Japanese Holiday 2013

In times like these when almost all trips and journeys are restricted, people easily get lost in memories of adventures long gone. Being no exception, I’d like to tell you about my trip around Honshū in 2013. Back then, I was an exchange student at Kanazawa University, but hadn’t seen much of Japan apart from the usual tourist attractions nearby.

For some reason unknown to me, my parents came up with the idea to grab my older brother, enter an airplane, flight around the world and come to stay with me in Japan for some time. Since they’ve never really stuck out as overly adventurous, my first reaction was surprise followed by vague worries. They are more the kind of people who feel comfy and at ease in their little village and would not miss much if they’d be trapped there forever. So, I wasn’t sure at all if they would stand the cultural shock, the climate (humid summer) and if we would be able to spend lovely holidays together. Last time the four of us went on holiday must have been when I was four years old – before my sisters came into existence, anyway. Sure enough, this would be a challenge for everyone involved in one way or the other.

But let’s start at the beginning. One hot very humid summer day in Ōsaka, I met my family at the Kansai airport. Rather jetlagged and exhausted, they asked for a taxi to the hotel. Here, I should have known better, because taxi fees in Japan are very high. But a taxi they wanted, so a taxi they got. It was the taxi driver’s lucky day, I guess.

Ōsaka was the first stop of our trip. Since it is a very big, loud and lively city, and as different from my little hometown as can be, it may have been intimidating for my guests. At the end of the first day, I was just happy to not have lost any of my family members in some train or the downtown streets of Ōsaka at night.

Next stop was Kyōto, where we were able to visit the beautiful Kiyomizudera temple with almost no other tourists around. The best part of the day, however, was ending up in a small corner pub. Except for the down-to-earth fellows who seemed to belong to the place like the scratches on the bar, only the four of us were there. After a short time the man next table realized I could speak Japanese, and started to provide us with sake. Needlessly to say, this led to an increase in good spirits and to the fact that we were no longer able to walk to the hostel, but had ourselves brought home by another of these white-gloved taxi drivers beyond the age of 60. Apart from the Kiyomizudera mentioned above, the bamboo forest outside Kyōto is also worth a visit. We lend some bikes, cycled through a village and the forest, when suddenly my brother shouted something and added up speed. „Monkeys!” I’ve never been able to share his fascination for monkeys, but what don’t you do to keep your guests satisfied? We had no choice but to follow him climbing up the monkey mountain in the summer heat. And really, there was a whole bunch of monkeys, that could not be disturbed by the humans around them. While my thrilled brother started taking pictures of the monkeys, my mother and I preferred to keep a little distance.

After visiting the big cities of Ōsaka and Kyōto, we took the express train to Kanazawa, the city where I was located as exchange student. Now the rather unplanned part of the journey was about to begin. In Ōsaka, Kyōto and Kanazawa we had always booked accommodations and planned the sightseeing points beforehand. But now we wanted to set out independently with our rented Subaru to explore the more rural regions in northeastern direction.

Driving in Japan actually works quite well. The roads are in a very good condition and there are plenty of gas stations. It is important to remember that Japan has left-hand traffic and it can take a while to get used to it. Fees must be paid for using the highway. In order to be allowed to drive, you need your foreign driving license affirmed by a Japanese traffic office. The first time we headed for the highway, we all were startled when the navigation system started to beep. Everyone got excited, and my brother, who was driving, shouted at me, asking whether we were about to enter the highway the wrong way. I had to shout back asking them all to shut up, because I couldn’t understand what the Japanese women’s voice was saying. But the nice lady only wanted us to remember inserting the tax fee card into the respective slot. After that incident we all took a deep breath, looking forward to our northeastern adventure.

Not knowing where we would spend the next night, the journey by car was really fun. We were free to spontaneously change, stop or reverse destinations. In addition, I could always use the smartphone we’d rented at the airport and try to find accommodation for the night. We never were exactly sure what lay ahead of us. For example, one day we found a hidden waterfall and my brother and my father didn’t want to miss the chance to jump into the ice-cold water. Another day, we walked through a forest near our traditional hotel and reached a shrine site from the back. There, I explained to my family that people came here to pray for different things, even some profane things like the growth of one’s hair. Hearing this, my mother shook her head in astonishment.

In any case, it had been a great idea to drive to the countryside after the big cities. Not only were we more independent, but also more relaxed than before. Even my mother, who had struggled with homesickness the days before, became cheerful again and especially took a liking to Japanese bath culture. Every evening the two of us entered the bath together. In Japan, the lodgings very often don’t have a shower but a group bath, men and women divided. Before enjoying the very hot and clear water for a few minutes, one is supposed to sit down on a little stool in front of a mirror and use soap, shampoo and the like. Don’t forget to get rid of the remaining soap and shampoo before climbing into the pool. Then just enjoy the hot water for a few minutes. My father, as I learned, had a little more trouble to adjust to this bathing culture thing, because one evening he complaint about the much too low “showers”.

