JapanVisitor interviews Joan Sinclair about Japan and her book, Pink Box: Inside Japan’s Sex Clubs
JapanVisitor.com recently spoke with feminist, journalist, lawyer, photographer, and former English teacher Joan Sinclair about her work on Japan’s ubiquitous sex industry, Pink Box: Inside Japan’s Sex Clubs.
Can we start with a little bit about yourself. You are a lawyer? Are you also still working as a photographer?
I’m actually no longer working as a lawyer. As for the photography, yes, I am still doing work in photography. I have not put down the camera yet.
What brought you to Tokyo?
I was teaching English on the JET program. I was in Saitama for 2 years from 1995 to 1997.
Why this book?
Teachers at the middle school where I was working were talking one day about telephone clubs. My basic reaction was, What is this?! Over time, I heard more and more and realized that there was a wealth of nightlife I had never heard of. I had a friend take me on a walking tour of Kabukicho.
Once I began to recognize the signs, the writing, I realized they were everywhere. The sex industry is more a part of mainstream culture than in the US.
I got interested in the range of activity [within the clubs]. Fake hospitals, fake classrooms, fake trains–but I still had little personal experience. The US of course has brothels and strip clubs but nothing like Japan. In Japan the archetypes come from manga; the aesthetics are similar to manga, the heroes reflect adult manga. I thought that was an interesting reflection of modern Japanese culture. These kinds of clubs in a way adhere to cultural norms, but they are more a sanctioned playground where men can be boys, can break the rules while still sticking within the norms of Japanese society.
This all stayed with me after I left Japan. 10 years later–after a law degree and life in the US–I went back to Tokyo without knowing if I could do it, but the purpose was to do a book. I had no firm commitments from publishers, just “let us know when you have something.”
How did you talk your way in?
There were four different angles. I spent time getting to know the girls, the customers, the managers, and finally the advertisers. Also, I moved in next to Kabukicho. I hung out there, talked about the photo project. Most people understood how creative the clubs were, and they wanted to helpand almost everyone knew somebody. I followed up on these connections, filling my cell phone with numbers. It took a lot of time and patience. You cannot just demand entrance. I am a woman, a foreigner, and I had a camera–three things the doormen are told to keep out.
Can you describe your first success?
First time: at a bar I met a customer of the clubs, and he agreed to introduce me to the managers of his favorite clubs. We were denied at the door of the first few places. Finally a manager at another club was flattered by it. These turned out to be my first photos. Then it was easier to get in. After that, I would call directly. Or rather, I hired a male translator to cold call the places that placed ads in Manzoku, Naitai and other magazines [that cover the sex industry]. We would look at ads and call the clubs directly. He did the calling, which was important; the clubs would have hung up on me.
Next I built a web site, which was important to show people. I gave out the link to everyone.
And, over time, more and more photos made it easier and easier to gain entry into the clubs.
There were however a few key players. Ultimately, I went outside of Tokyo – Kobe, Fukuoka, Sapporo, Osaka. The managers there were more welcoming than Tokyo, especially in Kansai. Tokyo was much harder because of a police crackdown.
What was a day’s/night’s work like while doing this? Describe a typical day.
Breakfast at 6 am with hosts getting off work. We would meet for ramen. Then I would buy film in the afternoon.
After that I would dress up in a suit, make an appointment with a magazine editor, ask permission of their clients that, in exchange for using my photographs, they would help me get in. It was quite formal.
Then I would meet a hostess at 6 pm while she was getting ready for a dohan (pre-work date). After that we would go to her club at 9 pm. At 11 pm it was off to image clubs and soaplands.
It was all day, all night and crazy hours.
How did you not get in the way?
I was always in the way! The clubs are crowded, dark, smoky. I always felt like I was in the way. The best thing I could do was keep my camera equipment to a minimum. I had to learn to be the way gaijin learn and not to knock things over in the supermarket – make myself minimal.
Also, I didn’t look customers in the eye. It was important not to make the customers uncomfortable.
How were you treated by the managers? The women?
