Police crackdown on prostitutes in Tokyo red-light district Okubo
A few weeks ago, we reported on the rise in highly visible prostitution in the Okubo area of Shinjuku, located next to the notorious entertainment and red-light district of Kabukicho.
Recent attempts to gentrify Kabukicho notwithstanding, you are still only a short walk away from a blow-job parlor and a huge bevy of love hotels, which stretch all the way to Okubo.
The latter has now become a well-known and flagrant place for picking up street walkers, who are otherwise relatively rare sights in the city. Most sex workers operate from “delivery health” businesses as call girls dispatched to homes and hotel rooms around the city (though it is vey easy to spot their cars waiting near hotels in districts like Kabukicho-Okubo).
In our experience, the only street walkers you can spot commonly in Tokyo are non-Japanese Asians (typically Chinese), who ply their trade rather grimly by offering “massages” to random passing men on the hill of Dogenzaka in Shibuya, among other areas.
Moral panics seem to arise at regular intervals related to compensated dating and young runaways offering their bodies for sale in districts like Kabukicho, though much of the initial contact in those cases takes place increasingly online.
The recent reporting in the mainstream media and on social media about the numbers of young women waiting at Okubo Park for men to come along and buy them has prompted the police to initiate a crackdown.
Though they were already making arrests regularly in the neighborhood, especially since late last year and this spring, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police has now cranked up its efforts to deal with this “nuisance” of sex workers soliciting men on the streets.
Much media reporting seems to suggest the easing of the Covid pandemic has contributed to more men going to the area to pick up women, who are usually found lining up near a hospital and looking at their phones as if waiting to meet someone.
But who is getting arrested in this crackdown? Pimps? No, because these are street prostitutes, so there’s less likely to be a middleman.
It seems, sadly, it’s just the women.
As the Mainichi Shimbun reported on July 25:
On the evening of July 15, a man in the area approached a woman looking at her smartphone, and started talking. The woman, wearing a white dress and black high heels, signaled a number with her fingers, and after two or three minutes of conversation, the pair began walking together, heading toward a love hotel some distance away. But then when they got to the entrance, the man she thought was a customer said a word that made the her stop in her tracks: “Police.”
Several investigators, who had been watching from a distance, walked up to the woman, and led her into a vehicle that had been waiting nearby. She was arrested on the spot on suspicion of violating Japan’s prostitution prevention law by waiting for customers. The MPD arrested five women that day alone.
According to the MPD’s security division, the women engaging in prostitution are generally aged from their teens to fifties, with many in their early twenties. A lot of them have apparently spent their money at host clubs or on partners, leaving them struggling to make ends meet and prompting them to turn to streetwalking, where they can earn money in a short period of time.
In 2021, about 10 to 20 street prostitutes could be seen in a day, but since the autumn of 2022, the figure has been increasing, reaching over 60 per day this summer. The MPD has accordingly strengthened its crackdown in tandem with patrols and educational activities. Between January and June 2023, 27 women were arrested in Kabukicho alone on suspicion of violating the anti-prostitution law.
In the month of July, over 10 people had been arrested as of July 15, exceeding the pace before the coronavirus pandemic in 2019, when 53 people were arrested over the course of the year. A police security division representative commented, “There are cases where the person returns after being released, and it’s a cat-and-mouse game.”
Obviously, we don’t condone women selling their bodies because it’s a final resort or because they are being forced to do so, but neither do we think sex workers should be punished for engaging in the world’s oldest profession.
Prostitution operates in a gray zone in Japan, where transactions treated as between individuals are not illegal per se, but the Mainichi quoted a police official as explaining that “the act of waiting on the streets for sex buyers is illegal, and could lead to their arrest.”
It seems to us that the real issue here is the visibility of the prostitution, since the Tokyo police rarely shut down the far more discreet delivery health establishments (and when they do, it is usually for a strange breach of some sort of license).
Thankfully, though, it seems the Tokyo police are doing more than just arresting sex workers but also providing them with counselors and employment and housing support, so the needy can find the help they need. We also presume and hope that the arrested women are not actually prosecuted after being detained.