Another highlight of this trip was the town of Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture. In contrast to the southern part of Honshū, it was pleasantly fresh and less humid up there. The city of Matsumoto has an impressive and very interesting castle, which – I have to agree with my brother – is actually much cooler than the highly overrated castle of Ōsaka; because this castle – still being beautiful – had been built only for defensive reasons and even included a secret floor which could not be seen from the outside. Hidden in that way, the samurai could target their enemies and shoot arrows at them.

I also highly recommend a visit to Kamikochi. This is a travel region on the margins of the Japanese Alps, perfect for hiking and camping. The crystal-clear stream, an impressive mountain panorama, and wonderfully fresh air will make you want to stay out all day. Only the other tourists can be a little annoying sometimes, so it is best to try not to go there during the main season. Or, if you are as courageous as we were, leave the heavy used paths and try to find your own way following the river.

From Nagano we drove back west to Kanazawa and spend the last day together at the Japanese Sea. Same day that evening, we were just about to drop the car off at the car rental company, when a police car popped up behind us. As it turned out, we had ignored the stop sign at the corner. The grumpy looking police man was not amused, but fortunately his heart could be melted this time by my skillful rhetoric and exuberant apologies – well, maybe he just had no desire to spend his time on making him be understood by foreigners, and we just got lucky.

After that, we parted at the train station. My family went back to Ōsaka and would take the flight home the following day. On the one hand, I was glad that everything had been fine and there was now some time for me to rest. But on the other hand, I felt a little sorry that the journey was over and I had to say goodbye.

I really hope that my family enjoyed the stay – and you this little report.

Let me finish by sharing one thing I learned during this trip. Sometimes, an adventure, a journey or just a change of surroundings can function as a mirror. This is a great opportunity to learn something about yourself and the ones close to you, and in order to not let it pass by, take your time! Feel free to take in the things you like and the ones you don’t like. Share your view with the ones around you, be it your family or friends or whoever. This is the way to create real treasures and memories.

Supply and Demand – Girls for Rent

Today, I would like to focus on a topic that has been on my mind for quite some time. Ever since I started studying Japanese Studies at university, I wanted to do some research on a certain social problem of Japanese society. Finally, I am able to take a look at this topic after graduation and can explore some of the crucial points concerning the so-called JK business.

The term JK business consists of the abbreviation of the Japanese word for female high-school student (joshi kōkōsei), added to the English word business. Strictly speaking, JK business is a subcategory of a phenomenon, called enjokōsai, literally meaning “compensated dating”. In enjokōsai, a – in most cases – female person offers her services and time to a – in most cases – male customer. Services can include anything from conversation, massages, visits to the restaurant up to sexual acts. enjokōsai and similar services are said to have developed, because in Japan open prostitution has been forbidden by law since 1958. Of course, foreigners and Westerners may add enjokōsai to the wide range of strange and creepy things Japanese society has to offer. In bewilderment they could ask why a man would possibly want to pay a woman he doesn’t know for listening to his sorrows and woes. But I dare say that there is nothing wrong with this, provided that consent is given, rules apply and no minors are involved.

However, this precondition is very problematic in practice and it’s what I will be discussing in this article. In its very nature, JK business refers to services offered by high-school girls, who may be under the age of 18, to adults. Often, middle-aged men will pay girls to spend time with them and for offering different services. Officially, these services only include innocent-seeming things like visits to restaurants or karaoke-bars, strolls in the park, fortune telling or conversation. In many cases, men also buy presents and expensive items for the girls. The high risk and danger for young girls, who take up this kind of part-time job, of being put under pressure, getting themselves into dangerous situations or being exploited in some way, cannot be ignored. It has been reported by girls and activists against human trafficking that in many cases behind the scenes of JK business, obscure organizational structures can be found.

The established way to get into JK business is as follows: a girl can register in the JK business shops‘ list and then the shop will offer the girl’s service to customers. The shops will arrange meetings between the girl and the customer. Moreover, girls will stand in the streets distributing their pictures and handouts and calling out to possible customers. So if you walk through the busy streets of Tōkyō’s districts Ikebukuro or Akihabara, don’t be surprised if girls in school uniforms ask if you would like a massage.

There are no fundamental laws to prevent this kind of things, since it doesn’t violate the anti-prostitution law nor the child protection law in a direct way. However, some Japanese prefectures have tried to get rid of this problem and to minimize danger to young girls by trying to prohibit JK business carried out by minors altogether. Some JK business insiders and activitsts even claim the Japanese Yakuza has some interest in keeping these kinds of businesses running. There have been some raids portrayed by the media, where the police cracked down on JK shops. But nothing really seems to extinguish this phenomenon thoroughly.

