Interview with photographer Joan Sinclair

by Roland Kelts, Author of JAPANAMERICA
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What does the title, PINK BOX, actually mean?

In Japan, pink is the euphemism for commercial sex the way red is in the US, as in “red light district.” And “Pink Box” is the name of a private dancer’s room in the back of a famous Osaka club. I took a photo of two girls bathed in pink light in this private room. It was so beautiful, and it gave me the perfect working title.

Why did you want to document the sex industry in Japan?

It’s the second largest industry in Japan (automobiles are the first). It’s too much a part of Japanese modern culture to be ignored.

Ten years ago when I was an English teacher in Tokyo, I overheard a conversation about these clubs and had a friend take me on a tour of Kabukicho-the biggest red-light district in Japan.

I was blown away. There were train clubs with all-you-can-grope commuting women. And fake hospitals, where the customer can lie in bed and get “treated” by a pantiless nurse. There were “Sexual Harassment” offices where men can tear the pantyhose off their “secretaries.”

I returned to California and started a career as a corporate lawyer, but I never forgot about those clubs.

Japan is a tough nation to crack for any outsider, and sex industries worldwide are notoriously resistant to journalists. As a foreign photographer, and as a female, how did you achieve access to these forbidden regions of Japanese society?

Basically, I arrived in Japan with one phone number in my pocket and a camera.

People often ask if I had to pay money, but the bottom line is that there is no amount of money that could have bought me access. These places make millions of dollars a year. It wouldn't be worth it for them to take the risk.

And they were very respectful of the women's privacy. I was really surprised by that. The women came first, really.

So, how did you actually get in the door of these places?

Basically, it took a lot of singing karaoke with unsavory characters.

I knew I had only one year to shoot, as my husband was home waiting for me in California. So I learned the industry slang, and went about it in four different directions at once.

I got to know the managers, the customers, the women—and their advertisers. In Japan these clubs are serious business, and there's lots of competition, and they spend tons of money on advertising in several thick glossy magazines that are nothing but guidebooks to the industry. They also all have websites.

They have websites?

Of course. They literally had information centers for men and women, providing pamphlets, discount coupons and guides directing you to the best venues.

So, yes, every club has a website. And you can even print out coupons (30% off your first panty ripping session!).

I always hear expressions like, “Oh you are doing a book on Japan’s underground culture?” No- it’s mainstream culture. It’s just not accessible to foreigners.

This is mainstream?

Businessmen often go after work or bring their corporate clients as a form of settai, customer appreciation. Some clubs are even franchised- chains of brand name corporate brothels throughout Japan.

Did you go alone?

I often went with either a regular customer or one of the girls. I wore a suit, and I would always bring gifts from the U.S. and a business card.

In Japan, a formal introduction from someone on the inside was really important.

Especially since you’re not Japanese.

That’s right. Almost none of the clubs allow foreigners, even if they speak Japanese.

Why not?

1. Foreigners don't understand the rules--of which there are admittedly many. 2. They scare the Japanese customers. 3. They complain too much. 4. They can't communicate well with the women if the women get uncomfortable. 5. They may have AIDs.

How many clubs did you eventually shoot?

I ended up shooting 90 different clubs, in Osaka, Kobe, Tokyo, Nishi-Kawaguchi, Fukuoka and Sapporo, and the finished book contains photos from about 80 of those clubs.

I knew by the sheer numbers of places, of women working, and the percentage of my contacts who personally knew someone involved that I would be able to eventually finish the book. That's what kept me going.

What is it about Japan that makes this industry so ubiquitous?

A 400 year old history of the industry, a lack of a Judeo-Christian religious philosophy, a need for release in an tightly wound society, an emphasis on customer appreciation, a set of laws so complex that the industry is virtually legal…

And the costumes and fantasy rooms. What makes them so popular?

In Japan, company uniforms and school uniforms are still widely used. People’s social place is identifiable at a glance by their costume. These clubs allow people to break the social rules, using everyday archetypes. The schoolgirl, the commuting secretary- the women you see every day- are forbidden fruit. These sexualized archetypes are reflected in Japan’s wildly popular dirty comic books.

Would you say that being a woman helped or hindered you?

Let’s start with hindered. If I were a man, I’d instantly have more respect as a photographer in Japan. And in some clubs I would have been able to get in as a customer. And if I were a Japanese man, it would have been much easier. As a woman, a foreigner and a photographer, I am three of the things the doormen do not allow in the clubs. Three of three.

They just took one look at me and made the “no” sign in Japanese. It was a really tough barrier. At least if I were a man, I could engage them in conversation.

