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Name Brand Beauties on Sale

03.14.2002 | SOCIETY

Two girls spread out on the sidewalk in front of the 7-Eleven, twenty-four hour convenience store. It's past midnight but the air is balmy and smells of sea breeze, grilled meat and train exhaust. The girl on the left is named Mariko. She wears a Gucci, triangle-cut, tight, short-sleeved, powder-blue T-shirt with psychedelic butterfly decals. Her friend, Yumi, looks identical, except for her hair, which is clipped up in a knot and held by a Burberry's barrette. They both carry Fendi bags that match the black DNKY jeans they have cut down into short-shorts. They're cute as in Hello Kitty cute, not the sexy nymphs they think they are with their expensive name brand clothes. They look comic with smudges of Channel purple metallic lipstick on their front teeth. Their Dior sapphire-blue eye shadow drives their eyes inward, making them look a little like cross-eyed circus clowns. They clutch their Peace brand cigarettes, letting the smoke pour out their mouths, suggesting to anyone who takes a second look that they're just normal, average Japanese teenagers.

Don't turn away. Keep watching. Notice Mariko. See how she clings to her cell phone for dear life. Her eyes scan the train station across the street, checking out a man's ass here, sizing up a woman's style there. She has hungry, greedy eyes that never blink but gulp it all in. Check out Yumi. Observe how she unfastens her wallet and how her fingertips pass over the bills. How much is in there? More than 50,000 yen. How can a girl have that kind of money? Why aren't these girls in bed? Summer vacation is going to end in less than a month; their book reports aren't even started.

Mariko's cell phone rings. The ringer is a song by the hip new band, Dragon Ash's. The tune is called That's Life. It's a rap-love combo, moaning about, what else--not letting life get you down. A good theme song for these girls. Life never gets them down and it takes Mariko less than a second to whip open her cell phone and whisper Moshe, moshe. A few minutes later, as Yumi fixes a few loose strands of her dyed auburn hair, a four-door white Honda pulls up. The driver parks by the curb and flips on his hazards. Yumi heads over to car and yells over her shoulder to Mariko.

"It's okay. Let's go."

Mariko, always meticulous, marks down the time and date in her cell phone's digital calendar. Together, they disappear into the white Honda that, during the day drives toddlers to daycare. Much later, they flow back home a little wasted on Asahi Super Dry beer, in need of a shower but 8,000 yen richer.

And their mothers, you're wondering, where are they? How come they don't stop this? Mariko tells her mother she is studying. Yumi says she is too. Since both girls have working parents, who are overloaded with jobs and caring for their own aging parents, no body checks out the story. Sure, there is suspicion, but no one wants to confront it. The girls are just girls having fun. This is Japan after all, not Thailand.

Now, let's turn to Monday morning and peek at the girls. Take a guess. Do you think that Yumi and Mariko will be sneaky-chain-smoking-never-on-time-glue-sniffing students? Do you think these girls will be the scamps of the village? Bad to the bone, right? Maybe not.

This time, look beyond the midnight neon light, beyond the expensive name brands clothes, beyond that reckless jump into an unknown car. You will see something incredibly normal, maybe even boring. You will see what I see everyday of the week; Mariko and Yumi, together as always, dressed in their issued blue skirts, white shirts with marron ribbons at the neck and blue jackets. On their feet are track shoes with an orange strip, representing that they are in their last year of high school. Yumi and Mariko are young, conscientious girls who attend my elective English class. They are bright, want to attend university and have a sense of persuasion that convinces me seeing Brad-o Pitt-o on screen, in Ocean's 11, is a great way to get a feel for real American culture.

When you get to know Yumi and Mariko, talk with them, joke over soba, you can't figure out what is more alarming; their late night pay outs or the way they can switch back to their ordinary lives. In a strange way that only adolescents can feel, these girls care what their mothers think. They listen to them, help with their younger siblings. They show no outward signs of trouble making in school. Mariko and Yumi, in a sense, are like the typical Japanese teenagers that I have come to love. They are filled with controversies on the inside-- worried about college placement, boyfriends, club activities, new videos, print club, fashion, and independence. You name it; these students will stress over it. They look the same as the next on the outside. The only rule the girls break is that they have cell phones hidden in their book bags. Tiny, not even the size of a face powder compact their grandmothers used at the same age, these cell phone make them distinctive, catapult them into adventure and make possible their new, money-making pastime.

