The translated piece below from May 2020 is the first in a series of articles by the magazine Bungei Shunju on the “sugar” dating industry in Japan since the onset of the Corona pandemic. The series continues today. Its journalistic approach is to interview both sugar “daddies”, in addition to their female “babies”, about practices, prices, and priorities changed in the industry since Corona. While this approach unfortunately gives airtime to male buyers and their self-justifications, on the plus side it makes exceedingly clear the industry’s prostitution basis. Across all articles in the series, no bones are made of the fact that “babies” are bought for prostitution by men with money. Further of interest in the article below is the apparent involvement of cyber-touts who mediate the trading of women to these “daddy” buyers.
Whether or not inspired by the Bungei Shunju series, it was significant that Japan’s national broadcaster, in December 2020, aired an episode of the country’s popular evening current affairs program ‘Close-Up Gendai‘ on the same topic. This program went further than Bungei Shunju to interview a sugar-dating website owner, and get his admission on camera that revenues had risen since the pandemic, and were substantial.
Like Brazil, the Japanese government did not implement any genuine measures against the virus, which now, 18 months into the pandemic, leaves large parts of the Japanese population immiserated, sick, and in a state of anxiety about the country’s failed hospital system. Reports from outreach organisations show numbers of women in the sex industry skyrocketing, and prices hitting rock-bottom. While young women fleeing households in the regions make up a big proportion of Japan’s prostituted population, as the article below shows it also incorporates older women in the mainstream workforce who can’t make ends meet because of Japan’s unspeakably low wages. These women sign up to “sugar” dating websites, which make up an industry referred to as “papakatsu”.
The seriousness of the problem of Japanese female sexual enslavement in the twenty-first century cannot be overstated, and things are only getting worse as the pandemic deepens. At the same time, though, green shoots of a strong abolitionist movement are emerging in the country. This movement centres on two Tokyo-based outreach organisations—PAPS and Colabo— which both have solid connections to feminism and survivor organising. It is backed by a number of forthright academics and organisers on the political left who explicitly oppose the sex industry’s operations in Japan, including that of the so-called “sugar” online industry.
The article below does not incorporate any of the strong arguments of Japan’s emerging abolitionist movement, but it does offer an insider perspective on some of the industry’s practices, and the terrible health risks it inflicts on women unable to flee in a pandemic.
Translated by Caroline Norma
Written by Chika Akiyama, Bunshun, 28 May 2020
Sugar Daddy dating involves men paying young women for outings and dinners. But the Coronavirus pandemic has delivered a blow to Japan’s Sugar Daddy market, which waxes and wanes with the state of the economy, and whose business activities are almost impossible without physical meetups, let alone sexual encounters.
What will the future of Japan’s Sugar Daddy market be, post-Corona? We interviewed sugar daddies and sugar babies in the current crisis to hear how their activities are being impacted. A 44-year old consultancy firm owner told us his attitudes towards sugar daddying had changed significantly since the onset of the crisis. As a sugar daddy, he’d been paying six women 1.5 million yen a month before the crisis, but, now, of these six, he’s still seeing only one of them. He’s no longer in touch with the four he met through Sugar Daddy apps and dating sites, but not for reasons relating to the Coronavirus. But a fifth woman in her 20s, who was his Sugar Baby for ‘dinners, saunas and travel’, he stopped seeing because eating out became impossible during the lockdown, and because he got the feeling she wasn’t taking social distancing measures seriously.
‘I was introduced to a fresh, young 21-year-old university woman, but…’
Before the state of emergency was declared, Masayuki told us he had no particular plans to reduce his spending on sugar babies. He had asked his online scout—a guy who liked checking out Sugar Babies online and would pass Masayuki on to different women, whether he would find him a different type of sugar baby. This scout wasn’t in it for the money, he was just an employee of one of Masayuki’s consulting firm corporate clients. ‘I would just shout him lunch for his help’, Masayuki told us. ‘It’s tough to find a good girl on the websites, so it’s a big help.’ Towards the end of last year this online scout had referred Masayuki to a bikini model who’d advertised herself as aged in her mid-20s but was actually aged 29. ‘But I had no complaints about her appearance and was giving her 400,000 yen a month, but it ended in March because she was sloppy with keeping appointments, and the physical chemistry wasn’t there’. Just around that time, he got his next introduction to ‘Aimi’, a 21-year-old women’s college student in Tokyo. She had a fresh persona and said she was saving to travel and study in Korea.
