Cotton Swabs and Second-Hand Panties in Japan

Cotton Swabs and Second-Hand Panties in Japan

Cover by Takahiro Taguchi

Dotombori, 10 pm. The street was neon-drenched and the soundtrack was synthetic saccharine J-pop. I stepped into a bar.

Irashaimase!”, shouted the staff in unison. “Oh! Hello Luke!”, said Aiko in mock surprise — mock, because it was an ambush. An adorable ambush, but an ambush nonetheless.

She knew I came here after my evening shift at the English school. She also knew that, as my student, I’d be in breach of contract by talking to her, let alone cosy-ing up to her over hot sake in a dark corner of downtown Osaka. Maybe she was excited by this contemporary take on an age-old theme of Japanese drama: the eternal conflict of strictly defined social obligations with hidden feelings and desires. Traditionally, the protagonist would have to choose between carrying out his obligations to his family or feudal lord, or pursuing a forbidden love affair: an Eastern West Side Story.

The theme isn’t unique to Japan: to be in any society is a balancing act between individual expression and tribal cohesion. But Japan takes it to a whole new level: in the classics, death would be the only way out of this kind of Romeo-kun and Juliettu-chan predicament, generally via seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment).

The Japanese talk about this tension in terms of honne (“true sound”), a person’s true desire; and tatemae (“façade”), the behaviour and opinions one displays in public. The former is often contrary to, and hidden under, the latter.

In post-feudal Japan, this schism has remained stark. Obligations are no joke in a country that literally has a word for death by overwork (karōshi). But on the upside, when dealing with the channelling of forbidden desires, the Japanese salaryman has various less fatal/messy alternatives to seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) at his disposal, from the mildly disturbing to the downright weird.

For example, you could take the edge off by picking up some used schoolgirl panties. If you’re time-poor, not to worry: they are conveniently available from vending machines after hours.

This was one of those J-rumours I had to see to believe.

Shibuya, 3 pm. I navigated the huge pedestrian crossing at the intersection near the station, a symbol of Tokyo the world over, and headed for a lesser-known icon: Love Hotel Hill, a bizarro neighbourhood where the local women dress like cyberpunk sex workers, and the sex workers wear sensible shoes.

Rope Burasera was a kind of kinky Vinnie’s replete with everything you can imagine a young girl wearing, and some things you shouldn’t.

The price of panties varied according to how pre-worn they were, the girl’s age, and whether the panties were anonymous: you could get a “creeper’s dozen” of anonymous panties for ¥9000 (about $100), or one pair with a photo of the (fully clothed) former owner for ¥4000 ($50).

The most expensive items were full school uniforms. The price of uniforms varied from ¥30000 to ¥130000 ($375-$1600), depending on the school.
‘Everything you’ve heard about Japan is true,’ was a recurring mantra during my stay.

Like many Australians, I was raised on animé: dubbed cartoons from our Japanese neighbours. I wanted to live in the Mysterious Cities of Gold and grow up to be a Voltron pilot. I cried when Astroboy’s girlfriend was (spoiler alert) dismantled.

My childhood left me with an enduring fascination with Japan. In my mind, it was a magical land of robots, ninjas, and schoolgirls wielding giant swords.

Surprisingly, as an adult living in Tokyo, my cathode-ray-infused fantasies were left almost entirely intact. Everything you’ve heard about Japan is true. It was a frenetic (but oh-so-polite) mashup of new and old, technology and sorcery: kimono’d geisha on smartphones in Kyoto, bleeding-edge vending machines serving hot ramen on the summit of Mount Fuji, kawaii cosplay girls praying at Meiji Shrine in Harajuku.

Is this the real life or is this just animé? Photo Andy Kelly.

Shinsaibashi, 8.30 pm. I was in class with two students, both mama-sans — madames overseeing hostess bars, in which one can pay for the company of beautiful women… and I when I say ‘company’ I mean it literally, here: no sex, just conversation. Excepting their shared profession, the two women could not have looked more different.

One mama-san, a mature woman, was perfectly presented in an elaborate wig and modern kimono, as she bowed hello and presented me with a gift of soft-serve green tea ice cream. Her colleague was twenty years her junior, and had flirtily adorned her perfect tanned body with a low-cut top, fur jacket, spray-on jeans and black heels. The former had recently retired but the latter was on her way to work, so out of curiosity, I (secretly) met her after my lessons and followed her to her club, Members VIP.

A U-shaped table dominated the dark interior, with hostesses dressed as French maids serving salarymen from the middle. The music I can only describe as nursery-rhyme-esque.

I joined the table as one salaryman had whipped cream licked from his nipple, while another ordered an omego biru (“pussy beer”) from the bar. One of the hostesses moved to a beer tap, put a condom over the lever, squatted and proceeded to fuck the liquid out of the device, finishing by removing the condom and throwing it into the glass with a flourish. Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, a man on all fours was having cotton swabs inserted into his ketsu (anus), with his friends gleefully shouting the count: “Eight!… NINE!…”.

Hostess bars are centuries old. Japan has been over-populated, socially complicated and a little kinky since the middle ages. Even the infamous tentacle porn is nothing new.

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by Hokusai, 1814.

The mama-san had warned me: “This isn’t a traditional hostess club. I think you’ll be surprised.” Yeah, you’re not wrong. Other new features of the Japanese social matrix include hikikomori (acute social withdrawal) and, more menacingly, the rise of ever more hyper-realistic fuckdolls.

It’s easy to cast a judgey face at old mate with a robot girlfriend dressed in second-hand schoolgirl clothing. To be charitable though, he’s part of a generation growing up grappling with old-school complexities of the truth-facade dichotomy in an increasingly high-tech capitalist society. It’s an archipelago where pornography is in every convenience store, reproduction is at an all-time low and you can rent a boyfriend or girlfriend by the hour.

I lived in Japan for eighteen months altogether. It really is a live-action super-saturated animé world. Life in Japan comes at you at 24 frames per second but sometimes it can be more Adult Swim than Cartoon Network. I still dig watching animé but arguably, humans are not well-equipped to live in 2D.

The last time I saw Aiko, we were at the cinema late Friday night when, not for the first time, she got called into work and left me to enjoy the second act alone. My princess is in another castle and the hours are shit.

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