What Yumi and Mariko do at night and on the weekends, and how they behave in their daily lives, is a bizarre phenomena occurring all across Japan, from the cities to the inaka. No place is without these types of girls, including the town where I live. The Japanese call what Yumi and Mariko "do" enjokosai. In Japanese, the word translates into "compensated dating." It is a polite word that has become synonymous for teenage prostitution. Enjokosai is a touchy and sometimes embarrassing subject to discuss. Many Japanese choose to ignore the fact that it provides more money than a female adolescent will ever earn at a part time job. No one wants to admit that it gives the girls freedom and lets them get away from the familiar sights of their village. No one dares utter that the girls can investigate their sexual passions.

Enjokosai is a hush-hush style of teenage prostitution. Unlike the horror stories of chained-up, child prostitutes, enjokosai doesn't happen in back alleys. These girls don't hustle on the streets. There's no Pimp-san lurking in the shadows. If there were, Yumi and Mariko wouldn't have any coins in their Fendis after a night in Asahi Mura. Instead, like everything else in Japan, from electric heated toilets to MP3 players the sizes of an aspirin, enjokosai relies on technology.

The girls operate pagers, cell phones, and computers to arrange "encounters" with older and often married men. The device most commonly used is the cell phone. Since most Japanese own one, a teenage girl walking around with one attached to her ear does not attract attention. Cell phones have the added bonus of keeping the "dates" on low down, something that keeps enjokosai a side option for any teenage girl hoping to buy that highly sought after Gucci belt with matching boots. The cell phone of choice these days is the latest J-Phone model. It is called Dreme. Small, shell pink and so kawaii, it runs anywhere between 25,000 to 45,000 yen, depending on whether you want the mini digital camera option. Mariko and Yumi both have one. The girls tell me the cell phones and beepers come in handy when the "dates" want to continue the "conversations".

Since the rise of cell phone use by young girls, Japan has felt a new surge of secret lust. It came in form of--what else?--a club. About ten years ago, "telephone clubs" began to open everywhere. A telephone club, by Japanese terms, is a place where people wait for telephone calls, from anyone, and then talk. They are sort of like the big boom version of the sex lines that were so hugely popular in States during the 1980s. The difference is that in the States, women ran the lines and the interaction stayed there. In Japan, teenage girls meet the callers in person. The number of Japanese telephone clubs multiplies each year, and the amount of people who use telephone clubs for sexual relations increases at a similar pace.

Girls like Yumi and Mariko list their cell phone numbers with an operator or, if they want to be on the cautious side, register on-line in a web page specifically geared for enjokosai. These web sites are called deai-kei; in English, it means "match making." Whether it's on the cell phone or website, both are avenues to enjokosai.

Curious, I check some of them out. By my count, there are thousands of numbers. In the Niigata prefecture alone, a prefecture that boasts the best rice production in all of Japan, over three hundred girls are listed on a deai-kei. I tally over twenty-five cell phone numbers just in my town and the towns next to mine. It is hard to believe I live in rural Japan. It astonishes me that my little speck of a village, which appears, on the surface, to be squeaky clean and drowning in family values, has an another reality entirely.

Once the girls file their names and cell phone numbers with a network, they sit back and wait for customers to call. And man, do they ever. The list of messages Mariko and Yumi show me on their cell phones would make Madame Heidi think she was in the baking business. Number after number shows men seeking young girls for "dates," dinner, conversation and more. But these girls can be finicky. They can call the callers back and schedule a date or decline it. If they decide to go on the date, the instant it is arranged, the girls fix themselves up depending on their mood, wear whatever they feel like, and wait to be picked up at the agreed upon spot.

"It's easy, really," Mariko explains. "Whatever you feel like wearing, you do and then you wait. Sometimes I put on all my best stuff, other times I do what me and Yumi call, the kawaii bimbo look."

