Tokyo – a city that never sleeps. Known for its entertainment industry, Tokyo is a paradise for those interested in anime and its unique subcultures. There’s Lolita fashion in Shibuya and themed cafés in Akihabara where customers can pet cats or enjoy rice and omelettes served by girls in French maid costumes. However, the shimmering LED billboards and innocent smiles hide a secret that is fundamentally intertwined with the massive subculture industry that the city boasts: the JK business.
JK is the English abbreviation for 女子高生 (joushi kousei), which translates to “female high school students”. Euphemistically, it is an industry that appeals to Japan’s increasing demand for female high school student themed entertainment, not met even by their prevalence in the anime scene. The business offers a wide variety of platonic and romantic services employing Japanese females from age 12 to 17 who seek part-time jobs while attending school. Many work in cosplay (costume-play) cafés, the most popular of which are the maid cafés, which remain popular despite the criticism for the master-servant service that the employees deliver.
Waitresses in the maid cafés are protected by rules that protect their personal privacy and prevent customers from pursuing inappropriate actions. Those working in other branches of the business are not as fortunate. ‘JK osanpo’, a service that is extremely popular with middle-aged men, pays female students to “go on walks” with customers. Even more dangerous is ‘JK reflexology’: men pay for massages where the masseuses are, yet again, high school students. Both services provide ample opportunities for customers to sexually harass the employees, who are not protected by unions or even by the basic rules that protect the maid café waitresses. The degree to which these services transform to sexual encounters has prompted Vice News, an international news organization, to call the JK business a mere “front” for underage prostitution.
Reports submitted to the United Nations have panned Japan for allowing this industry to flourish and expressed grave disappointment that one of the most economically and technologically advanced nations in Asia would ignore underage prostitution and practices akin to human trafficking occurring in its capital city. The Japanese Foreign Ministry has reacted strongly against this statement, accusing Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, a United Nations rapporteur, of using false statistics such as her claim that 13% of all female high school students have engaged in enjou kosai – “compensated dating” in English. Nevertheless, the Japanese government has had a lax record of enforcing legislation that protects minors in such contexts; until June of 2014 it was legal to possess child pornography, and it is still legal today to feature minors in provocative poses in anime or manga.
The JK business is not the only industry that exploits underage females; mass media entertainment has catered to the demands of those who patronise JK businesses. AKB48, for example, holds the Guinness World Record for the pop group with most members – 130 girls and women. They broke records in the Japanese music industry by selling 1.95 million copies of their hit single “Sayonara Crawl” in 2013. As one of the most successful musical acts in Japan, the group consistently rakes in annual revenue of over $100 million USD.
Although many of the members are in their twenties, the youngest teen sensation to join the group is Karen Yoshida, only 12 years old when she made her debut with the team in April of 2015. Despite its tremendous success, AKB48 has pushed the bounds of what can be considered “artistic creativity” in Japan with their music videos featuring members in lingerie and provocative lyrics in songs such as “Seifuku ga Jama Suru”, which translates to “School Uniform is Getting in the Way”. AKB48 has also been involved in controversial endorsements such as semi-nude lingerie photoshoots and commercials for candy in which the members, clad in schoolgirl uniforms, passed candy to one another orally. The minds behind these advertising schemes, such as director Mika Ninagawa, claim to be catering to a broad audience, but can their statements be given credence when their models are female teenagers wearing uniforms and posing provocatively?
Notwithstanding reports sent to the United Nations criticizing the JK business and the government’s lack of action regarding underage prostitution, the JK industry was created to make profit from the overwhelming public appetite for female high school teenagers. The eradication of this industry does not guarantee the eradication of underage prostitution in a country whose fascination with female high school students is more than skin deep.