She had approached Masayuki’s online scout for help in finding a Sugar Daddy because she had lost her part-time job at a restaurant due to the Coronavirus, and so her plans to travel to Korea had unravelled. Even before the scout broached the topic of money, though, she had declared from the outset that she would be paid 50,000 yen every time she met with a Sugar Daddy. But, soon after, in the month they first met, Masayuki came down with an unexplained illness, “I couldn’t taste what I was eating,” he told us.
“I couldn’t stop coughing and had trouble breathing, and I wasn’t able to sleep because of intense body pain.” Masayuki recalls that it was a pain he had never experienced before in his life. “It was so hard I called the locum doctor at 3 a.m., but he merely took my temperature and told me it wasn’t the Coronavirus because I didn’t have a fever. He was just prescribed some painkillers. In the end, I was bedridden for two weeks,” Masayuki said, adding that while Aimi sometimes brought him instant curry packs and kimchi from a nearby convenience store, he couldn’t taste even these kinds of spicy foods. It is unclear whether he was infected with the coronavirus or not because he was not tested, but, soon after, Aimi contacted him to say she’d fallen ill with a cold and become bedridden for two weeks. Further still, after he recovered, Masayuki spent time at an Akasaka lounge bar after one of his former Sugar Babies had asked him to drop by because customers weren’t coming into the venue anymore because of the virus. But, soon after, in April, she too was hospitalised with pneumonia. A lack of social distance in these ‘social’ relationships led to a series of people falling ill.
‘I didn’t like her amateurishness’
Aimi was willing to risk infection to come to see him, but, after meeting with her several times in March and April, Masayuki decided that he could not continue the relationship. According to Masayuki, the reason was that “she gave me the impression she thought there was no other girl as good as her, and was selfish sexually. She’d do things like leave her unwashed glasses behind, like a slovenly person”. People say that the appeal of becoming a Sugar Daddy is that you can meet inexperienced women you’d not normally come across in the sex industry or in adult entertainment businesses, but “I can’t say I was happy with her amateurishness,” Masayuki said under his breath. After giving Aimi 500,000 yen as a parting gift he ended their relationship, and now Masayuki’s approach to sugar daddying since the Coronavirus lockdown has changed in two ways.
A newly discovered destination for spending?
The first change was in the amount Masayuki was prepared to pay Sugar Babies. “We can’t be as lavish in our daddy activities as we have been in the past,” he said, flagging plans to rein in his monthly allowances paid out from 1.5 million yen to about 500,000 yen. The second change involved his lifestyle. He’s shut down his consultancy business office, and now works from home, and spent nothing on sugar dating throughout April. Masayuki has converted to a “stay home” lifestyle where he cooks for himself and avoids eating out, which he loved to do, and minimizes his outings. In the midst of all this, he says there is something he has become more preoccupied with than his former Sugar Daddy activities: networked internet gaming. “Before Corona, I didn’t play them at all, but, when I couldn’t go outside, I became hooked. The money I’d spent on sugar daddy activities is now spent on gaming. The only baby I still see on a regular basis, a 25-year-old woman, has also become so addicted to playing video games after her workplace was closed due to the declared state of emergency that there are days when we start playing video games together from noon without even any physical intimacy.”
‘A boom in supply has made Sugar Babies so cheap’
On the other hand, Masayuki says his online scout business partner has introduced him to another woman. “Right now, there are a lot of girls flowing into the sugar market, but because the supply is increasing and demand is decreasing, it’s getting much cheaper. That is: the number of women like Aimi who have lost work and so have started sugaring is increasing, and the number of ‘generous’ men like Masayuki is decreasing, causing the price to fall. However, Masayuki, who has changed his values, seems not to be very enchanted with the recently introduced baby prospect. He laughs bitterly, “I can’t afford to add a girl to my expenses”. “Besides, it’s a hassle to be a daddy. I don’t want to be a benefactor anymore.”
‘Daddy offers are sharply down in the Cornovirus pandemic: “A 300,000-yen-a-month sugar baby tells all: ‘I want the young girls to value their bodies’.
“I commute to work every day thinking I’m just grateful to have a job these days.” Yuko’s voice, which I hadn’t heard in six months, was as calm as ever, and the way she chose her words exuded a sense of dignity.
Yuko, a 33-year-old temp-dispatch employee working as a clerk, has been meeting up with sugar daddies after work for the past two years. Even under the declared state of emergency, her day job was not switched to remote work and so she continued to come into the office almost as usual. On the other hand, there was a change in her “evening activities”.
