The girls and I have a running joke now. They see me stamping home through the neighborhood and press the hostess club flyers on me with an exaggerated sales pitch, helpfully translated for my benefit."Fun garls! Come on! Come on!" The standard response to this is the zombie shuffle, but after an hour on the trains I've had enough of the living dead, and want to infuse a little humanity into the evening. So I’ve been working on this special smile. My Mom’s father used to be able to catch my eyes from the other side of the party and just by twinkling his eyes he laughed at everything in the room. You and me man, we know better. Those twinkly eye genes have to be in me somewhere, so I’ve been trying this with the hookers. In my mind the eyes are twinkling out "You gotta do what you gotta do, huh. Thanks but no thanks" and I grin at our private joke, people walking around in these silly bodies, at these funny ways the world works on us.
So all they get for their trouble is a weird American who is taking the time to leer at them but not the trouble to stop and spend some money. But he might stop by tomorrow, so they grin back and hand him a flyer.
None of the girls are past twenty-five, but they all have deep voices that scrape out of their throats, clanging on potholes and debris on the way up. There they are every night, teetering on pencil thin heels, cocktail dresses swallowed up by big, blobby rayon overcoats, gnawing on a stick of gum and trying to snag some interest from the rivers of suits rushing through the neighborhood. The sports bar across the street with its skewers of roasted chicken isn’t exactly competition, but they both fight for the same few seconds of attention from the suits. I have to say I’m weirdly relieved whenever I see one of them snagging a customer: her skin parlor-tanned to the color of roasted peanuts, his moist and gray from the office lamps and whiskey. Now she can stop bothering
I’m pretty sure there are laws out there somewhere that cash for handjobs means fines or a night in jail, but somebody forgot to tell the commuters, the girls on the corner, the local cops and the proprietors of Jungle Pub, who have a painted van that idles in front of the station, color headshots of a dozen glassy eyed girls grinning over the spray painted palm tree design. Okay, so, technically it isn’t a whorehouse, just a bar where a fella can sip a few whiskeys and enjoy a nice chat with a few high school dropouts in one-piece dresses cut for maximum boobage. Or so I’ve heard.
The fact is I’m in the minority here. I had an ex-girlfriend once who refused to believe I’d never paid for it. “Come on, I’m not gonna get mad. Every guy does it; it’s like getting a period for guys, right?” She grew up in a mountain village where the only immigrants for 100 kilometers were the three Fillipina girls “hostesses” at a second story club downtown, so I wrote it all off as bumpkin delusions. I’d heard the guys down in the sports promotion section of the town government snickering over the bra sizes of the girls down at Good Times Pub, that was one thing. But when a good friend of three years, a vegetarian and an animal shelter volunteer with sweet puppy eyes, a soft voice, a young bride and a ten month old son starts gushing about living single and whooping it up with the girls down at Good Times Pub, well, now we’ve entered the realm of the profoundly weird. It’s almost like I was living in a foreign country.
I used to sublet from a portly and middle aged South American man named Pepe who moved here in the late eighties with his young American bride in tow. She gave up on him a few years ago and went back to the US with their daughter, he stayed here with his teaching jobs and the rural Japanese home he rented for practically nothing. Propped between school portraits of his eleven-year old girl and woodblock prints of Argentinean peasants was a study was lined with worn and considered paperbacks by writers a generation or two away from myself. Sitting confidently among serious and nutritious volumes by Thomas Wolfe and Doris Lessing was a slim little number by a forgotten press: The Pink Guide to Tokyo. Since it looked like the thing hadn’t been used in a few years I probably should have swiped it for the sake of anthropology, but for all I know it’s still there, pages yellowing around black type and conveniently labeled street maps. So it looks like we’ll have to go on memory. Which – as my mother and all my ex-girlfriends know – is a fairly approximate instrument, but it’s the only one I’ve got.
