A Different Side of Japan

Warning: The following post is about the sex industry in Japan. Please be advised that there may be some content that could shock of surprise you. If you feel uncomfortable with the subject matter, catch up with me on my next post.

Hello everyone! I’m not quite over my cold yet, but I’m back on my feet and I’m sure I’ll be better soon. My family seems shocked that a cold can last more than a few days. I don’t know about you, but in my experience, it’s normal for a cold to linger for two or three weeks. Maybe I’m just weird.

Before I get on with the post, I’d like to remind you all to please start sending me questions that you would like me to ask a Japanese high school student. I’m hoping to interview one for next week’s post, or for the week after. I need to know what you guys want me to ask!

One thing has been impossible not to notice during my stay in Japan: The sex industry. Compared to America, Japan is both more open and more closed in regards to the sex industry.

After spending time with a few Japanese people, you would think that they have an oppressed, sex negative society. When I speak to Japanese college students, if the topic even approaches anything sexual, they get nervous and blush. It’s difficult to tell when Japanese guys are flirting because they’re so shy about it. When out and about, it’s noticeable that the Japanese girls show much less skin than most Americans do, even when the weather is very hot. This is partly to shield their skin from the sun in an effort to keep it pale, but it is also simply abnormal to show a lot of skin in public. The girls wear short skirts, but always wear stockings or leggings underneath. I’ve never seen a Japanese girl wear a tank top.

On the other hand, if you walk into a book shop or even a convenience store, you will very quickly stumble upon blatant pornography, whether you’re looking for it or not.

Pornography at the local 7/11

Every bookstore has a large manga (Japanese comics) section. Different manga genres cater towards people of any age. There is manga for young children, pre-teens, teens, young adults, and even for middle aged people. What’s astounding is that you can also easily find pornography right out in the open. In fact, I found this right next to the boy’s section (where you would find things like Naruto and Dragon Ball Z)

I thought nothing could shock me anymore, but…

While this section is catered toward men, very close to it is a section of erotic manga for women. Most of this is a genre called “yaoi”, which features gay male relationships and sex, though it is written by and for females. It is much less conspicuous, but still easy to tell what it is when you see it. This was also close to the kids’ section.

Just a bit more subtle

When I asked a few Japanese friends about this, they told me that they also don’t check IDs when you buy this kind of thing. In fact, kids buy it all the time. It’s worth noting here that the national law for age of consent in Japan is 13 years old. Though most prefectures have overriding laws that boost it to 18.

It’s not just pornography that I see on a daily basis. I also see evidence of the prostitution industry on my walk to school. Japan is filled with what they call “hostess clubs”. In these clubs, you pay per hour that you stay. Beautiful women sit with you and talk with you, and if you like them, you can buy them expensive drinks. This is how the hostesses are paid. This is not necessarily prostitution. Many do not allow sex or outside contact with customers. But many are basically brothels calling themselves hostess clubs. It’s difficult to tell the difference.

I often pass this place as I walk to school

There is also the male equivalent, called “host clubs”. Women go to these establishments and pay to be doted upon by handsome men. There is less frequency of sex with clients in host clubs, but it still happens there too.

Advertisement for a host club

Tokyo’s red light district, called “Kabuki-cho” (though it has nothing to do with kabuki), is where most of the brothels can be found. The streets are filled with gambling centers, hostess clubs, and “massage” parlors. Many victims of human trafficking end up here. It is common for girls from places like the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia to be lured into Japan and trafficked against their will. Many respond to adds promising legitimate work, but are then forced into sex work.

Prostitution is technically illegal in Japan. But the yakuza, the Japanese organized crime syndicate, are in charge of the sex industry, especially in places like Kabuki-cho. The yakuza have a powerful hold on Japan, and the police don’t bother them, no matter what they do. Luckily they don’t do anything to the average citizen, and certainly not to an American exchange student like me, but their power is still terrifying.


So while Japanese people seem generally repressed and shy when it comes to sex, one is also confronted with it everywhere. The sex industry is impossible not to notice. In a sense, it’s everywhere all the time, but no one will talk about it. I find this a very strange mix, and it’s a little unnerving.

How do you suppose a society could develop to become this way? How does it function? Could this kind of relationship with the sex industry be potentially beneficial, or potentially harmful, and in what ways? Why do you suppose America is so different?