“I was earning 300,000 yen a month as a sugar baby before the crisis”
Prior to Corona, she received one or more new offers from men per month through dating clubs, and, in the more frequent months, her sugar allowances totalled about 300,000 yen, including the money she received from her regular daddies. However, the number of new sugar daddies since the threat of coronavirus began to stir in Japan was zero in February, one in early March, and zero in April.
“Even my regular daddies are each now unable to meet, for various different reasons.”
For example, she had been dating a married man in his 40s with an allowance of 60,000 yen per date for an “adult relationship,” but the man’s work related to cosmetic surgery had become so busy in the aftermath of Corona that he couldn’t find time to catch up.
“Since it’s become normal to wear masks nowadays, masks can cover the time it takes for the skin to recover from cosmetic surgery on blemishes, laser work to remove lesions, etc., and the number of women working at home is increasing, so now there is so much demand that there is a shortage of cosmetic surgery staff. Now that I think of it, the crisis is certainly a good opportunity for cosmetic work.”
Sugar dating inevitably lacks social distance
Because of social distancing requirements, she has now been forced to distance herself from the married man in his 40s, a company employee, with whom she has had the closest relationship, including going on trips together.
“It sounds like he’s gone home with his family to his parent’s house out of town. I got a message from him a month ago saying he’d contact me again when things were back to normal. It’s probably risky for him to chat with me online while he’s back with his family, so we’ve not had any other contact. It’s important that I respect that, and protect his privacy, that’s what daddies expect of their babies.”
In addition to the fact that many people’s lives have changed drastically in Corona, there is an inevitable risk of virus infection in sugar dating activities that naturally involve a lack of social distancing. But, for Yuko, because she’s been forced to continue commuting to her day job as normal during the crisis, “I’ve gradually lost my fear of infection”.
New sugar dating opportunities from May 2020
In May, a new sugar daddy offer came in for the first time in a long time, and they met face-to-face at a restaurant in a luxury hotel. A married man in his 50s, like Yuko he was in an industry that did not allow him to work from home. The pandemic crisis led to the new introduction of an online social media-connected sugar dating platform that Yuko belonged to, but the man said, “I’m not good at such things, so I want to meet you face-to-face,” and Yuko readily agreed.
He said he used to be a sugar daddy to a woman in her 20s who he met at a nightclub. He told me all about the fact this woman had been working two jobs while trying to study for the national civil servant exams, so quitting these jobs and becoming a sugar baby instead was better for focusing on her studies while still having financial support. It took her three years to achieve her dream, but she managed it in the end. He said that helping her was not only fulfilling for his body, but also for his mind, and he asked me repeatedly if I had any dreams. I had to tell him I was in the process of looking for some.
Yuko had actually wanted to become a legal secretary after graduating from one of Tokyo’s top six universities, but gave up at the age of 28. Repaying her student loans will take till 2021 because she still has nearly 1 million yen yet to pay.
“Taking a wrong step in sugar dating can be scary.”
She currently has a sugar allowance, but is careful not to change the way she lives too much, and rather than paying off extra amounts of her student loan debt, she saves any excess income so that she doesn’t run into trouble if she doesn’t get any allowance in the following month.
She is now concerned about the fact that some students who have lost their part-time jobs or stopped receiving money from their parents due to Corona’s influence have started searching for a sugar daddy. In fact, an increasing number of women, including troubled students, are taking up sugar dating activities, Yuko says. ”I’m doing sugar dating to deal with a student college loan, but others are in a much more serious position of having to do sugar dating just to continue school. I think it’s better not to quit school, but, on the other hand, one step wrong in sugar dating and there’s serious consequences for young women. There is the possibility of getting involved in some kind of incident, or else getting hooked on the money and having your sense of proportion in spending become totally out-of-whack. Plus I want young women to care for their bodies. So I donated a small amount of the money I received from sugar dating to my old university so that juniors who were in need could get some help.
From now on, “I’ll just go with the flow.”
As for herself, Yuko says, “Now that I have some time to spare, I’m trying to get into the habit of studying for a qualification, like financial planning.” Yuko looks forward to a future time when she no longer has to rely on sugar dating for an income.
It was late May when the number of new infections began to decrease in Tokyo. In turn, contact from men, which had drastically reduced, began to return a little. Yuko thinks she will just, “go with the flow,” and is standing by for whatever comes up. However, she’s also received a greetings message from a man around 70 years old, who she should have cut off contact with because he kept pressing her for a physical relationship.
Yuko was almost dragged off to a hotel forcibly by the elderly man crying, “I’ve not got much more life to live!”. She said jokingly at the end of our interview, “I’m at a loss as to what to say in response, because he’s not the kind of gentleman with whom I can just go with the flow”.