Dispatches > The Buzz

Preteen allowance

Child prostitution in Japan is just another way for girls to get mall money

Issue: "Iraq: After the rout," April 26, 2003

Public criticism of rock star Pete Townshend after his arrest for viewing Internet child pornography reached a crescendo just when Ree Coulbourne received a cheerful flier in her Chiba, Japan, mailbox. It was selling schoolgirl sex.

"This shop's specialty is girls in their 10s-as opposed to 20s, etcetera," said Mrs. Coulbourne, a Mission to the World worker in Japan. "Business continues as usual in Japan."

But the business of child prostitution here is different from elsewhere in Asia, where international trafficking and even slavery lead to a forced sex trade. Here the girls involved aren't desperate to make a living-they're scouting for pocket money to buy designer clothes and accessories.

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The practice is called enjo kosai, roughly meaning "compensated dating," and has become synonymous with girls ages 12-16 offering sexual acts to middle-aged men in return for money. Media coverage of enjo kosai exploded in the nineties in Japan. Since then it has become yesterday's news while the trade has attracted more-and younger-girls.

Cell phone technology and the Internet are creating more enjo kosai vice, said Hiroshi Ohno, a Tokyo district court judge. Telephone dating clubs (usually run by the Japanese Mafia) allow callers to post messages on a board that other users can access. Internet matchmaking or deaikei sites also let men post personals. Both make up an increasingly congested terminus where men and young girls regularly arrange dates.

A typical hook-up might look like this: A 14-year-old girl dials a club's toll-free number, and its operator connects her to a man waiting in a club lounge. They chat for a few minutes, agreeing on a time and place to meet, and how much the man will pay.

With their own cell phones, the girls now cut both middleman and surveillance. The number of cell phone users in Japan has more than doubled from 30 million in 1998 to 74 million this year. Almost every teenager has one. "The men are not seeking out the e-mails-the girls are," said Kenny Joseph, a missionary who has led the True Love Waits abstinence campaign in Japan.

The Japanese government has made some attempts to curb child prostitution. In November 1999, Japan enacted a law making it illegal to pay for sex with anyone under 18. In 2001 the Japanese Diet revised a law to ban anyone under 18 from using the dating clubs. Club operators can be fined up to $8,300 or spend a year in prison if they ignore orders to shut down or suspend business. Operators are also required to get identification papers from women before connecting them to a customer. Meanwhile, police are proposing a draft law to the Diet that would ban cell phone users under 18 from using dating sites.

But light fines and skimpy policing do little. More basically, legal age of consent in Japan remains 13. "The ones making the laws ... are the people buying the girls," said Marre Ishii, pastor of Tokyo's Committed Japan Church. In the last year, a number of high-profile public officials were arrested for enjo kosai.

Toshiyuki Sato, a 35-year-old Foreign Ministry diplomat, was charged with paying for sex with four teenage girls. A 56-year-old Tokyo policeman, who worked in the police department's division that cracks down on child prostitution, confessed to having sex with a 15-year-old to whom he gave money and gifts. In January, a 47-year-old Gunma Prefecture elementary school teacher confessed to paying a 13-year-old 20,000 yen for sex. "The Japanese government lost its respect completely," said Mr. Ishii.

Churches and missionaries, according to Mr. Joseph, also are not doing enough to catch the girls "before they go over the cliffs." Ten years ago Mr. Joseph hired an artist to illustrate and write a comic book on the effects of enjo kosai-including pregnancy. He and other Christians stand on sidewalks outside high schools, handing out books and sticking them in bicycle baskets. He said he has distributed 300,000 comic books since they were first printed. But Mr. Joseph said many other Christian leaders "are embarrassed" to deal with enjo kosai.

Pregnancy eventually catches up with many enjo kosai girls, and Japan has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. For girls under 19 the number of abortions rose to 46,500 in 2001, almost double what it was in 1995.

Mr. Ishii says his church shows a video on how an abortion is performed, as one way to deter girls from going through with one and from entering prostitution. He agrees that churches aren't doing enough to stop the problem of child prostitution but says Christians should first attack the root problem in Japanese society: a lack of absolute standards. Even just a belief in a creator would make a great difference in Japanese society, he says: "If there is no creator, there is no concept of sin. We're no different from animals."

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