Medicine in Japan

Hello all! I wish I could tell you that I’ve been doing exciting things over the past couple days, but alas, I’ve been cooped up in bed for the last few days. I’ve had a cough for about a week now, so this is me wearing one of the famous face masks:

I’m smiling, but you can’t tell

I didn’t understand the point of them before, but I do now. When commuting or otherwise in a large group, it’s disgusting to have people coughing on you. It’s courteous to wear a mask when you’re coughing… though it feels awful to breathe your own hot air back into your face.

But then a few days ago, this cold hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ve basically been bed ridden since Wednesday night, and it’s stayed consistently bad this entire time. Before I came to Japan, I was told that colds might be different here. I certainly wasn’t expecting this though. I’ve never had a cold hit me so hard and so fast. I have every symptom you can think of, except maybe fever.

So I stayed home from class, hoping that if I rested, I would get better. My host mother kept asking if I wanted to go to the clinic, but no one goes to doctors for colds in America, so I declined. But on Saturday morning, I realized that I might have an ear infection, so I asked if they would take me to the clinic.

My experience at the Japanese clinic was very strange. For some reason I’d been assuming that doctors would be the same everywhere. I learned that people don’t really have general practitioners here, and people don’t make appointments. You just show up and hope that your wait won’t be too long. I’ve heard that this happens in countries with national healthcare, but it was strange to see it first hand.

We got to the clinic and filled in a little sheet describing my symptoms, then sat in the small waiting room. While we were there, the receptionist asked my host mother to take my temperature with a weird armpit thermometer. I kid you not. She stuck it under my shirt and coat. I don’t see how it could work that way, because surely the heat from my coat would make it hotter than my actual body temperature, wouldn’t it?

After about an hour long wait, we finally got in to see the doctor. I noticed that everyone there was generally unfriendly. This included the receptionist, the nurses, and the doctor. The nurses stood by the side of the room and stared at us as I sat next to the doctor by his desk. He was typing something into his computer, and didn’t even look at me for a few minutes.

When he finally got to me, he repeated what I’d written on the sheet, and didn’t ask any questions. He didn’t ask me to take off my coat or anything, and all he did was feel my neck and look at my throat briefly. Then he started writing down prescriptions. Since I was worried about my ear the most, I asked him to take a look at it. I never really got a straight answer from him whether it was infected or not, but he gave me three prescriptions. When I asked what kind of medicine it was, he seemed annoyed and told me shortly  that they would fix my cold.

When we left, I pulled out my insurance card to give them. But the whole visit was only about $10.00, so I didn’t even need to use my insurance. Then when we picked up my prescriptions, it was only about $8.00. Now that’s amazing.

However, I became suspicious when I noticed that one of the drugs was a powder mix. So when we went to lunch, I got out my phone and started looking up everything. One pill was an antibiotic, and that was all well and good. But the other pill is apparently used to stop bleeding for surgery patients. This was obviously very confusing.

The suspicious powder mix had various painkillers, caffeine, some kind of drug for upset stomachs, some kind of asthma medication, and another thing that I never figured out what it is.

This is the pills and suspicious powder

My host mother and her friend noticed that I was looking these up, and they seemed shocked that I would question anything a doctor gave me. I started pointing out that there were weird things here, such as the stomach medication. They got upset and insisted that all the things in the powder would work together and that it would be fine.

I took the medicine after we ate. They said that I needed to just dump the powder into my mouth, swallow it, then drink water. I was dumbfounded. I had never heard of consuming medicine this way. I asked if I could mix it in the water instead, and they said I couldn’t.

Have you ever swallowed a mouthful of powder? It’s absolutely terrible. On top of that, it tasted terrible, so much so that I almost threw up all over the table. When I tried asking them why it had to be this way, and why I couldn’t mix it with water, they shut me down by saying “because this is how the doctor wants you to take it”.

My host mother then told me that since they have stricter regulations on drugs here, things were safer and could be trusted. She said that when she visited America, she was too afraid to buy over the counter drugs there. When I mentioned to her that I had brought and was taking American cough medicine and sleeping pills, she got very worried and said I shouldn’t do that because a doctor hadn’t prescribed them.

It is true that there are very tight regulations on drugs here. But their absolute faith in doctors disturbed me, as did the doctor’s reluctance to answer my questions. In America, doctors are happy to tell you exactly what they’re prescribing and why. This was the exact opposite.

