The Boyfriend Experience: A Look at Japan’s Relationship Replacement Services
It’s a Monday night and I’m standing in a bar bedecked with crushed crimson velvet, staring at a phallic mound of vibrating silicone. I’m in Japan and, up until now, all depictions of female sexuality I’ve seen have involved naïve-looking women, often wearing school uniforms, in compromising positions. Such representations can be viewed in any 7/11 porn mag section, on posters on the street and, perhaps most obviously, in the multitude of sex stores (sorry, Mum).
Despite this, I just semi-squatted through a colossal wax vagina to view a gyrating forest of synthetic penises. Said forest allows women to have a professional consultation regarding which phallus is best suited to their needs over a glass of wine.
Yep, I’m in Vibe: Tokyo’s famed Vibrator Bar, smack bang in the middle of the city’s red-light district. Curious about how such polarised ideals can coexist in Japan – both a thriving market for female sex toys and a depiction of women in pornography as “innocent” – I call over a member of staff.
Mizuki is a bartender and a dildo connoisseur, and between our equally rough English and Japanese, Google translate and some questionable interpretive dancing (on my part), she explains why Vibe was created: to spread the message that sex is beautiful and nothing to be ashamed of.
When asked whether she thinks Japanese people are becoming less embarrassed about their sexual desires, Mizuki has a lot to say. She tells me that women are typically abashed towards all realms of sex, but a new wave of females who acknowledge sexual empowerment as liberating has surfaced. On the flip side, she has observed that some men are turning away from sex. Consequently, places like Vibe are becoming increasingly popular as a safe place for women to explore, study and take responsibility for their own pleasure.
The reality is that Japan’s population is declining at rapid speed. People are having less sex, and the economic repercussions are projected to be disastrous as a result. Couples are few and far between, marriage is being acknowledged as an outdated institution and women’s priorities have shifted from nabbing a man for financial security to creating their own stable futures without the need to rely on anyone else. Mizuki and her friends haven’t written off having kids one day, but marriage is seen as a mammoth hurdle one must jump in order to bear children in a socially accepted manner.
With babies, marriage and couples falling by the wayside, a new industry of relationship replacement services has spawned in Japan, allowing women to choose curated affection over more conventional forms of intimacy. Outside the universal service of prostitution, there is a whole range of businesses that seek to fulfill the basic human needs of connection and touch.
Host bars offer a simple transaction: guests pay for flirtatious entertainment and companionship from suave-looking men in a club setting. The more money visitors drop on liquor, the more attention the hosts will give them. It’s a booming industry, with one of Tokyo’s most popular hosts, Roland, known to earn as much as 42 million yen (roughly $535,300AUD) in a single month, just from having the ability to make women feel special.
Similarly, Butler Cafes – in which customers step into a fantasy simulation where pretty boys in black tie dote on their every need – have had a surge in recent years. For women who would rather have a more personable yet illusory experience, an anime character of their choice – complete with accurate costuming and personality – can take them out on the town for a date.
Mizuki’s observation that men are not pursuing sexual activity is based on what she believes to be a changing model of masculinity within Japan. She considers the aesthetic of many popular pop stars and actors to be responsible for more traditional forms of masculinity being abandoned, and concludes that some men may feel defeated by these changes and, as a result, are avoiding engaging with the fairer sex in a romantic sense. As a result, women are turning towards fuss-free services that provide beautiful men without attachment.
Filling a niche in this market is a therapeutic service known as handsome weeping boys. During meal breaks in offices, a good-looking man will dim the lights and play a series of heart-wrenching videos, encouraging viewers to cry. At the completion of the tape, he’ll walk around the room and wipe away everyone’s tears on a frilly white handkerchief. The aim of this business is to give consumers a cathartic release of emotion at the hands of an attractive male figure, in an attempt to simulate crying or venting to an intimate partner.
Authentic boyfriend experiences (sans dramatic makeup) are available for women who want to order a man by the hour. This service, otherwise known as Ria Kare, offers a wide selection of men to choose from. Clients can browse age, height, weight and blood type, but there’s nothing sexual about this companionship service: all dates are in public spaces and any public displays of affection beyond hand-holding or a quick squeeze are off the menu.
Women who crave a deeper intimacy are able to hire an accompanied sleep provider known as a sheep boy. This business sends out an attractive male (in his PJs) to the homes of lonely women to hold them at night. Once again, sex is not an option, and the physical intimacy provided cannot extend beyond a cosy snuggle. Different packages are available, ranging from a two-hour nap (roughly $250AUD) through to the 16-hour partner experience (around $1250AUD), where women will be cooked for, cuddled and listened to.
Sitting atop a female-genital inspired plush cushion, Mizuki confesses that when she hears about more sex-positive countries like Australia, she feels quite downhearted, as by comparison, Japan is more repressive of what she considers basic human needs.
Unsure how to respond, I glance across the room and make slightly uncomfortable eye contact with the man ornately illustrated across the wallpaper, balls-deep in his partner. I smile to myself, turn to Mizuki and type a final message into Google translate.
“Japan, however conservative it presents, may actually be more in touch with its intimate needs than the rest of us…”