“Boys For Sale”
Male Prostitutes in Tokyo
“Boys For Sale” is a new documentary directed by Itako and is perhaps the first film to delve into a particular subset of Asian gay culture within a particularly conservative country still struggling with the idea of open homosexuality.
Shinjuku 2-Chome is considered to be the gay center of all of Asia and we find bars and locales that offer their (male) customers the services of their urisen or young “boys” (the majority are in their late teens or early 20’s) who are sold off nightly to customers and taken to specially-prepared rooms, where they are then expected to perform whatever sexual acts that particular customer desires. Officially, prostitution is illegal in Japan but the laws as they currently exist define sex work as being between a man and a woman. By ensuring that their clientele are all men, managers of these establishments are able to offer what they do without breaking the law. They further limit their own culpability by insisting that the prices paid to the boys are only for drinks, dinner, and time spent together, and whatever may happen (or not happen) between the boys and their buyers in the upstairs rooms is none of their business.
We learn of the rules and traditions, how this all operates, how these young men are selected and end up in this line of work through a series of interviews with current and former may sex workers. Director Itako gave them the choice of having their faces shown and voices unaltered and hiding their real names. Some hid nothing, others wore masks to at least cover their faces and took a codename, and others not only hid their faces. Their respective ages, backgrounds, and views on what they do vary widely, and for the most part the film simply lets their stories speak for themselves.
Sex workers usually have an endless variety of motivations and reasons for getting into prostitution. There are those that choose it willingly and are happy doing it, others are pushed into it through chance, circumstance, or even tragedy, and some are actively tricked and/or enslaved. The boys here are no different, although the “hush-hush” nature of how the industry operates means there is often an extra level of deception in pulling the boys in. Many admit that they had no idea beforehand what was expected of them, or were actively lied to when they first interviewed about what, exactly, they were getting into.
The film also touches on Japan’s still-considerable discomfort with the very idea of homosexuality, at least compared with Western cultures. Being openly gay in any setting, even within the world of male prostitution, is still considered so strange or taboo that, while many gay men do work as prostitutes (and most of their clients are clearly either themselves gay, this work is far from accepted as is to be openly gay in Japan. Most managers (and clients) expect the boys to at least pretend that they are straight and this is a topic for further research. The film uses drawings to show what the boys do in their rooms without being voyeuristic or pornographic. It was decided early on not to film actual customers with the boys even though this is crucial to the film’s power. By using drawings, the film delves into frank, graphic detail about everything.
We are reminded of how major disasters, both man-made and natural, have a particular ripple-effect in the field of sex work. One of the interviewed boys openly says that he only ended up as a hustler because he came to the city desperate for work after losing his home in the tsunami/Fukushima catastrophe of 3/11. If that had never happened, he would never have even considered getting into sex work, and he is certainly far from the only person of his generation with reasons like this for becoming a prostitute.
Many of the boys were tricked or forced into doing this work, don’t like it, and want out, but many are perfectly content with in and find a community of their own that binds them together, and many of them, even ones that aren’t gay or bi, very much enjoy the work and are happy doing it.
In Japan, homosexuality is taboo and hidden. However, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a large, vibrant LGBT community in the country. The documentary reveals some unexpected contradictions, such as the men talking about the fun and camaraderie of the job while others speak about the degradation and some truly unpleasant things that have happened to them. For parts of the film it almost comes across as quite a good job, but at others its quite horrific, and for many of the men it has to become that simultaneously and something they just accept.
The majority of the urisen are straight, and they aren’t just saying that because they know clients prefer straight boys. The film shows a complex picture as it progresses. We really see this when we see the young straight men speaking about why they got into selling their bodies. It is surprising that there’s no mention of drug addiction.
Where the film gets most interesting is when it deals with the intersection of Japanese culture and the world of the urisen. We hear about the lack of sex education in Japan, particularly surrounding gay issues, which means that many of the men are not informed about how STDs are spread, one has never heard of AIDS, and another thinks you can only get HIV by mixing blood. Most of them seem to believe the most effective form of protection from Chlamydia and gonorrhea is insisting that the clients shower and wash their genitals properly before sex (although most also use condoms).
The film passes no judgment and shows that there is both good and bad to the urisen’s life, it manages to be surprising illuminating. It certainly doesn’t make it sound like a world that we might want to join, but by the end we understand both how the men got there and why they stay.