After I investigated a little on the internet, I learned that Japanese doctors are notorious for prescribing antibiotics for colds. So even if I hadn’t expressed concern about an infection, he would have probably given me one anyway. I thought it was common knowledge that you don’t take antibiotics for colds (because it’s a virus, not an infection), but then again, it seems that people around here think that colds are causes by being cold. Whenever I’ve mentioned it to my host family or any of their friends, I always get a comment along the lines of “Oh it has been cold outside lately hasn’t it?” or “Well Japan is much colder than America isn’t it!” or “You should wear coats more often!”

Japan has much higher restrictions on over the counter drugs. Many things that are available in American drugstores either need prescriptions or are completely not allowed. Because of this, Japanese people go to doctors much more than we do. And why not, since it’s so cheap here?

But it seems that this has caused a certain amount of medical ignorance. Because people don’t treat their own colds, they don’t know how colds are treated. And because of the nature of Japanese society, it is considered incredibly rude to question a doctor. Doctors are very highly regarded. They are addressed as “sensei”, which is also what they call teachers and authors.

What are the possible positive and negative effects of this kind of system? Is it inevitable that socialized medicine will result in this kind of relationship with medicine? How much do you think culture impacts this? Can questioning doctors cause problems, or is it an important practice?

(By the way, don’t forget to send me questions you’d like me to ask a Japanese high schooler)

Announcement and Picture of the Week

Hello everyone! Here’s a picture that I’d like to share with you:

This is the National Noh Theater. You might be surprised that it’s so small, being the largest Noh theater in Japan. But Noh, unlike Kabuki, has a very intimate atmosphere. Noh typically only has a few performers, and very little props, if any. Honestly, it’s very boring compared to Kabuki, as it is slow and very drawn out. But we came not to see Noh, but to see Kyogen, which is performed in the same theater.

Kyogen are small comedy plays that are performed on the same kind of stage. They were traditionally performed between Noh plays to lighten the mood. This was another great opportunity to experience Japanese culture. If any of you want to know more about Japanese traditional theatre, ask me. I know too much about it.

Also, an announcement: At some point soon, I’ll be interviewing a Japanese high schooler (or maybe two), and I’d like to know what kind of things I should ask about. So please send me questions some time within the next few weeks.

Until next time!

Gender-bending in Japan

Hello all! I hear it’s finally raining in Oregon. I’m kind of jealous, and getting a little homesick. I never thought I’d say it, but I wish it would start raining!

I have already had many unique opportunities here in Japan. One of them was to see Takarazuka last weekend. Takarazuka is a very famous acting group, made up of five troupes, and they are all women. The women play all the male roles. They put on huge, spectacular, Broadway-style musicals, often Western stories such as Cinderella.

The women who are trained to act the male roles are called “otoko-yaku”. They have a huge chorus, so many of them go mostly unnoticed, but a few otoko-yaku become stars of the group. After they become popular with fans, they are chosen to play the lead roles. Next to them, the women are trained to act and sing in an over the top feminine manner, to make the otoko-yaku seem more masculine. Here’s some examples:


This is the Takarazuka Grand Theater:


Almost the entire audience was women. The devoted fans of Takarazuka are women, who often become fans of one particular actress, who is almost always an otoko-yaku. They send their favorite actresses gifts, write love letters, and even sometimes camp out in front of the theaters to try to catch a glimpse of them. The otoko-yaku exude a transfixing charisma when on stage. As many fans say, they are the perfect man as seen from a woman’s perspective.

The play we saw was called “Saint Exupery”, a play about the man who wrote the book “The Little Prince”. He joined the French Air Force during World War II, and famously went to America to try to convince the United States to enter the war. Near the end of the play he dies, leaving his devoted wife behind.

Here’s the trailer for it:

This acting phenomenon is very interesting, but even more interesting when one compares it to Kabuki.

Kabuki, as some of you may know, is a traditional Japanese form of theater. You may vaguely have something like this come to mind:

Kabuki is also a spectacular form of theater. It has bright, intricate costumes, large casts, and extensive sets and stage tricks.

Kabuki is performed today almost exactly as it was performed hundreds of years ago, as it has been carefully preserved. This also means that professional Kabuki is performed only by men.

