to have largely faded out, having long since given way to cutesy maid cafés, more traditional massage parlours, and upscale… erm, ‘health’ boutiques. The no-pan kissa – literally ‘no-panties café’ – was a fairly normal-looking coffee shop on the outside, but inside featured sections of mirrored floors, with young and attractive women wearing short skirts and no underwear as waitresses. The drinks and snacks were much the same as you could find in any other regular café, albeit several times the price, and since the job paid well yet required little to no physical contact with the customers, it became a popular choice of employment for many women. Some cafés later branched out into the likes of no-pan or topless karaoke, shabu-shabu restaurants, and yakiniku restaurants (pictured above).
The first no-pan kissa to open was in Kyoto in 1978, with a number of others soon to follow, particularly in Tokyo and Osaka. Although the earlier cafés tended to be situated outside the general hustle and bustle of major city entertainment districts, many were later operated around the likes of large railway stations and shopping centers. The early to mid-80s was widely considered to be the peak of the no-pan kissa boom, but it was relatively short-lived; following a couple of major scandals involving government officials, and the arrest of several waitresses for indecent exposure, the number of these kinds of establishments began declining rapidly later on in the decade and never made a recovery. Few, if any, remain today.
A modern ‘romance’
While the no-pan kissa seems to have disappeared from the commercialized sex industry, plenty of other options have sprung up in its place. One of these is the cuddle café (soine-ya), which allows for real physical contact without any of the actual sex thrown in. Something of a real-life alternative to a character body pillow, male customers can visit cuddle cafés in order to experience the feeling of sleeping in the arms of a beautiful woman, or with his head in her lap (or vice versa). Generally, no other form of touching is allowed beyond this standard form, perhaps making the action more about human warmth, comfort, or romance than necessarily about fulfilling an overtly sexual desire.
It’s therefore both ironic and understandable that the first cuddle café opened in 2012 in Akihabara, Tokyo – Japan’s mecca for 2D and virtual reality girls. Soineya’s menu includes various time limits (3000 yen for 20 minutes, all the way up to 50,000 yen for 10 hours), with optional extras thrown in such as back patting (1000 yen for 3 minutes), hair stroking (the same), and staring into one another’s eyes (1000 yen for a whopping 1 minute). Of course, you’ll need to pay the minimal entrance fee of 3000 yen first. Other cuddle cafés in Japan offer the same kind of services for a similar price – and since this type of business is still going strong, it seems a safe assumption that the demand is high enough to warrant their continued growth.
An increase in manservice
It’s probably common knowledge that non-sexual, rent-a-date services for male clients have been around in Japan for many years now. Some of them are of the enjo kosai/compensated dating variety, with high school girls exchanging their time for cash or expensive gifts. Other similar services have become a lot larger and more commercialized. However, rent-a-date services for women have also been gaining traction in recent years, with the likes of Soine-ya Prime offering male “cuddle partners” for hire. Unlike the previous cuddle café arrangement, male workers are actually dispatched to the clients’ homes (or the more impersonal option of a hotel if the woman prefers) to sleep, with the lowest standard price plan starting at 30,000 yen for seven hours. Clients aren’t allowed to kiss or otherwise touch the men in any inappropriate manner, but do have the option of paying extra for services such as having the guy clean the house, prepare a meal, or go out on a date.
This isn’t the only recent change in Japan’s previously male-dominated sex-scape. Female masturbation, usually something of a taboo topic, is in fact the main topic at Love Joule, a bar in Tokyo’s trendy and bustling Shibuya district. Behind the counter are not rows of liquor bottles, but rather a proud and colourful display of vibrators. This first “love and sex bar dedicated to women” opened in July in 2012, and aims to have customers “experience a pleasant place in which they can openly discuss masturbation.” Frequently visited by women in the sex and porn industries, Love Joule is seen as a safe space in which women can drink and openly discuss sex and masturbation without judgement – or unwanted male company. The bar prohibits single men from entering, (although any men accompanied by women are apparently welcome).
