I Went to a Love Hotel, Japan’s Open Taboo
It was approaching midnight on a cold Tuesday. My boyfriend and I were drunkenly trawling the backstreets of Shibuya, leading us to the street of dôgenzaka in search of a Love Hotel (rabu hoteru).
The hotels towered over the street, drawing in cliental with grandiose light displays that looked like they had been plucked out of a disco movie. Many of the hotels’ rooms matched, offering rooms with décor reminiscent of a 70s porn scene.
Shibuya’s love hotel district was rife with couples that seemed otherwise non-existent in Tokyo. Perhaps it being a weekday, but the majority of cliental was young professionals, entering and leaving these establishments in their crisp suits. Business at a love hotel is brisk and anonymous: rooms are for reservation for two or three hour durations (kyûkei), or an overnight stay (shukkuhaku). We chose the most reasonably priced hotel and opted for an overnight stay.
The preservation of anonymity of love hotel patrons is paramount. The central concept of minimal face-to-face contact made the check in process for us gaijin (silly foreigners) extremely confusing.
The reception of a standard love hotel is comprised of a small hole with a curtain, so that the staff cannot identify guests. Once we were able to flag down a receptionist, we were guided to a touch screen offering various rooms and durations. No ID required.
I self-consciously attempted to hand over my 10,000 yen note ($120AUD) for the room, which was swiftly rejected by the receptionist. I was told that I was to pay the fee inside our room, and sure enough at the entry of the suite there was a machine asking for the room fee.
The blatant contradictions of love hotels became strikingly obvious. They simultaneously exist out in the open; yet are surrounded by secrecy to the point of appearing taboo. Human desires have become a booming commodity in contemporary Japan. It is estimated that Japanese couples make more than half a billion trips to love hotels each year.
The paradoxical notions of sex in Japan seamlessly fit into Japanese society. This can be explained through identifying Japan’s founding morals surrounding sex, and the developments that took place post-WWII.
Many Japanese values have long been rooted in Confucianism: a value set that inherently suppresses sexuality. Women were at the bottom of the hierarchy under Confucianism, and were expected to only have contact with their close relatives, husbands or masters. Confucian definitions of gender are entrenched in paternalistic and patriarchal relationships between men and women. Women were offered little sexual freedom, meaning that for much of Japan’s history, the concept of sex was mostly confined to the notions of marriage and reproduction.
By the 20th century, Confucianism was almost entirely irrelevant, but these conservative views of sex have lingered. Sex is accepted, and even encouraged, but only behind closed doors. The stark division between public and private framed the private as a kind of escape. The trauma of Japan’s defeat in WWII and its subsequent occupation by the USA redefined the nation’s morale.
Almost half of the nation’s pre-war population had perished, and cities looked like wastelands. Famine and desperate economic situation triggered an escapism psyche in Japanese society. This escapism took shape in many forms, being alcohol, kawaii culture and finally, sex. This mentality was paired with Japan’s unexpected rise from the ashes of defeat to economic power.
The high economic growth period from the late 1950s to early 1970s fuelled a growing need for leisure activities. It was the 1970s when love hotels reached their prevalence in mainstream society. With escapism still in the Japanese psyche, outlandish love hotels erupted, such as the Disney castle style love hotel Meguro Emperor, as well as others that mimicked themes from Western fairytales. Since then, love hotels now offer various themes such as under-water and space themed.
Sex being shrouded by secrecy was thrust upon me once entering our suite at the love hotel. Our bathroom was gargantuan by any metric, coming equipped with luxuries. A glistening clean self-flushing toilet, equipped with its own soundtracks for privacy. A mammoth bath with flashing fluorescent lights and powerful jets, a scene reminiscent of the streets that lay below. Our bathroom was huge. Our bed was huge. Our TV was huge… our window was non-existent. Sex is for private, but it is to be indulged.
Beside our lavish bed sat an iPad, tempting clientele with their wildest fantasies. Lingerie, sexy costumes varying from Mrs Claus to Sailor Moon were on offer for a small fee of 500 yen ($7AUD). Vibrators, condoms, pocket pussies. The love hotel catered to any sexual desire. The TV hanging on the wall in place of a window offered a wide selection of porn, varying in extremeness, right next to golf lessons. The love hotel catered to sex and businessmen.
All types of people visit love hotels. They are a place for people to escape the rigid demands of work in Japanese society, where death by overwork is common place, so common it has its own name (karōshi).
Love hotels offer people a rare space for privacy and intimacy, as well as staying true to the escapism psyche that has been engrained in society. From an outside perspective, it seems impossible to harmonise Japan’s two views on sex, yet they have.
Photos of and by the author