One the issues concerning JK business may be, that society focuses too much on the girls’ behavior rather than questioning why it is tolerated of men to show and even cherish their not always innocent interest in young girl’s company and service.

At this point, I’d like to mention that I regard the whole way Japanese society boosts men’s attraction to under-aged schoolgirls problematic. Just take a look at the omnipresent pop bands consisting of teenage girls. Their target audience is stressed male office workers of companies, whose fantasies are fed by suggestive songs like “My school uniform is in my way” or “virgin love”, just to mention two.

Intentions may be diverse, but here, a similarity in the motives of these girl bands’ fans and the men who take the services of schoolgirls are to be seen. By getting in contact with young girls through JK business and such pop bands, men can feel like benevolent protectors of an innocent girl. This is a contrast to reality, because even in Japan, women now take on jobs and societal roles formerly just filled in by men. Women have more self-confidence and are learning to stand up for themselves. Some male members of society may feel like they are losing ground or something is being taken away from them through such developments. In this case, the girl functions as an affirmation of the man’s patriarchal beliefs. Sure, it is also conceivable that men just wish for interpersonal social contact without any sexual intentions. But to be clear, other customers just might be criminals who exploit a girl. Others may be misogynist individuals who, having paid for them, like the thought of power over women and girls.

Looking at a girls’ motive for working in JK business, it’s clearly a good opportunity to get money, high-brand clothing, accessories and the like. Moreover, young people’s naive curiosity might make girls try JK business. In that way, they can compare themselves to others and find out what they are “worth”. And working in JK business can be considered as a rebellious act against parents, school and family, making it an interesting tool to express one’s disagreement with society as a whole. Initially, it may also be a source of empowerment for young girls. And, after all, friends and others have done this and been alright, haven’t they?

Then, there is the type of girl whose personal background is unstable, who comes from a broken home and who is not able to find someone to trust or turn to at school or somewhere else. Those girls may feel valued and needed for the first time, since they have something to offer.

Poverty and former experiences of violence may play a big role in a girl ‘s motivation, too. Standing in the streets searching for a way to find food, who would not accept a stranger ‘s offer to buy a meal or a warm place to rest?

As mentioned before, there seems to be little police and social workers do or can do in terms of the legal situation. But private activism also targets at JK business. One example is COLLABO, founded by Ms. Yumeno Nito. Having been a runaway herself, she can relate to the girls’ desperate feelings. Also, some friends of hers ended up in JK business being hurt and exploited, some of them eventually committing suicide. Today, Nito tries to find and help girls in need of support. At night she goes out on the streets of Tōkyō, looking for girls working in JK business or similar jobs, and offers them a place to eat and rest. By attending and listening to them, Nito hopes that the girls will open up, learn to trust her and allow her to help them find ways out of JK business, pressure and shame. Nito knows it’s hard for a teenage person to find their way out alone, because in many cases, a girl who got herself in trouble would tend to blame herself for the situation and stay silent, ashamed of what happened to her. Nito emphasizes that the society has to stop blaming the girls and start looking at he men who are really the ones behind the scenes. People have to understand that girls don ‘t do this just for fun or for hedonistic reasons. Most of them were easy victims with a bunch of troubles who were lured into JK business by men. Nevertheless, in mass media, stories often concentrate on the girls who are “in trouble”, “being bad”, “suffering from bad circumstances”, “having no roots in family or school or friends”, leaving the question of men ‘s and society ‘s responsibility aside.

Some people both from inside and outside of Japan argue that people are making a fuss about something they don’t know anything about. In their opinion, the whole JK business is just some cultural trait that should be accepted by the outside world. But let me ask a simple question: is a cultural habit that allows or facilitates the exploitation of minors worth keeping? I don‘t think so. Moreover, Japan is a highly developed industrial nation proud to be a member of UN, having agreed to human rights and child protection standards. 
There is another argument that defends JK business from a feminist point of view. It says, that JK business and enjokōsai are ways of undermining patriarchal concepts of owning a woman. That this is a rebellious act since those services include everything a woman or girl in Japan shouldn’t do. So working in JK business is a means of claiming back the right over a woman’s body, because she can sell it and her service to anybody she pleases. Admittedly, there could be some truth in this as long as we are talking about grown-up women with experience and a strong will. But when it comes to girls and minors, this argument is rather ridiculous.

There is nothing left but to hope that Japanese society will stop blaming the victims and start asking how girls can be protected and offenders punished.

An earlier German version of this article can be found here Mädchen zu vermieten.

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