Busting the vending machine myth
On a final note, let’s talk vending machines. Even people who’ve never visited Japan before and have only a passing interest in the country seem to know that Japan is full of them. Every year, these vending machines rake in somewhere around five trillion yen (roughly US$46 billion) – and that’s not even counting the crank-turn gachapon machines that dispense toys in plastic capsules. Japan’s population may be shrinking, but it still checks in at an impressive 126 million, and there’s said to be 1 vending machine for every 33 citizens. Of course, other than selling a plethora of both Western and Japanese drinks such as Coke, Fanta, Calpis, Pocari Sweat, and various teas and coffees, there are also the vending machines selling slightly more unusual fare. Canned bread. Fish bait. Origami. Batteries. Computer glasses. Buddhist amulets. Porn.
Lest you think that last one (or any of the object in that list really) are being peddled on every street corner, the vast majority of vending machines in Japan sell drinks and only drinks (with cigarettes probably coming in an easy second). The infamous porn vending machines are only infamous because they’re not particularly common, and also aren’t generally just out on the street in the middle of the commercial hubs of downtown Tokyo or Osaka. That being said, pornographic magazines and DVDs, adult toys, sexy cosplay outfits, and the all-important condoms can still be found in vending machines by anyone willing to put in a bit of legwork.
What cannot be found in vending machines even by the most inquisitive and diligent of searchers are used panties. You can certainly find brand new bras and underwear in vending machines, and plenty of tourists have also snapped photos of what at first glance appear to be used panties. The only problem with this is that the panties aren’t actually used, no matter what the English may be advertising. Much like jeans are often manufactured to look frayed and holey, vending machine panties are intentionally manufactured to look (and smell) used, which will be pointed out on the vending machine somewhere in Japanese. Selling used underwear in vending machines in Japan has been illegal since the 1990s, as has actual shops buying used panties, school uniforms, etc. to pass on to clients. So while used panty vending machines might once have been spotted here and there in the back alleys of Akihabara, those days are now a good two decades back – and yes, that particular law is strictly upheld.
Question of the post: Do you think Japan’s sex industry is anything way out of the ordinary, or is it just that so much of it has been extremely well-publicized? Have the changes it’s seen over the years been good, bad, or simply curious?
16 thoughts on “The Old, The New, The Frank, The Untrue: Changing Faces of Japan’s Sex Industry”
I had never heard no-pan kissas before but I find the idea fascinating. This was a very interesting post. Thanks!
They’re pretty old-fashioned at this point so it’s not surprising a lot of people haven’t really heard of them before. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the article, thanks for reading.
Thanks for a well researched and frank post. It is certainly true that any “itch” can be scratched.
Thanks, glad you enjoyed the article.
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I didn’t know nay of this before but this was an absolutely fascinating read. Thanks for sharing!
You’re welcome, and thank you for reading!
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I’ve learned about no-pan kissa from Dr. Slump, a few months ago, when I finally bought and read the whole manga to the end. Of course there it turned out to just be a typo in the cafe’s name, and the horny titular character being an idiot, as usual. I didn’t know about the mirrors on the floor, though, seems useful!
Thanks for writing these fascinating entries about Japanese culture, without too much glorification or bashing it. It’s easy to go either these ways and kinda rare to find someone who writes about such controversial topics with considerable in-depth research and avoids it.
You’re very welcome, and I’m really glad you enjoy reading articles like these. I tend to try and keep my opinion fairly neutral as far as writing them goes, so I’m glad I seem to be succeeding in that.
Great post. I really like the cultural in-depth posts you do here occasionally, always educational and entertaining.
Cheers, glad you like them. I guess I don’t write them super often, but I do like a break from anime or even strictly pop culture-related posts every now and again.
I began visiting and on and off living in Japan in the early eighties. I haven’t been there in awhile and one of the reasons is that I became tired of the idol industry and the way young girls and women are depicted and viewed by Japanese men. After I time it really got under my skin.
Since the eighties, over time, Japanese men have really become caricatures of themselves beholding schoolgirls and the idol industry has become more in-your-face inescapable. Daikirai.
You make a good point. While I don’t think the sexualisation of young girls in Japan has changed over time, it /has become a lot more obvious and direct.
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…which means passive acceptance/normalization 😦