Without a little biographical blurb on the back cover you had to guess at the life of the author of “The Pink Guide to Tokyo”, but he smeared himself all over the book. You couldn’t move ten pages without tripping over something about “a depravity only rivaled by the Foreign Press Club in Tokyo” or “something this reporter has never seen before.” He clearly loved the life of the foreign journalist, but unlike Hunter S. Thompson he wasn’t published in Rolling Stone and didn’t have a decent sense of humor. The book reeked of a failed marriage, a midlife crisis, a desperate need to impress the guys back at the press club. But for anyone with a personal, professional or academic interest in paid sex in Tokyo in the early 90’s the book was worth all ten dollars.
The author of “The Pink Guide Guide to Tokyo” and I do have one thing in common: we are both fascinated by the fact that the Japanese sex business doesn’t seem to be worried about hellfire or damnation, just turning a profit. Its not that being a hostess is respectable here, it’s just a fact of life. You may not want your kids to be garbage collectors, but somebody’s kids are gonna do it. Like my ex from the mountains, Japanese girls just seem to take this in stride: in the morning you scrape the ice off the windshield, in the evening boys are out paying for it.
The question, I guess, is why pay for it? Why sell it? This isn’t like selling grilled chicken skewers or giving English lessons, I hear it’s something closer to massage. I just finished Paul Theroux’s “Dark Star Africa” where he spends a surprising amount of time defending prostitution to its critics. Randy old Paul sees it all as simple economics, quoting a former factory who said she got wise when she realized that “the whole time, I was sitting on a gold mine.” If you trust my memory, I remember reading a syndicated newspaper article where a high-profile madame in Amsterdam responded to anti-prostitution proposals with the weird comment that “my girls are too lazy to do anything else! What do you expect them to do?!” The argument to decriminalize money-for-booty is pretty much the same as the cry to legalize dope: remove the stigma, cut out the organized crime and the violence, regulate it, make it safer for the working girls, the working guys, the johns, hand out licenses, spot inspections every few months.
I found a discarded copy of “Weekly Playboy” on the train the other day and picked it up: out of curiosity. The funny thing was, I did read it for the articles, and they were kind of interesting, but not the least bit edifying. Hef’s sophisticated liberal sensibilities kind of got lost in the Japanese syndication; instead of being padded with witty and intelligent articles by the nation’s foremost writers the cheesecake photos were supplemented by detailed reviews of Tokyo red light districts (a regular feature apparently) a pretty puritanical expose of urban teens doing club drugs and surprisingly detailed interviews with adult video stars on their earliest sexual experiences. It was this last part I actually found the most intriguing, and not merely to find out that Aimi-chan’s second boyfriend was a salaryman whose penis wasn’t quite as large as she’d hoped. For one thing, by some kind of weird censorship the magazine had to blank out the middle syllables of the words d*ck and p*ssy. Right next to a photo of Aimi-chan tied up with clothes pins on her nipples. Turn the page and you get a comic where two secretaries seduce some shlub in a Laundromat.
What was really interesting was reading about two people get really excited talking about sex that seemed so guilt-free, so perfectly ordinary, so, well, un-sexy. “I really liked him a lot, but after I moved to Tokyo it was hard to keep up the relationship running long distance, so we decided to break up.” “How did you take it?” “Oh, he seemed more upset than me. I was so busy with work and everything.” “Yeah, I know what you mean.” Whenever I’m back in the US I see “Porn Star” logos flashing from t-shirts and backpacks, sparking out “Sexy! Dangerous! Confident! Rebellious!” If only they could all read Japanese Weekly Playboy and learn that the love lives of Porn Stars doesn’t beat that of your average CPA. Same d*cks and p*ssies as the rest of us.
Walking home from work I can hear the hookers and their Johns talking about her student loans and his gambling debts. She wonders about a career in beauty salons and he comforts her with the slim confidence of thirty more years experience at navigating planet earth. She’s got it, he’ll pay for it, and there they are, grinning at themselves walking around in these bodies that want to do the strangest things.