Managers were extremely accommodating to the women who worked there. Are you sure you want to do this [have your photo taken] and completely blase about me. A couple of managers though fell in love with the project. Really in love with the project. Especially a group in Osaka, who were so open to the idea of an art book.
The girls themselves were giddy with excitement. I speak broken Japanese, I am kind of clumsy, and when I get into photography I really get into it. I was friendly and someone they could have a good time with. That is what I am most proud of: the photos reflect the good time we had.
What was the biggest problem you had?
I was having a really frustrating time getting pix at the beginning. I was in a club in Kabukicho, and I tried to take photos without asking permission. This is very much a no-no in Japan where privacy is so important. I cut a hole in my purse and stuck the lens in and had a remote control. I thought no one knew. They knew.
Someone called the manager. I was whisked away to a back room. They took all of my film out of the camera and started yelling at me. I explained about the photo project, and the manager calmed down. You know what, call me in a few months, he said, and then threw me out. I went back in 6 months, got his permission, and took photos.
Kabukicho is a small world, and that could have ruined it right there. I wrote a sincere apology and delivered it in person. I learned my lesson.
What kind of women opt for this work?
Many are college students, still living at home; most are middle class. They usually start in their early 20’s.
How long do they do it? As a career? Do they get married?
One day to 10 years. Many answer ads stuck in Kleenex packs that are passed out for free at train stations. Some get addicted to the money and spend their earnings on Louis Vuitton bags.
Is it easy for them to leave?
It depends. Generally yes. But some get into debt — going to host clubs or to loan sharks. I truly believe most got in the business through free will.
Part of the problem with leaving, though, is that it’s hard to leave financially. The average annual salary is about $120,000 — if you work in a high-paying hostess club, a soapland, which are the highest paying. Korean massage is not nearly as high. The girls on the street make way less.
They can of course leave and work as a receptionist — and make a quarter of what they made before.
As a feminist, what is your take on the business?
It’s complicated. It’s hard to tell who’s being taking advantage of. The man paying $300 for drinks? The woman serving him? Japan blurs the line of who’s in power.
What’s the legality of the clubs?
It’s a gray zone. Prostitution is illegal but the laws are completely unenforced. The definition moreover is very loose. The police know; it is very open and the clubs advertise openly, with huge neon signs, their own websites and staffed sex club information centers and referral services.
Do they get busted? If yes, why?
If the clubs do not adhere to proper licensing procedure.
Why did you focus on Japanese workers only?
That’s a good question. When I first went I shot a few areas where the women were mainly Thai or Filipina. That is a different book, a different project. My goal was to focus on the pop kind of creativity and humor, the over the topness and kitsch at the clubs — and the women who work there are Japanese.
The human trafficking is another story. It would have been a different project. It begins in their home country. With the sex trafficking, the story is more about the women themselves and less about the clubs.
Which type of club was the most creative?
Hmmm, my favorites would have to include the American Crystal in Kabukicho (a Marilyn Monroe club). The customer enters and is seated at table in front of a one-way mirror. On the other side are a bunch of women with long dresses the famous picture of Marilyn in New York in 1954. You phone in to them, Number 3 stand up. The woman stands up over a grate, wind blows up her dress, and the floor is mirrored. The women can’t see the audience.
Another is the All You Can Feel Sushi Club. The girls were called maki, ebi, and other sushi names. They made out with clients and then switched every 3 minutes. Just like a sushi restaurant with a conveyor belt.
How well has the book been received?
In the West it has won some awards for art. For example, it was named one of American Photography Magazine’s best photo books of 2006. People get it in the art world. In Japan, I don’t know. The book is not in Japanese and is not well known.
While I was doing the book, though, the women were tickled pink, they were surprised by their own culture’s creativity, fascinated by it.
Why are these clubs, this industry so successful in Japan?
Japan is a society shaped by Buddhist-Shinto mores which don’t condemn a more open sexuality. It is a hard-working and tightly wound society paired with a manga-driven sexuality. Combine these elements with loose law enforcement and the result is a very wild and robust sex industry.
Thanks and best wishes.
Photographs from PINK BOX (Abrams Books). Joan Sinclair