We all need companionship, we all need love, and we’re all in business of one sort or another – the business of survival if none other. Companionship and love are themselves businesses. The courtesans of early-modern Japan evolved into the geisha of prewar Japan; fast-forward to the 1990s and we have enjo kosai, generally translated as “compensated dating” – the sale of sexual favors whose most controversial aspect was the frequent involvement of high school girls trafficking with men old enough to be their fathers.
The 21st century introduced new refinements, packaged under the generic name papa-katsu. Spa (May 17) sums it up as a symbiosis between male libido and female profit-seeking – with sexual gratification, however, if not sexual teasing, increasingly filtered out of it by mutual consent.
“Reina Tanaka” (all names in this story are pseudonyms) has been "papa-katsuing" for going on two years. Do her parents know? She doesn’t say. Would they approve if they did? There’s no obvious reason why not. She’s 21, attending college, living at home. She limits her trade to dinner, talk, a pleasing appearance and pleasant manners. Anyone inclined to cynically ask, “What’s the point, then?” can go elsewhere – to “Mayu Yamashita,” for instance, who’s 23, has been in the business for four years and in fact lives off it. Reina doesn’t. Her parents cover her school fees, and a part-time job earns her pocket money. Papa-katsu is for luxuries; also for conversation – an asset in itself – with people (generally older men though not very much older, mostly in their 30s) whose wit and worldly experience give them something to talk about.
So sex, for her, is out. She does well all the same. The medium of choice nowadays is the smartphone app, linking client and provider either directly or via online “clubs,” obviating the middleman or pimp, whose unsavory presence cast shadows on enjo kosai. The fee structure is loose. Generally, she says, thinking back to the summer of 2020 when Covid 19 had yet to bite hard, she got 15,000 per date, a date consisting of whatever developed and lasting as long as the mood sustained it. Monthly, 300,000 yen was about average.
The epidemic straitened things somewhat; now she settles for 5,000 to 10,000 yen per date and roughly 200,000 a month, confident that the virus will run its course and trade get back on track.
Mayu’s case is different. Last spring, a new-fledged graduate, she got a job – which she quit this past February over her employer’s “power harassment.” That left her with papa-katsu. She’d got into it as a student and done it casually for four years. Now she went full-time. If the client wants sex play she’ll play; if full sex, she’ll consider it. Sometimes she’ll meet as many as five clients a day, but that’s exceptional. Eighteen hours a week is usual, providing an income of 270,000 yen a month – not bad for her home town, Shizuoka, with its relatively low cost of living. Many holders of more conventional part-time jobs toil longer for less.
Spa wades a bit into the sociology of it all. Men of middle age who grew up in the “feudal” environment of the last generation typically married “OLs”– “office lady” clerks – from their own companies, who typically quit to become fulltime housewives and mothers. Such marriages tended to grow cold – company drones married to household drudges, said cynics. Sex became routine and conversation flat. What can wives at home all day talk about? Housekeeping? The children? Restless husbands strayed – to enjo kosai, to hostess clubs, anywhere that promised a dash of sparkle, erotic or conversational. Lately, Spa says, sex is problematic. The rules have changed. Flirtations once tolerated, condoned, winked at, or even admired in some circles no longer are. A charge of sexual harassment can get a man fired or demoted, if not arrested. Thus the steady de-eroticization of papa-katsu.
“Hikaru,” 32, is a papa-katsu pro, with 12 years of it u-under her belt. A budding entrepreneur, she saw it initially as a way to make business contacts. So it proved, in the long run. She prospered, throve, made good money, met many people, broadened her horizons, honed her conversational and negotiating skills – and, two and a half years ago, met “Kensaku Hata,” 72.
Hata was a lonely widower four years ago when a “mischievous friend” introduced him to papa-katsu. He met Hikaru on Twitter, and something – call it friendship – clicked. “She listens to my foolish prattle on the telephone,” he says. “She rents a wheelchair for me and takes me out. She’s met my daughter and grandchildren. Now I know that if I die suddenly there’s somebody who’ll let the family know.” In return he transfers 50,000 yen a month into her account. Both parties seem enriched by the transaction.
Hikaru, meanwhile, has – “with Hata-san’s advice” – got her business going. Spa doesn’t say what kind of business. Might it have something to do with papa-katsu? It’s just a guess.
Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”© Japan Today