#MeToo in the historical shadow of Japan’s corporate hostess culture

#MeToo in the historical shadow of Japan’s corporate hostess culture

The #MeToo wave is an originally American phenomenon, but its spread worldwide now sees efforts against male harassment and violence manifesting a range of national shades. In South Korea, the country’s president, delivered to power in the 2017 Candlelight Revolution, directs government action against sex offenders in both the public and private sectors because ‘gender violence is an issue of social structure that allows the powerful to sexually oppress or easily wield violence against the weak’. In Japan, in contrast, the country’s finance and deputy prime minister doubts sexual harassment is a crime, and his now-resigned vice departmental secretary, accused of harassing female journalists, oddly defends himself by referring to the fact he goes to ‘clubs with hostesses’ where he engages in ‘wordplay’. Feminist leaders of the #MeToo movement in Japan lament its failure to catch on in the country, and now use the less forthright Twitter hashtag #私たちは女性差別に怒っていい #itsokforustobeangryatsexism to encourage online discussion of sex-based discrimination and abuse. One of these leaders, a woman who spoke publicly in 2016 about being brutally raped in a work-related setting, fled to London last year to escape media and public harassment over her campaigning.

In Japan, online discussion of sexist discrimination and abuse never reached the fever pitch it did in South Korea. In that country, the online activism of young women drove a series of women-only rallies in Seoul attended by tens of thousands of protesters in the first half of 2018. Participants called on the government to take action against covert spy-cam filming of women for uploading to pornography websites. In Japan, in contrast, even overt discrimination against female applicants to a Tokyo-based medical school brought out only one hundred street protesters in July 2018. Even weaker was the reaction to the sexual assault and murder of four women and four girls by a sex industry scout in Tokyo in November 2017. In contrast, Korean feminists staged rallies in Seoul in response to the Gangnam station murder of one young woman in May 2016.

This comparative failure of the #MeToo movement in Japan is difficult to attribute to any material circumstance stopping young women taking part. Standards of living are much higher in Japan than South Korea, even if the female populations of both countries are mostly denied incomes good enough to live on outside of marriage. Japan has enjoyed relative peace and political stability since the end of the war, at least in comparison to South Korea, which was subject to foreign occupation, war, and military dictatorship until 1987. Japanese feminists wonder why extreme levels of gender inequality go mostly unchallenged in a country that has the world’s third-largest economy and a seat at every table in international diplomatic and trade spheres.

An explanation proposed by Kokugakuin University’s Morita Seiya back in 2005 points to the success that ‘Japanese women’s movements have achieved…in the fields of law, trials, etc’ over the ‘last ten years of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century’, in contrast to the ‘spread of pornography and prostitution’ during the same period, which, in Morita’s view, has tended to ‘undermine such achievements and to promote the sexual objectification of women and girls’. In other words, he suggests, because ‘[p]ornography and prostitution became more epidemic in Japan during the 1990s, and serious crimes associated with them took place more frequently’, gains that might have been anticipated from such formal progress made by women’s groups in the legal sphere, for example in relation to rape and domestic violence, did not eventuate. Neither did labour or political gains, we might add.

Corporate hostess culture

The history of Japan’s corporate sector merging its commercial activities with the sexual exploitation of women in after-hours business ‘entertaining’ shows in concrete terms how formal gains for women are undermined by parallel trends of sexualisation and sex industry integration. Since the 1960s, sexualised practices of corporate entertaining have created an environment hostile to women’s entry into the white collar workforce, while concurrently promoting labour market demand for their alternative entry into hostess bars and cabaret clubs. In these clubs, groups of salaried men have glamorously dressed women pour their drinks, peel their grapes, enliven their conversations, sing their karaoke duets, light their cigarettes, and sometimes sexually service them. The integration of such settings into the everyday conduct of white collar work in Japan makes the middle class labour market sexual, and so unfriendly for young women who are made to feel their sex-based status by male colleagues doing business in settings that function wholly on the premise of a sex-subordinate role for women.

Hiring hostesses for night-time entertaining became a popular corporate practice in Japan’s high-speed-economic-growth era of the 1960s; historian Shimokawa Koushi writes that, by 1966, Japan had become a ‘corporate entertaining paradise’ (shayouzoku tengoku) with more than 350,000 hostesses in the country. Even forty years later, over 46 per cent of male respondents to a large-scale survey undertaken in 2003 still believed patronising sex industry venues offering hostesses for work ‘could not be avoided’ in Japan.

