It took the creators of the documentary Boys For Sale more than a year to fully win the confidence of the male prostitutes, owners of gay and lesbian bars and operators of the notorious urisen parlours that dot Tokyo’s 2-chome gay district.
Once they had been accepted – producer Ian Thomas Ash admitted the entire budget for the first year of the project was spent on alcohol to smooth introductions – the full seedy and contradictory nature of Japan’s commercial male sex scene was laid bare.
Boys For Sale has won four film festival awards this year in Los Angeles, South Africa, Mexico and Ecuador, and had its Japan premiere on November 26 as part of Tokyo Aids Week 2017.
And Ash, who has worked on a number of hard-hitting documentaries in Japan in the past 15 years, admitted he was shocked at what he discovered during the making of the movie.
“We started working on the idea more than 10 years ago and the production process took four years,” said Ash, who was part of a six-person team that included director Itako and Adrian Storey, who served as director of photography.
“We have all heard stories about how people end up as sex workers, although the vast majority tend to be female,” Ash told This Week in Asia. “And we also tend to think of sex work in a modern way, in which people understand the risks they are taking. But it quickly became very clear that was not the case with many of the young men in 2-chome.”
The capital’s gay quarter has about 800 businesses that meet the demand of a clientele still largely underground in Japanese society. One of the owners interviewed for the documentary claimed at least two politicians were regular visitors to the district.
As well as the bars, dance clubs and sex shops, urisen parlours offer a service similar to Japan’s heterosexual hostess clubs.
Ash said it was impossible to get an accurate grasp of the number of young men working as male prostitutes in and around 2-chome, as many operate online and are “delivered” to customers, but 1,000 seemed a reasonable estimate, according to Ash.
Urisen visitors are offered a drink and invited to choose from one of the young men available. Other bars offer “menus” with pictures of the men. Once the customer has made his choice, the man joins his table and is bought a drink.
For every 30 minutes they spend getting to know each other, the customer is charged around 500 yen (HK$34). But if the customer wishes to take the new relationship further, he can take him to a private room or a nearby “love hotel” for sex in exchange for money.
Since Japan’s anti-prostitution law very narrowly defines prostitution as vaginal sex between a man and a woman, no laws are broken. Little legal fuss seems to be made about many of these men being in their late teens, even though the age of consent is 20.
“There were two things that particularly shocked all of us,” said Ash, originally from New York. “One was the very serious lack of understanding of sexually transmitted diseases among these men. Even to the point some of them did not have the vocabulary in their own language to discuss it.”
The other surprising discovery was the number of young men who had come to Tokyo from areas hit hard by the earthquake, tsunami and meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011.
“When we think about vulnerable communities affected by war or natural disaster, we tend to think about young women being forced to work in this sector but it never previously occurred to me that this would be happening in Japan after Fukushima,” Ash said.
Another revelation in the movie, which uses animated sequences to depict parts of the story that were impossible to film, was that many of the young men who provide sexual services are not themselves homosexual.
“To them, it is just a job,” Ash said. “And it was surprising to me that they talked so openly with their girlfriends about what they did for a living. I do not want to generalise about what is acceptable to Japanese women but the men that we spoke with said their girlfriends said they had no problem with their jobs.”
Near the start of the film, a remarkably frank former male prostitute tries to explain how this trade in young men has developed.
“I guess if you had never experienced this, it would be hard to understand,” is the best he can offer.
And as the manager subsequently of an urisen bar, he explains the advice he doles out to young men who are unable to get an erection when they are with a client and what they should focus on.
“Money,” he says. “Making money will get you hard.”