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The Sex Tourist's Yen


new internationalist
issue 245 - July 1993

As more men travel, the sex-tourism industry continues to expand.
Japanese journalist Yayori Matsui investigates a leisurely game
of cat and mouse between the sex-tour operators and complacent authorities.
She is a senior staff writer for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun
and has campaigned against sex tours for over two decades.

‘I come here because Thai girls are pretty and gentle...’ ‘Girls here are much cheaper than in Japan: they are poor, that’s why they need customers, isn’t it?’ ‘Am I afraid of AIDS? No – I use more than one condom.’ ‘I don’t feel immoral to come here, because I’m sort of contributing to the Thai economy.’

These are some of the answers Japanese men in Thaniya Road, Bangkok gave to the Japanese Men’s Group Against Prostitution in Asia in 1991. Thaniya Road is well known as a playground exclusively for Japanese men. Along the 200-metre-long narrow street more than 100 lounges, Karaoke bars and Japanese restaurants are lined up one after another. Hundreds of Japanese tourists and businessmen enjoy their night-life with elegantly dressed Thai hostesses who speak a little Japanese.

Until a few years ago Japanese tourists used to spend their nights on Patpong Road. Today the Go-Go bars there are full of Western tourists. Thaniya Road gradually emerged to cater for Japanese men who feel uncomfortable with noisy music and naked dancers.

Japanese men don’t like to mingle with Western men. You rarely come across Japanese men in the street. They are usually on a group tour and agents make special arrangements for them to receive girls in their hotel rooms. According to a female hotel manager the Japanese are very careful and nervous about sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS, and they demand that the agents provide them with ‘clean’ girls. ‘For us the Japanese way is much better than the way Western men walk around to pick up girls and get or spread the fatal virus,’ she said.

The original destination of Japanese tourists was Taiwan, where Japanese was still spoken because Taiwan was once a colony. Group tours to Peitou hot springs near Taipei became popular because men could enjoy cheaper sex with local women, many of whom were young tribal girls from the mountains.

Then, in 1972, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and mainland China cut direct flights between Tokyo and Taipei. Travel agents responded by funneling sex-tour packages to Seoul, South Korea. They lighted on the Kisaeng, a traditional Korean dinner and provocative entertainment, as the main sales point for Japanese men. The price of the tour included a Kisaeng girl.

'Please enjoy vice': an invitation from the cover of the best-selling international guide book A Man Travels Alone To Pleasure Spots in South-East Asia. Kisaeng tourism was exposed by Korean women in 1973 when a group of women students made protests at Kimpo airport, carrying placards reading: ‘We oppose prostitution tourism!’ or ‘Don’t make our country a brothel for Japanese men’. Korean church women publicly denounced Kisaeng tourism as ‘a shameful act by Japanese men who take advantage of their economic power and dehumanize our countrywomen’. Of the half-a-million Japanese tourists who flocked to Seoul each year, 95 per cent were men.

The heart of the problem is that sex tours have become part of accepted business practice. Corporations now use sex just like alcohol to serve clients and to socialize with colleagues.

In the late 1970s Japanese sex tours expanded to Southeast Asia. In the Philippines the Marcos government promoted international tourism; in the Ermita area of Manila luxurious five-star hotels were built and the sex industry boomed. Young, poor girls came from the vast squatter areas nearby to offer sex services to Japanese and other foreign tourists.

Local reaction was forceful. At the 1980 International Workshop on Third World Tourism in Manila the Christian Conference of Asia investigated tourist hotels, one of which was full of Japanese tourists spending nights with Filipina hostesses. They found that just one tenth of the fee Japanese customers paid went into the pockets of the women themselves; the rest was divided between Japanese travel agents, brothel owners, hotels, local tour-guides and pimps.

The Japanese Prime Minister’s trips to Manila, Bangkok and other capitals were marked by protesters chanting ‘No more sex tours!’. Japanese women’s groups began to take a variety of protest actions. At last sex tourism became a national issue in Japan, discussed even at the Diet (parliament). Travel agents had to refrain from organizing sex tours openly and made it optional for individual tourists to buy women.

As the number of Japanese tourists to the Philippines slumped, Filipina women began to migrate as ‘entertainers’ to Japan. From the mid-1970s Thai women began to arrive in large numbers, many of them the victims of gangster syndicates organizing the international traffic in women.

Despite limited government action, sex tours continue to thrive, fuelled by the doubling of Japanese men travelling abroad in the last five years to reach 12 million in 1992. One survey reported that one in five men admitted to having bought sex with women abroad.

In the mid-1980s sex tours were a key issue provoking protests both inside and outside Japan. Now they are less visible but taken for granted. The sex-tour business is alive, well and very lucrative – it’s simply been driven underground.

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