Kawaii bimbo in Japanese means cute (kawaii) poor (bimbo) look. For this, the girls use their three-year old Channel bags and dress down. It sounds like the perfect catch: show'em you're poor and they buy new things for you.

"Does it work?" I ask.

"You like my new bracelet?" Yumi says. I check out the silver, Tiffany, heart bracelet dangling from her tiny wrist. Although the newspapers and financial agencies claim Japan's economy is in the dumpster, somehow, somewhere, someone has enough money to shower young girls for their services.

"So cool. Segoy, ne," I lie, hoping the girls will be flattered and keep on talking. "Well, how does it work?" I ask.

"Simple. You just go and have a good time. Have a coffee or a coke. Hang out. Talk. Do something. You can do anything really. Why you want to give it a try, Jennifer-sensei?" Mariko giggles and shakes her hips like she's doing a defunct version of the mambo.

"Yeah, right. This body's had a baby, girl," I say and wiggle my hips back at them. "So, where do you go?" I press. "Aren't you afraid someone might see you?"

"Ie. No one sees us. Trust me," Yumi pipes in. "We make them take us far away from Asahi Mura. The farther the better."

"Yeah, away from Asahi Mura there are restaurants like bigger than a room. So segoy, so cool. You know, have you ever eaten Indian food?" Mariko asks.

"Once," I lie, not wanting to get her off the subject. The next question I want to ask will make or break my relationship with the girls. If Yumi and Mariko think I'm too nosey, they won't talk. If they think I push to hard, I won't know anything at all. "Can I ask you something personal," I start, crossing my fingers behind my back, "Are you expected to have sex with the dates, you know, the men?"

Mariko and Yumi both roll their eyes at me and are silent for a minute. No one says a word. I can feel them slipping away and shutting down their confidences with me. In a desperate attempt to win them back, I wiggle my hips back and forth and shout out, mambo, mambo. It breaks the mood a little and we laugh.

"I knew you would ask," Mariko finally says and tosses her hair. Then she grins at me. Yumi starts to laugh. They shrug their shoulders at me.

"Girls never kiss and tell," Yumi giggles and swings a new Gucci bag over her shoulder.

During the early 1990's enjokosai was a hot topic with the media. Many high profile cases shocked the public, especially those where the people buying the sex where men in positions of high public trust, such as teachers, police officers, and even a judge. Ordinary Japanese, who hadn't a clue as to what was really going on at the convenience store down by the train station, were inundated with teen interviews, polls, and flash-trash talk shows. Then, like all scandals, the frenzy around this one died down, and enjokosai faded again into the background. With less coverage and no real changes, the ignorance grew and the abuse continued. Still, there are many people who remain dedicated to exposing enjokosai, and who work to help young girls find a better way to buy name brands.

Mamoru Fukutomi, a psychology professor at Tokyo Gakugei University, is one of the leaders in getting to the marrow of this phenomenon. The Asian Women's Fund, one of the biggest feminist organizations in Japan, asked him to conduct a survey about enjokosai. Fukutomi chose about 960 high school girls at random to poll. Of them, only 63 percent, or 600, responded. Of the girls who had "experienced" enjokosai, 23 percent said they had sex. Another 23 percent engaged in sexual activities other than sexual intercourse (for example, kissing or oral sex). 48 percent said they merely talked or had drinks with their dates.

When asked why the girls sold their bodies to older men the girls responded with intriguing answers. 13 girls said they wanted money. Four did it because a man suggested it. Three girls thought it caused no problems with anyone else. Three did it for fun. Two did it because they knew they could quit at anytime.

One girl said she wanted stimulation, another was lonely, and another just let it happen without much thought, while another said she needed to blow off some steam and another girl wanted to have sex.

When asked how they felt after dating middle-aged men, nine said they regretted it. Another nine answered that they were disgusted with the men. Six worried about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Five felt they couldn't tell anyone about it. Four felt bad for their parents. Two thought about doing it again. One felt she could never go back to living a normal life. One felt nothing of it.

Fukutomi found that girls who "experience" enjokosai or feel no qualms about it tend to be susceptible to the media, and their peers. He suggests that they may be indifferent about their future and fear getting old. Finally, and most remarkably, Fukutomi feels that the girls may see being a high school girl as a brand-name quality.

