At the Outfest LGBTQ film festival, the documentary Boys for Sale unveiled the secret world of the urisen, mostly straight-identified Japanese boys who sell sex to older men. It’s a secret world because these bars typically don’t open their doors to gaijin (non-Japanese foreigners).
The film follows 10 urisen and covers their common experiences. In an interview with C. Brian Smith of MEL magazine, Ian Thomas Ash, the film’s executive producer, says:
“Japanese men can’t traditionally live openly as homosexuals. Many carry with them a great deal of shame, self-hatred and other negative feelings. So a large portion of what these boys are doing is more than just a sex act, which may only last for five minutes. In these moments — bathing with someone, being held by someone, having them wash their back and stroke their hair — customers are made to feel like everything is okay. That’s a big part of the urisen experience.”
Ash is right. Unlike American homophobia (which is largely religious-based) and Asian homophobia (which derives from a sense of familial obligation), the urban Japanese variety can have a tinge of corporate influence. Men are expected to find wives and have children that they financially support — if they don’t have these things, they’re seen as immature playboys and not seen as serious candidates for promotion to higher paying managerial or executive positions.
Thus, a combination of familial expectations and corporate pressure compel many Japanese men to marry out of traditional social conventions while still longing for male companionship. This is where the urisen come in.
See the trailer for Boys for Sale below:
The world of the urisen
Ash says that the 2011 Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters (all of which were inter-related) compelled many young men into large cities to survive via sex work.
At an urisen bar, a man will come in, choose his preferred escort and chat with them for 30 minutes (a five dollar charge) to decide whether he’d like to get intimate. Customers can then order sex or even kink ranging from BDSM to water sports to diaper and scat play, though Ash says that most prefer standard sex.
The boys live in on-site dormitories where up to eight other urisen will sleep in a single room filled with bunk beds. The boys interviewed in the film say that they liked the camaraderie with their co-workers the most.
On the downside, some of these boys complained about their client’s hygiene, most were asked to engage in condomless sex, some felt pressured to endure sex acts without their consent and most earn only about $40 to $80 max per sex session, sessions which can occur multiple times a day.
Taikomochi: The historic and well-cultured male geisha
In 2015, The Daily Beast looked at the world of male geishas (courtly entertainers usually hired for special group events, like banquets and business scenes) and male hosutos (or “hosts,” male companions commonly on the arms of patrons within Japan’s many chat and host bars).
A male geisha, (or taikomochi) as they are known, are skilled in various conversational and performance arts: They know jokes, charming witty sayings, are well-read on current events and are skilled at singing, dancing and playing a stringed Japanese instrument known as the shamisen.
Mostly, they are relied upon for their comedic humor, a tradition dating back to the earliest geishas from around the 13th century — all of whom were male. (Women began working as geishas around the middle of the 18th century and became infinitely more popular than their male counterparts, reducing taikomochi to dwindling numbers in the modern day).
By taikomochi are not sex workers. The most popular are experienced performers in their 50s and 60s who are hired for events through an official booking agent. Taikomochi would also find suggestive sexual innuendo or propositioning offensive. One writer says that it would be like asking a ballerina to sleep with an audience member.
Hosutos: Male companions in the urban jungle
In contrast, hosutos are typically younger men in their 20s and 30s who work in host bars (a sexually-tinged and booze-infused trade known as “mizu-shobai” or “water trade”).
At host bars, patrons can select their preferred men or “host,” and have this attractive companion sit with them while pouring drinks, ordering food, lightly conversing (flattering and flirting) and maybe singing a little karaoke — the hosuto can make 40 to 50% of all the booze and food ordered by the table.
Some hosts go even further by bonding with a single patron who takes them out on dates to dinners, movies, lavish them with small gifts (often watches and clothing) and have sex with them in local “love hotels,” a short-stay hotel for private sexual activity.
Hosutos are often slimmer with more feminine or androgynous physiques, meant to reduce any sense of physical intimidation. The long hours and constant use of cigarettes and alcohol can also speed up their aging (and some spend hours grooming and even resort to plastic surgery to maintain their appearance).
Few hosutos continue working as such after age 40. Most become club managers, authors or media personalities, says Laura Miller, a leading professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.