A Plain School Uniform as the Latest Aphrodisiac

By Nicholas D. Kristof


TOKYO, April 1 -- With a shy, quivering glance that she had practiced a thousand times, eyes slightly downcast but luminous with innocence and apprehension, Kaori sat at her desk in her prim school uniform, framed by a blackboard, waiting for a 'teacher' to walk into the classroom and rip her clothes off.

It looks like a real classroom, and baby-faced Kaori looks just like a real Japanese schoolgirl. But it is all make-believe, for here in Japan the best way for a prostitute to recruit clients is to put on a school uniform and adopt the naive anxiety of a frightened schoolgirl.

'Japanese men tend to be obsessed by schoolgirls,' said Kaori, who would not give her last name but cheerfully conceded she is really 26. 'The men who come here are looking for submissive schoolgirls.'

This is an 'image club,' one of several hundred in Tokyo where Japanese men pay about $150 an hour to live out their fantasies about schoolgirls. In this club, customers can choose from 11 rooms, including classrooms, a school gym changing room, and a couple of imitation railroad cars where to the recorded roar of a commuter train, men can molest straphangers in school uniforms.

Behind the image clubs is a disturbing national obsession with schoolgirls as sexual objects. Far more than in most other countries, men in Japan seem to find schoolgirls sexually alluring -- and, by all accounts, the target age is getting steadily younger.

The sexuality of schoolgirls has become an issue in Japan over the last year or so because a growing number are turning to prostitution to raise pocket money. But most of the disapproval has been directed at the girls rather than at their middle-aged customers, and in any case it is legal in Tokyo for men to have sex with children over the age of 12.

Many Japanese, particularly women, say they are deeply troubled by this obsession with schoolgirls. Yet by international standards there is remarkably little domestic outrage in Japan at what people here call Loli-con, or the Lolita Complex, after Nabokov's novel about a middle-aged man's obsession with a young girl.

What is the appeal of very young girls?

'Lots of Japanese men feel very threatened by adult women,' said Masao Miyamoto, a male psychiatrist and the author of a best-selling analysis of Japanese society. 'But a 15-year-old girl would not be threatening. It's not so much sexual as psychological.'

Dr. Miyamoto and others say the discomfort that many men have with women their own age is in part a consequence of the growing sophistication of Japanese women. While most men slave over their jobs and take almost no vacation, a growing number of young women find they have the time to travel abroad, to read books, to go to concerts or to take evening classes.

A result is that while several decades ago most middle-aged men still felt more worldly than the women they encountered, now the opposite is often true. So to seek comfort and relaxation, the analysts say, the men turn to the only females over whom they can still plausibly feel some edge -- schoolgirls.

'In associating with young girls, men want to behave in an overbearing way,' said Rika Kayama, a female psychiatrist and social commentator. 'They want to position themselves as superior to the girls.'

Several decades ago, sexual fantasies centered on 'office ladies' in their 20's. Then the focus became college women, and a few years ago it shifted to high-school girls.

Now the focus is on junior-high-school girls.

'The age at which the girls seem interesting is clearly dropping,' said Hiroyuki Fukuda, a 30-year-old man who edits a magazine called Anatomical Illustrations of Junior High School Girls. 'But it's only the maniacs who go for girls below the third grade.'

Two years ago Mr. Fukuda founded a new magazine, V-Club, that is full of pictures of naked elementary-school girls.

'There is no law, so far as we know of, to punish such conduct directly,' a police spokesman said. Laws against obscenity and regulations for the protection of children can be used against child pornography, but this is rare.

To be sure, Japan is without doubt a safer place for children than America. Groping of teen-age girls on crowded subways is very common in Japan -- 69 percent of high-school girls said in a recent poll that they had been abused in that way -- but most other crimes are much rarer in Japan than in other industrialized countries. While there is doubt about the reporting, only about one-thirtieth as many rapes are reported per capita in Japan as in America.

Most of the attention in the Japanese press lately has focused on schoolgirl prostitution. A survey last year in Tokyo found that more than 25 percent of junior-high girls had called 'telephone clubs' -- pornographic services that pay girls to have erotic conversations with men.

Nearly 4 percent of all junior-high girls said they had accepted money in exchange for 'dates' with men.

'I think it's O.K. as long as they pay me,' said Yuki Shinohara, 16, who said she dated men for money but had not slept with them.

Girls like Miss Shinohara are acutely aware that because of their youth they are a sought-after 'brand' in a brand-conscious society. Miss Shinohara said she is already over the hill -- 15 is the best age for a woman in Japan, she believes -- and that her sparkle will be all gone by the time she graduates from high school and gives up her uniform.

Told that she would still be young after graduating from high school, Miss Shinohara shook her head sadly.

'Oh, no,' she said. 'After graduation, we'll be old ladies.'

Seeing schoolgirls as sexual objects has become a disturbing national obsession in Japan, with men paying $150 an hour to live their fantasies at Tokyo 'image clubs.' Suzu, left, and Kaori play schoolgirls at one club. (Fumiyo Asahi, for The New York Times)  

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