The only way being a woman helped me was that because I was a woman, the glossy magazines, the advertisers, that fourth category, were interested in covering me for content purposes. I literally had a column in a magazine named Tokyo Soapland called “Through Her Blue Eyes.”

One of the key characters who helped me was the editor of Tokyo Soapland magazine, and he knew that I wanted shots of the most visually interesting clubs. So he took me to an old fashioned-themed soapland, a wedding soapland, a policewoman soapland, a harem-themed soapland, and a Korean woman themed soapland.

But as a female photographer, and an American woman who cares about feminism, are you not propagating what the clubs do by publishing this book?

From the beginning I gave myself some rules: Don’t change how the women or the environment look. I photographed the women exactly as they appeared, and I never chose them. They chose me; they volunteered because they wanted to be photographed.

We did include some photos that are more difficult to look at—not always showing the sweet and beautiful side of things. These aren’t staged cheesecake pictures to make them look sexy.

How did being a lawyer affect your reception? It’s a provocative position in Japan.

Being a lawyer helped in one way: I knew formal business skills, and I knew how to dress and behave, so I felt confident going in person to their business offices.

So, are these clubs legal?

Gray zone. The bottom line is that most of them are officially operating illegally because they don’t have the proper licenses. But, as long as the girls are stopping short of having actual intercourse for money, the clubs are allowed to operate. So, most of the clubs offer absolutely everything imaginable but sex.

The industry is so clean in some ways—another Japanese paradox.

The prices and house rules are all written out in detail. Nothing is left to chance. The services were listed on menus. The extra services were so creative- to a degree that you just don’t see here.

Can you give me a few examples? What actually happens inside?

Well, most of the clubs don't allow full intercourse, but they provide everything else. The only exceptions are the soaplands, where intercourse is definitely part of the deal. Some say it’s because the soapland neighborhood of Yoshiwara is a historic red-light district, dating back 400 years. Tradition.

Other extras include ‘green gel play’, which is where a bathtub is drawn and a packet of green powder is emptied into the water, which makes it slimy. The women splash around in it with the customer, who is satisfied at the end of the bath. Then there's the ‘imprint service’, where the customer paints traditional calligraphy ink onto the woman’s anatomy. She then sits down on Japanese rice paper and leaves an imprint of her body for the customer to keep. There’s also the pantyhose ripping service. The customer chooses what kind of pantyhose—beige, black or sparkly—he wants the woman to wear. He can also select fishnet tights and panties. For an extra $20, the customer gets to rip them off the woman and keep the torn material.

How much of the outlay does the woman keep?

About half.

Were the women all Japanese, or were many Asian immigrants?

The book is about Japanese sex clubs that cater to Japanese men, and the women working in the ones I shot are overwhelmingly Japanese. Generally, they are women who have chosen to do it—middle-class, educated women—not women trying to feed their families or get drugs.

But there are neighborhoods in Japan where Thai, Filipina, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese sex workers are brought over by the Japanese mafia to work as prostitutes. A lot of them are working off debt, and they’re forced to overstay their visas.

I chose for editorial reasons to keep that aspect out and limit the scope of the book. But people should know that’s not the whole story. One of the things Westerners kept telling me was, “Find the sad stories, you’re not going deep enough!” But with the Japanese women, I kept looking for psychological damage, exploitation and abuse—and I didn’t find any of it. I found very balanced women making a personal choice. Once in a while one of them would say, “I can’t have one-night stands because I feel I should get paid for them.” Those kind of statements gave me pause.

Did they have other jobs?

It turned out to be a full-time commitment for most of the women. Their salaries depend on repeat customers, the regulars who request them, so they had to make themselves available at the clubs several hours per week.

How much do these girls earn?

The salaries vary, but in general about $140,000 per year, about what a first-year lawyer in the US earns. They get a base salary, plus cuts of the extra options, usually 50 percent, and a bit of extra money for being chosen. If you’re working at a health or image club, and you’re chosen from the photo catalog, you might get a $25 bonus for a forty minute session. And that encourages repeat customers, regulars who get hooked on one girl.

Many of the girls are educated and middle class. Do their parents know?

Many clubs offered so-called ‘alibi services’. A lot of the women still lived at home, which is common in Japan for individuals even into their 30s and 40s. They would tell their parents that they were makeup artists or waitresses. If the parents called that line, the club would answer, “Hello, Denny’s”—or wherever the women were pretending to work.

That’s ingenious.

Well, the clubs compete with each other for the women so fiercely that the women themselves are the prized commodity. The managers really want to keep them so they take good care of them.

What about their futures? Do they get stuck in the sex industry, unable to break the addiction to quick cash, like so many American performers?