Of all these answers, the last one is the most mysterious to me. Coming as I do from a country where five year olds demand Gap clothes and frown at K-mart toys, I don't find it significant that girls in high school feel that their life is like a name brand, like they are a living advertisement. But I do find amazing the way the Japanese girls have gone a step further, trading their own brand-name merchandise to get the brand names they want. This is how they get the goods, transforming their girlhood into a fixed price, brand name for brand name.

The Japanese see enjokosai in a far less sophisticated and more benign light. Many Japanese sociologists argue that enjokosai is a mechanism which youth are using to pass through the adolescent period into adulthood. From the enjokosai "experience" young girls learn how to have mature relationships. They interact with older men. They learn how to converse, how to go out to dinner, how to behave themselves with the opposite sex. Since most Japanese girls and boys have no chance to interact, except during the school hours or at club practice, this is a way for girls to see themselves in a romantic "love" like situation. Yet the idea of underage girls experimenting with sex for money with men double their age is not seen as a moral concern. The girls earn money and buy whatever they want, be it the name brand items that keep them the same as everyone or something else.

Some dissident voices exist, to be sure. These usually claim that enjokosai exemplifies the superficiality of Japanese relationships. People--in this case young, immature girls--go through the motions, act, as it were, but are not touched down deep in their souls. In other words, enjokosai is a sweet transaction. Either way, enjokosai seems to illustrate the emptiness of relationships and the need to find something to curb loneliness.

Solutions to enjokosai, regardless of what one believes its sources are, vary. Many people, like those in my village, demand ethics education for girls who sell their bodies to buy expensive brand-name clothing. Others dismiss enjokosai, as anything but wrong. Still others think like Sano, a child who was quoted in the Daily Yomiuri, an English language newspaper. "There were many people," he observed, "who said enjokosai in Japan was a form of exploitation. But I don't necessarily agree. Some people become involved in compensated dating of their own accord while others are forced to enter the trade. Those who choose to work in the field have the right to make their own decisions." Even though Sato is twelve years old and his mother makes all his decisions, his view is very common. The idea that young girls have a choice and choose to sell their bodies does not seem bizarre or a strange or even a moral concern. The view, in fact, is just the opposite. These girls are making their situation work for them. They receive payment for a service. They are making business deals. The men who solicit dates from the underage girls are not even mentioned. Enjokosai falls squarely on the girl's shoulders.

When a sensational case of enjokosai erupts, the majority of Japanese people consider the girls law-breakers. The girls involved, should they get in trouble, asked for it. The girls, should some physical harm come to them, deserved it. They dressed sleazy. They solicited dates with older men. They engaged in sexual tricks not for love but cash. And what about the men, I wonder? Are they just innocent bystanders, lonely and wanting the company of a young girl? Why doesn't anyone mention the men when they talk about enjokosai? Why has enjokosai become teenage prostitution and not pedophilia?

During an o-cha break at my high school, I ask a veteran teacher what she thinks about the girls who hang out at the 7-Eleven.

She sucks in her teeth and turns her head to the side. I have seen this gesture many times. It is used by Japanese when hard questions are asked or when they have to give a negative answer.

"They are young and indifferent to how things should be. They know little. They think they are only buying but they are the price tags," she sighs.

"What about the men?" I ask. This teacher has been married for over twenty years. Her husband works in Tokyo for a big company. They see each other once every two months. No doubt this teacher has worried many times that her husband is sneaking out on her. Any Japanese woman would, given the statistic that 60 percent of Japanese married men have flings.

"It is so complicated. Muszukashi, ne? The men are lonely, don't go to their wives. They should be with women their own age, not young girls. So young, ne."

"Isn't that a crime? Sex with a minor?"

The teacher nods and sighs. I take this to mean that it is a crime and it is a problem and she doesn't know what to do about it.

None of the other teachers I speak with perceive the girls as victims.

"Victim," one of the bolder teachers says, "That's an outrageous thing to say. Can't you make out black from white?"

