Preying on the Vulnerable: Japan’s “Schoolgirl Escort” IndustrySociety
In the first part of this series I discussed how many young people today find validation and self-worth through social media and games. While they can access information and make connections through their smartphones, however, their limited experience and undeveloped decision-making skills can lead them into serious problems. In this second article, I consider one prominent example—the so-called JK industry, or businesses focused on female high school students.
Jobs for Schoolgirls
The JK industry (JK stands for joshi kōsei, or “high school girls”) is made up of a variety of dating and escort–type services united by one thing—their selling point is that the girls on their books are all high school students. JK businesses come in various forms from “JK osanpo,” where customers pay to go for “walks” with a high school girl, to the “JK Café” experience where patrons chat and play games with girls in their school uniforms and photo shoots with cosplayers dressed up as anime and manga characters. Other services available include hugs and reflexology massages.
According to a survey carried out by Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department in January 2016, at least 174 premises operate businesses of this kind in the Tokyo metropolitan area alone. Following steps to tighten regulations under the Child Welfare Act and introduce stricter youth protection bylaws in recent years, however, many of these businesses no longer operate out of fixed premises. Today, it is easy to manage a team of teenage part-timers from a rented office space via a website and social networking. Customers can choose the time and service they want from a site menu and high school girls looking for work can apply via special job search websites and social media. Job sites specializing in JK business often feature text along the following lines.
Female high school students wanted to work as tour guides! Special wages guaranteed for a limited time only. Many of our high school employees make ¥20,000 or more working just three hours a day!No resume required. Interview can be arranged to suit your schedule. And we guarantee: absolutely no personal data leaks.Applying couldn’t be easier. Make easy money in your free time. We have professional links with the entertainment industry, and many of our employees have found work as models and in the media. Our team of friendly staff is always on hand to answer your questions and provide any advice you might need.
We are a fully licensed and respectable business. We will never pressure you to take any job you don’t want to do. All work on a contract basis.
The “tour guide” job mentioned here refers to the osanpo service. This normally involves more than simply walking around town with the client—additional options include holding hands and karaoke. Sex is not officially on the menu, but is often available as a “hidden” option. The businesses and the girls regularly exchange messages via social media, keeping in contact to deliver reports and instructions.
In March 2016, the STEP Institute, a private think tank, carried out a survey to ascertain awareness of the JK industry among junior high and high school students. Of the 515 students who took part in the survey, 62.9% of students said they knew of the JK industry, while 9.5% knew at least one person who was working in it. A significant proportion approved or at least accepted the idea of working in the industry. In response to the question “What do you think about people who work in the JK industry?” 22.9% answered that “They do it because they need the money, so it can’t be helped,” and 10.5% said that “If the people doing the job and their customers are both having a good time, what’s the problem?” Another 8.3% expressed active interest in work of this kind, agreeing that “This represents a new way for girls to make money in today’s society.”
Even so, warnings against the dangers involved in JK businesses spread rapidly via social media. However much these businesses may put themselves forward as easy ways to make money, anxieties and concerns about the shady side of the industry must surely also make an impression on the target age group. What prompts them to get involved in the business, and what is the reality they find when they do?
How Businesses Lure Students In
Yuri (not her real name) is 18 and lives in Tokyo. She is a member of her school’s drama club and plans to apply to a vocational college to study fashion after she graduates from high school. When she was aged 16–17, she spent a year working in the JK industry as a cosplayer. Her job involved dressing up as anime and video game characters for apartment building photo shoots, and accompanying customers to karaoke.
Before she got involved in the JK industry, Yuri was earning around ¥20,000 a month from a part-time job in a food court. But this money didn’t last long once she started buying clothes and eating out with friends. A co-worker told her about a special website advertising JK jobs. The site contained all kinds of encouraging information: “20,000 high school students already registered on our site,” “150 new registrations already today.” Jobs were divided into categories, including “Junior idols,” “Photo shoots,” “Cosplay,” “Karaoke,” and “Tour guides.” There were also photographs and comments from some of the girls already working on a part-time basis. Yuri’s first reaction was suspicion. But her curiosity was piqued when she read comments written by the other girls.