How-to manga comic book guide to good corporate entertaining for the ‘shy’ businessman.

Today, the country’s working female population still suffers the effects of this historical labour market geisha-isation. Even when not pursued in sex industry venues, after-hours corporate entertaining comes with the expectation that women in white collar jobs will assume a hostess role of drink pouring, fawning over male colleagues, and engaging in sexual banter. Young women in particular occupy positions of middle class employment only tenuously as workers; more accurately they are hired as pretty props for men to pursue business comforted and coddled. At least one in ten of them are ‘forced to sing karaoke together, pour alcohol or take a certain seat at [after-hours work] parties’. Even worse, business conducted in after-hours drinking venues renders them vulnerable to sexual assault. A vivid account of this risk is captured in a memoir written by 28-year-old journalist Shiori Ito published in 2017. Ito was the earlier mentioned activist who fled to London to escape public attacks over #MeToo campaigning. Her memoir describes being raped after being drugged at an after-hours work meeting. The perpetrator, Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a well-known journalist and biographer of Japan’s current prime minister, in 2015 arranged to meet Ito after work for a drink in Tokyo to discuss the possibility of an overseas internship. Crucially, he had first come across her in a hostess bar in the US where she had been working while studying for a postgraduate journalism degree. His subsequent detaining and injuring of Ito in a hotel room resembles treatment meted out to women in Japan’s hostess sector. One such example is the prostitution and murder in 2017 of a 19-year-old single mother working as a hostess in a Tokyo cabaret club who was beaten to death by her club’s manager.

Japan’s #MeToo false dawn

There is widespread denial, though, even among feminists in Japan, that hostesses face any such risk of prostitution and sexual violence. Yumiko Kamise in 2013, for example, denied this possibility even for women in contemporary kyabakura (cabaret club) venues, which, as in the case of the single-mother mentioned above, are well-known hotbeds of prostitution and violence. Kamise’s alternative view is that the work of the kyabakura-jo is ‘primarily not physical but consists of communication with male customers while offering food and drinks’. She appears to voice this opinion in mimicry of popular cultural accounts of cabaret clubs circulating in Japan’s mainstream media. More empirically sound is the 2003 report into Japan’s sex industry mentioned earlier that says of the venues that they:

appeared in the mid-1980s as cheaper-venue versions of cabaret and clubs, and became popular on the basis that female university students and other ‘non-professionals’ would be on offer as hostesses. In 1986, there were over 1000 kyabakura venues throughout Japan…the word ‘kyabakura’ was voted most popular word in 1985, but, later in the 1980s, due to media attention about the prostitution of ‘non-professional’ women through the venues, they declined in popularity.

Different from South Korea where young feminists are tackling online pornography as a key issue of the #MeToo movement, the commercial sexual basis of women’s low status in Japan continues to be left out of consideration in campaigning efforts. This is in spite of commercial sexual exploitation posing a major barrier to women’s mainstream workforce participation, in addition to the obvious harmful effects that prostitution and pornography have on female wellbeing and social standing. Japan’s #MeToo movement experienced a false dawn because it failed to recognise that, behind the sexual harassment and assault of working women, is the shadow cast by the country’s corporate hostess culture. This culture fundamentally connects women in white collar work to women in Japan’s sex industry: their sexualisation and abuse is normalised, just as this same treatment is made normal for women in hostess venues. Failure to actively address this link between the statuses of women in the corporate world and in prostitution unfortunately leaves in place a patriarchal system that profits from men’s inability to distinguish female colleagues from (hostessing) women who are designated legitimate targets of everything the #MeToo movement stands against.


Comfort Women and Post-Occupation Corporate Japan provides an overview of Japan’s sex industry in the years of its post-war economic boom. It argues that the origins of gender inequality in contemporary Japan resulted from policies put in place during this period, when there was instituted a “sexual contract” that provided male salarymen, whose work was arduous, underpaid and subject to military-like organisation, with easy access to women’s bodies. This access was gained through workplace getaway trips to hot springs resorts, hostess bars, and prostitution tourism to South Korea, and functioned as sexual inducement to acquiescence to their own exploitation. Japan’s economic growth, the book thereby contends, came at the price not just of environmental and labour degradation, but also gender inequality.

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