The good, the bad and the desperate: Tokyo's raunchy underground clubs
Note: Names and identifying information have been altered to protect privacy.
“I don’t like old men, but if I don’t think about it too hard, I can have sex with anyone,” says a 20-something housewife named Mari, following a liaison in an essentially public bar with a balding salaryman twice her age.
“I had never been to this sort of place before, but my friend kept talking about it,” she explains. “Recently I’ve been under a lot of stress at home, so I finally told her, OK, let’s go see what it’s like.”
Like many of the English teachers, office workers and other patrons here in Tokyo's Kabukicho, Mari has ducked out of her "normal" life this morning to show up at one of the area's Happening Bars -- private clubs where singles and couples gather for what the Japanese euphemistically term “adult play.”
“Today I had sex with about 20 men. It was kind of like playing a sports game, but we were all connected. It felt very friendly.”
Saori, another housewife, explains that Happening Bars have become a weekly destination for her.
“My husband doesn’t know,” she admits.
“When I first started coming I felt guilty and thought that maybe I should get a divorce. But then I realized that I like being married and I like coming here, so I keep it a secret.”
A venerated pastime
Speaking to a small audience taking a break outside one of the playrooms that ring the bar area, a company president enthusiastically relates legends of ancient villages in Japan that would hold annual swapping festivals.
“That was before European contact,” he notes.
It seems that deep within the Japanese psyche, sex -- like so many other aspects of life in the country -- is considered a group activity.
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While numbers aren't clear -- establishments easily come and go -- browsing the web in Japanese for “happening bar” or “couple kissa” will reveal that there are many such clubs, particularly in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho and Shibuya's Dogenzaka areas.
Edward, a jet-setting Brit comments, “I am usually pretty careful about letting on that I am a swinger when I am around Americans, but in Japan I find I can be more open.”
Pay and play
Most Happening Bars offer a pub-like atmosphere where members are welcome to drink, chat and get to know each other before moving on to more intimate play areas.
In addition to an initial membership fee, bars collect customer information and require photo identification on joining.
Members then pay an entrance fee every time they visit. Single women can usually get in for free, couples pony up about ¥5,000 to ¥8,000 and single men end up paying for the party often at ¥10,000 or ¥15,000 each.
Participation in any sexual activity is purely voluntary. But that’s not to say that it isn’t expected.
If couples and single women don’t play with the club’s revenue base of single men, the cash cows will move on to more fertile pastures. Losing a repeat big spender because he had a bad night is a business risk that managers hope to avoid.
Weeding out the parasites
Not all the people who visit come for sex. Because of their open bars, shower facilities, mattresses and free admission the clubs tend to attract marginally employed single women who view them as places to take a rest while juggling daytime store jobs with nights as hostesses.
Clubs resort to subtle methods such as banning singles from sleeping in playrooms and charging women nominal entrance fees of around ¥1,000 to discourage such behavior.
Single women like Saori who play regularly are the holy grail of the Happening Bar scene.
Much as the top 10 percent of the population controls 90 percent of the wealth, this elite group of women controls a majority of the sex.
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A small group of male regulars, considered hot commodities because of their good looks, endowment, ethnicity or personality, also tends to account for a disproportionate volume of the action.
While all the rampant stranger-sex certainly meets the erotic definition of dirty, the vast majority of patrons employ condoms and take showers before and after mating.
There are exceptions, particularly with some older visitors, who seem to be comfortable with unprotected liaisons.
However, despite the breadth and frequency of encounters, reports of STD infection among customers are rarely encountered.
Anything but ...
Once things get off the ground, one-on-one liaisons, partner swapping and group play are standard fare.
While woman-on-woman encounters are fairly common and heartily encouraged, the one taboo that is rarely challenged is homosexual behavior.
Although some male-male contact, such as during a ménage à trois, is acceptable, anything more will quickly result in stares, rumors and ostracization.
Happening Bars occupy a gray area under Japanese law and are caught between a drive to increase their customer base while not becoming so popular that the police feel they have to act.
Although rare, when the police do hit, they hit hard, shutting down long-established bars overnight.
Patrons sipping drinks or hanging around in their underwear can expect to walk away, but those caught red-handed may face arrest and prosecution under public indecency laws -- a serious buzz-kill for the married or employed.
The truth is, no one -- authorities, bar operators or customers -- really knows what's around the corner. Stories of bars being raided and shut down make the news on occasion, but by and large business carries on as usual.
Can’t we all get along?
This isn’t a hobby for everyone. While relatively small, there are risks involved and many people can’t get past the feelings of guilt and jealousy that often come with the territory.
However, for some adults it can provide a liberating opportunity to bond with one another in a way that is otherwise impossible in the competitive, isolating modern society in which they live.
Nonetheless, studies conducted in the United States show that swingers, on average, are more fulfilled.
“Compared to the national average, swingers are much more likely than the general population to rate their lives as very happy and exciting,” explains Zhana Vrangalova, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University’s Sex & Gender Lab.
As Frank, a patron from Osaka puts it, “When I’m in here, I don’t have to worry about politics, money and all that crap -- I can just have fun and all of us can get along.”
Mari’s take is simpler, “I think I just like sex.”