I could and what I grasp is this. These girls are victims. Sufferers of poor choices, of a pedophile who can come and shell out paper for young bodies and escape justice. These girls are prostitutes in one of the richest countries in the world. They are sucked into having what everyone else has and their need for it is like a drug. Brand name buys the reputation. The want for their young bodies rises each month.

I don't tell the other teachers at my school what I really think. I would never dream of revealing my true feeling about enjokosai. I have learned already that in Japan, it is far better to mimic the response you get then to give your own. Like the Japanese saying goes, the nail that sticks up gets nailed down.

The teachers know that some of their female students are involved in enjokosai. They feel, I think, that there is no way to stop it. The Board of Education already implemented sex education courses and work programs, but it is not enough. Real skills in the real world only matter if you see the Big Picture and these girls don't.

The campaign go stop enjokosai in Asahi Mura is slow. To end it you must find it and finding it is a problem. Since the girls are from middle class homes, and show no guilt--they are not rebellious or trouble makers--they are not easily identified. The men are the same. They could be the mailman, shopkeeper, mayor, policeman, or a sushi chief. They could be sneaking off to have a coffee on a date or it could just be their daughter. Any man walking down the street with a young girl could be involved in enjokosai. You can't tell. There are no outwards signs of physical affection between couples, so who knows who is sleeping with who.

Japanese teachers, in general, are expected to care for their students. Care translates into doing whatever is needed for the student's well being. Often the teachers at my high school stay at school until 10 at night, do home visits and constantly call parents. Yet, tell one of my teachers to hide out on the streets and wait for the pick up, might not be in their contract. Plus, if there is no visible trouble, then why look for it, the teachers seem to think.

Before I came to Asahi Mura there was a horrible case of enjokosai that caused national attention. No doubt Fukutomi read about. It was in all the newspapers and even the big NHK, Japan's national television channel, aired the story. It is a case that drives the high school teachers bonkers. It makes the mayor turn red in the face and the supermarket cashiers cover their hands over their mouths when you mention it. Even Yumi and Mariko, so high on Dragon Ash and the smell of newly purchased clothes, don't like to think about it, especially when it is their first date with someone new. According to the teachers at my high school, one very lost girl, who we will call Girl X, became involved in enjokosai but couldn't keep herself together. Two years ago during the summer, Girl X had a "fling" with a thirty-eight year old pedophile. From a town two hours away, he was practically unknown. He was good looking, a big spender, and moved slow. Slow enough that when he did ask for sexual favors, Girl X couldn't say no. He wanted a threesome; he got it He wanted to watch as she masturbated, fine. He wanted to fuck her up the ass, he did. By that November, the girl had a confirmed diagnosis of a STD, a pregnancy scare, and a black eye. Then she ran away to Tokyo. Her family can only guess what has happened to her.

Girl X's specific case is what you would expect, if you think teen prostitution should come with expectations. She was a poor student, on the fringes of academic and social life. She had no intention of sticking around Asahi Mura with its 12,324 inhabitants. Her teachers labeled her delinquent, or guhan: prone to criminal acts. All her teachers, her parents, and everyone else was troubled about the girl. But she had asked for it. Hadn't she? Even Mariko and Yumi think she shouldn't have gotten involved.

"We are doing this for other reasons," Mariko insists. "That other girl, she didn't even spend her money. She never even had a DNKY bag and she could have bought four with all the money she made."

"So she did it for what?"

"Who knows? Baka. Baka. Stupid. Listen, Jennifer-sensei, this is a fun kinda date, you know. I have no clue what she was up to."

"What are you doing it for then? Wasn't girl X the same as you?" I ask.

"Not right in the head. Too caught up. She forgot who she was. We know who we are," Yumi chimes in.

"We can get out of this any time. Not that one. No way, Jose, right? "

"Yeah, you got it," I answer, wondering how they can remember the dumbest English words and not figure out that they are the same as Girl X.

Unlucky girls, I think. Yumi and Mariko chatter on and ask me which designer clothes I wear. They don't believe me when I use a French accent and say K-mart.