That is an “onna-gata”, which is a man who specializes in playing a woman’s role. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, Kabuki was created by a woman. This woman formed a troupe that performed in a dry riverbed. They were famous for having all women at first. Later men joined, but women still played the female roles. They quickly became famous, and created the style known as Kabuki. However, as the style spread throughout the country and more and more theaters began popping up, it became well known that the women were also becoming prostitutes. In order to make more money, the women would have sex with audience members after the show. When a particularly prudish emperor was in power, he outlawed women from acting in Kabuki. And so from then until today, Kabuki is performed by men.

That is an onna-gata at work. Though most of us can tell the difference, onna-gata are trained to become the feminine ideal. They are meant to be more graceful and more beautiful than any real women. In ancient times, and even now in a certain way, women looked at onna-gata and thought they should be like them.

So now you’ve seen two different sides of cross-dressing theater in Japan. If any of you are familiar with anime and manga, you may have already known about the place that cross-dressing and gender-bending has in Japanese pop culture. Series such as Ouran High School Host Club and Princess Jellyfish center around it. In others, it’s a fairly common occurrence. There are themed cafes here in Tokyo that have servers that are women dressed as men or vice versa.

With a society that is so focused on social conformity, it’s surprising to see people breaking and bending gender norms. However, this only occurs within specific boundaries of theater or other fantasy contexts.

What do you think of playing with gender like this? Would such a thing ever happen in America? Why is it so appealing? Is it potentially revolutionary, or potentially harmful? Is this kind of theater simply entertainment, or does it have a deeper meaning?

Let me know what you all think, and feel free to ask any questions you’d like.

Commuting: Every Man for Himself

Hello again everyone!

The weather here has been crazy lately. Well, crazy by Oregon standards. Today it was actually warm and muggy, as well as rainy on and off. It certainly doesn’t feel like October here. I’ve been hunkering down and preparing for the cold but it just isn’t coming. It’s funny though, everyone carries around large umbrellas even if it only sprinkles a little. They’re kind of a pain when commuting, so I don’t usually bring mine.

Speaking of commuting. You may have heard before that Japanese people are very polite. Well I’m here to tell you, that isn’t always true. When commuting is involved, Japanese people lose all humanity.

Typically, Japanese people are rigidly polite, especially in business situations. In fact their very language is structured according to politeness. I won’t go into it too much, but here’s a little Japanese lesson.

There are two forms of politeness language in Japanese. One is distal-direct. This is a horizontal kind of politeness. When you are close to someone personally, you use direct style speech. When you don’t know the person, you use distal. When you first meet a stranger, you would use distal, but as you slowly cross the line to the status of friend, you would change to direct.

The other type is honorific-humble, which is a vertical kind of politeness. You would use honorific when talking about or to someone who is of higher ranking, and humble when speaking about yourself or your group to someone who is of higher ranking. It’s confusing, but the point to take away is this: When Japanese people talk to each other, they are constantly keeping in mind the person’s ranking and how close they are to the person, and that determines how they speak to one another.

Most other things about Japanese life reflect this kind of constant awareness. The way people move, the tone they use to speak, even what they wear are all linked to politeness. They seek to be as unobtrusive as possible and to fit perfectly in their place in society. This is why many Japanese people act, speak, and dress alike. They are constantly thinking about what others are thinking about them, and so they put up a mask of perfect politeness.

However when commuting, it’s a completely different story. Here’s a few videos of me explaining my commute:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Today was a national holiday called “Health Sports Day”. So actually, my videos aren’t a very good example. Sorry about that. Also sorry for the terrible quality and everything, I’ve been having technical difficulties.

I was shocked during my first few morning commutes. The trains and buses are insanely crowded, and rather than wait for the next one, people will squeeze in no matter what. I’ve had several incidents where I’m sandwiched between people. Literally my body is pressing against theirs. Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe. And then when people are rushing to get off or on, they don’t pay attention to who they’re brushing against or smacking with their bags.

I think it’s part of a mob mentality. When everyone is in such a huge group, people lose any feelings of empathy. They focus on themselves and getting to their destination, nothing more. I always say “excuse me” and “sorry” when I bump into people, and people actually give me weird looks. But when out on the street, saying such things is completely normal. Why is it so different on the train?

What do you think about politeness in society? Do you think it’s important? What do you think the effects are of having such a rigid politeness system? Why do you think there’s such a drastic change when people are commuting? What are the potential effects of losing empathy when in a mob situation?