“You can apply anonymously, and they won’t make you do anything you’re not comfortable with. There’s no need to worry about personal data leaks. The staff are friendly and pretty cool, and you get to make friends with girls from different schools. Working here is a lot of fun.”
Reading these comments made Yuri think it might be worth registering anonymously just to see what happened. After all, it was free and the forms were easy to complete. She filled out a simple profile using the name “Momo,” providing her age and email address, along with her hobbies and interests, and mentioning that she was in the drama club at school. Not long after, she got an email from the company suggesting a job that would apparently allow her to show off her acting skills: “We think this opportunity might be ideal for someone like you, Momo, with your drama background.” The job was for a cosplay model.
“Now hiring: cosplay models for photo session, one day only. Three hours: ¥10,000. Perfect for nervous first-timers! Our friendly female staff will help you through every part of the shoot and ensure that the day goes smoothly.”
Yuri was surprised by the phrase “friendly female staff.” She had always assumed that JK businesses were run by “scary-looking men.” But if there were going to be other women there . . . and the job was just for one day? Reassured, she decided to apply. When the day arrived, the appointed place was an apartment not far from one of the city’s major entertainment districts. Nervously, Yuri rang the front door bell. Three smiling women soon welcomed her in.
Yuri was one of four girls working that day. The work involved nothing more than cosplay: dressing up as various anime characters for photos. There were around 10 customers. She received the promised ¥10,000 in cash and then went out for a meal with the other girls and the company staff. The girls soon relaxed and started to have fun. By the time they were exchanging contact details, Yuri had quite forgotten her earlier trepidation. She was thrilled to have discovered such an easy way of making good money.
Web of Obligations
This positive first experience made Yuri decide to work in JK businesses regularly. She got along with the female staff, who were always happy to provide dating advice or help with homework, and generally behaved toward her like friendly older sisters. And in some cases, the men were like older brothers. They often flattered Yuri, telling her, “Hey, you’re really cute,” or “I’ve never met a high school student like you before.”
The ability to make good money, paired with the social support and the semblance of friendship that business operators provide, means that many girls soon develop a sense of obligation. They feel they must work harder to repay the kindness they have been shown, and are reluctant to “betray” the friendly staff members who support them. This can easily lead to a condition of emotional control, in which it becomes difficult for them to say no even when they are pressed to agree to provide sexual services.
Some businesses deliberately encourage competition between the girls. They send messages ranking them by popularity, and pay bonuses to the most popular ones, who are invited to special dinners. Pictures taken at these occasions are then sent to all the girls on their books, in the hope that they will inspire others to try harder.
In May 2016, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department issued a report on measures to prevent sexual crimes in the JK industry. It noted a rise in the number of girls who have been subjected to indecent assault or stalking, as well as various problems with the companies who employ them, including cases in which girls wanted to quit but were forced to continue working. It also noted that in many cases students feel unable to report what has happened, or they are unaware that they are being exploited. These factors make it difficult to ascertain the true scale of the problem.
Even if some of the girls who get involved in JK businesses are guilty of naïveté, this is not an issue that can simply be dismissed as a matter of personal responsibility. Many students are sucked in by a carefully thought-out business strategy and a system that is calculated to exploit them.
These businesses deliberately set the barriers to entry low by using dedicated websites and social media, tempting students with promises of high pay and the possibility of entry into jobs as entertainment idols. They offer female support staff to help the girls feel safe and secure, and encourage them to get more deeply involved. The questions are simple, however: Who profits from this system, and whose sexual desires are being gratified?
For some girls, the JK industry appeals by appearing to offer a refuge from a whole host of social problems. It offers a chance of decent money and dependable meals for young women who have lost their way as a result of child poverty, abuse, or the collapse of their family support networks. In some cases, girls use the money they earn to pay their school fees, and agree to go out with customers because it is a reliable way to stave off hunger. Some sleep over at the business operators’ offices to get away from a violent or abusive parent at home. It is undeniable that the inability to report or recognize exploitation may stem from the girls’ difficult home environments. Children who have grown up without a family network they can trust often have no one they can turn to, and do not know how to use the available safety nets.
The JK industry is linked to the darkest aspects of Japanese society. Its role in drawing high school girls toward the sex industry is supported by the poverty and family breakdowns that afflict so many children today.(Originally published in Japanese on February 14, 2017.)