When girls like Girl X are raped or beat up they can turn to the police. There are laws, after all, against rape and sex with a minor. Strict and severe punishment is handed out for those found guilty. Sexual abuse lawyers in Japan enjoy a 90% conviction rate, but only if the victim talks. And victims in Japan rarely talk. According to a report by the United Nations' Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, "there is a very strong public sentiment that sexual abuse is a shameful experience for the victim, and in turn her family. Thus it should not be made open. Therefore, it is certain that child sexual abuse is very much underreported and very little is know about the issue to the Japanese public." (ESCAP 1:45). In other words, they become double victims. They are victims first of sexual abuse and secondly of silence. In the case of Girl X, it was the same. She might have entered enjokosai with qualms, but to be raped and report it would double the shame.

Yumi and Mariko don't think about being raped. They don't think the car they get into might not take them where they want to go. They don't think a man might carry a knife or force them or beat them or use them.

"Why don't you think this is a possibility? It could happen and then what?" I ask.

But they deny it. Say they're lucky. Say they know the men they get into cars with. Say their heads are on tight. Say they know it all and I ask the wrong questions. Then they say goodbye.

Stopping enjokosai remains one of the most challenging tasks facing Japanese society. Fukutomi suggests that to stop girls from prostituting themselves, one must teach them that men and women are equals. He offers that Japanese society must change into one that respects and values young women. This will not, of course, be easy. To change a centuries old way of thinking about women will take many decades and much pulling of hair. Still, there have been some monumental changes in how women are viewed in Japan. Tanaka was the first woman Foreign Minister of Japan. Although she was fired, a woman replaced her. Women doctors and lawyers are on the rise. Girls are as active as boys.

And in Japan, as in all societies battling teenage prostitution, there are some obvious steps that can be taken. The most obvious may be to cease the production of schoolgirl porn. According to a 1998 Interpol report, (quoted by the Japan Committee for UNICEF) it was learned that about 80% of the child pornography circulating around the world originates in Japan. The majority of the porn is girls in school uniforms. Their school skirts are cut down into minis with just the glimpse of their bare asses peeking out. The "school girl seeks older man for experience" type of porn is very prevalent here. You can buy it anywhere. Is it any wonder that so many men are involved in enjokosai? Sex is everywhere but nowhere. The sexual taboo of having intercourse or oral sex with an underage girl is accepted, if it is kept silent.

"What did you do this weekend?" I ask my Monday morning elective, English class.

Nothing much. Study. Sleep. I hear answers from the more daring students. Mariko and Yumi rest their chins in their hands. They offer me blank stares when I ask them directly what they did this weekend.

"Just hung out."

"Really. Where?"

Mariko looks at Yumi and then they both look back at me and shrug their shoulders. I let it go.

For the days lesson, I hand out a story by Joyce Carol Oates, Where are You Going Where Have You Been? Most American girls read it in high school or in their freshmen year of college. It is a story much like Yumi and Mariko's. The main character is a fifteen-year-old, boy -crazy, innocent girl named Connie. She is attracted to a boy named Albert-O in a parking lot, and meets him. Later he comes to her home. He kidnaps her, rapes her and no doubt kills her. It is a harsh story of miscalculation. A brutal vignette of how girls don't think strange men can be dangerous. Every student I have taught, since I have been a teacher, has read this story.

"Read this story to yourself," I tell the class. "Mark the words you don't know and look them up in the dictionary." It is a boring exercise but I hear no moans. Students get out their pink highlighters and notebooks. They begin to read. The room is silent; I can hear the class down the hall calling out mathematical equations. I sit and watch the faces of my students as they struggle over the words. I wonder how much they retain and if they feel at all for the characters. Before the bell rings I tell them to write in their journals. Write about what you think of the story, I tell them as they file out of the room. Yumi and Mariko are the last ones to go.

"What did you think?"

"Poor Connie, ne. I thought Alfred-o was bad from the start," Yumi says.

"So dumb, ne. Many girls like that in America, Jennifer-sensei?" Mariko asks.

"Yeah," I say, "too many Connies in the world. So sad, so much wasted, ne."

About the Author
Jennifer Liddy is a freelance writer and an employee of the Japanese Ministry of Education.
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