A lot of the women try it for a month or two, then quit, get married, and never tell their husbands. It’s really hard work, and the ones who do it for years don’t stay in the industry for decades. A lot of them have college degrees, since Japan boasts a 99% literacy rate. Generally, they can’t be on drugs—they’d get fired. In Japan, you need to use the more difficult formal form of honorable language to address customers, so any drug or alcohol abuse would be obvious and quickly discouraged. Their social demands are so much more complex than ours.

How did you feel as an American woman and mother encountering Japan’s comparatively more public pedophilic fantasies?

The first thing I had to do was put aside my preconceptions and some of my feelings. The schoolgirl fantasy is ubiquitous in Japan.

It’s a complex subject. A lot of Asian women look younger than they are—especially compared to Western women. But that’s an integral part of the industry, not only in Japan. It’s too critical to ignore just because it might offend.

What did disturb me was the sale of middle-school girls’ uniforms, and videos and magazines that featured young girls. I was surprised and saddened by that. Some of the video footage is taken by men posing as parents. I had more of a problem with that than the fantasies.

Are all of the customers male?

No, there are clubs for women where men provide female customers with services. And their customers are predominantly older women.

The real question is: Who has the power? Is it the customer paying for a fantasy, or the women and men getting paid quite well to tease, flirt, flatter and sometimes satisfy?

Was it difficult selecting the photos? Were you concerned about offending readers?

I decided to include some of the racier images. The Japanese sex industry is complicated-it’s bizarre and creative and over-the top and colorful, but the bottom line is what happens inside those private rooms. I wanted the book to be both honest and complete- which means some of the photos are difficult to look at.

Photographing an industry with such close ties to criminal organizations in Japan must have been a bit unnerving. What sorts of dangers did you encounter?

One time, I went to a strip club. I brought a camera with a shutter release, with the lens poking out of my purse and the remote in my right hand, trying to be discreet. It was dark, with bursts of flashing strobe lights. I thought I could take photos remotely and no one would pay attention. After about an hour of taking the most phenomenal pictures, two staff members grabbed my arm and pulled me to the back room. “Take out your camera,” they said.

It was very scary. There were five mafia men in a back room interrogating me. They had me pull out my camera, then they ripped out all the film.

I’d talked my way out of the situation, but I realized that Kabukicho, one the world’s most profitable red light districts, is only a about a quarter mile by a quarter mile in size. Like most urban neighborhoods in Japan, it’s stacked vertical and tight. Being I am so recognizable- the blonde chick running around with a camera- I realized I could get a reputation for being a troublemaker very fast.

So, I went home and immediately wrote a formal letter of apology to the owner, and had it translated into proper Japanese, and I went in person to present it.

I learned that you always need to ask permission in Japan. Always. That was a key transformation. After that episode, I went from being a guerilla journalist on this project to being a documentary photographer.

That's terrifying, and I'm relieved you're still with us.

As for the yakuza (mafia), I had a don't ask policy, and I used it for my own protection. As a woman working alone on this book, I focused on the visuals and stayed away from exposing the mechanics of the business. Very Japanese, actually.

So what is the relationship between the mafia and the sex industry?

Most of the clubs are yakuza owned. They often sell oshiburi (moist washcloths) at a premium to the clubs. Extortion.

And every club has a ketsumochi (literally ass-holder), a low level mafia go-between on the payroll. If a customer is rowdy or rude to a girl, the ketsumochi has the yakuza deal with the troublemakers.

What was one of your craziest experiences?

Shooting a fake train club in the middle of a typhoon. I had to go all the way to Kobe, and after several meetings, I finally got the OK to photograph the train. The day of the shoot, a typhoon hit. My connection, who was really excited about the photo project, had his guys drive me through the typhoon anyway, paying $80 highway tolls to get me from Osaka to Kobe to shoot the train.

When we got there, the place was packed with customers seeking refuge from the typhoon.

What did the clubs feel like inside?

They were crowded and they stank of whiskey and smoke. They were also claustrophobic and dark, with high volume techno music booming through the speakers. I had to learn to clean my cameras because of all the smoke.

How did you take the pictures?

I had both a digital camera and a Mamiya, a medium-format film camera. And because it was so dark, I had an off-shoe cord with a flash that I turned down to 1/16th power and did a little bit of a bounce flash to preserve the ambient lighting (black lights, colorful lights). Some of the private rooms were so small that I didn’t have room to spread out the legs of a tripod, so I used a monopod (camera on a stick).

Many of your photographs reveal a side of Japan that Westerners have never seen. Thank you for being so brave.

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All Rights Reserved | © Joan Sinclair 2006