Illustration by N Tani Studio

The Straight Male Sex Workers of Japan Who Sell Their Services to Gay Men

“If you’d never experienced this, it would be hard to understand.”

That’s the first line of Boys for Sale, a documentary that had its North American premiere last week at Outfest Los Angeles.

The film follows 10 urisen — mostly straight Japanese boys who sell sex to men — as they discuss their working conditions, how they ended up making money this way and what it’s like having sex with 70-year-olds — some of whom piss, spit and shit on you — when you’re not even gay.

“To me, this work is making men’s dreams come true,” says 19-year-old Kento, one of the boys.

Urisen is selling and buying,” agrees Shouta, also 19. “We sell our bodies, and men buy us.”

“Generally, it’s considered inappropriate that [Japanese] men openly have sex with other men,” explains Hayami, who manages one of the urisen bars in Shinjuku 2-Chome, the biggest gay area in Tokyo. “Our work is to solve this problem and comfort the souls of our customers.”

Ian Thomas Ash, executive producer of Boys for Sale, was born in the U.S. but has lived in Japan for 17 years, where he directed two award-winning documentaries about children living in areas of Fukushima contaminated by the 2011 nuclear meltdown. I recently spoke to him about how one in five urisen he encountered began sex work as a direct result of that disaster; why we shouldn’t call them “hustlers”; and how they consider themselves to be part of an army unit, each bearing shared battle scars.

Explain what Hayami meant about “comforting the souls” of customers.
Japanese men can’t traditionally live openly as homosexuals. Many carry with them a great deal of shame, self-hatred and other negative feelings. So a large portion of what these boys are doing is more than just a sex act, which may only last for five minutes. In these moments — bathing with someone, being held by someone, having them wash their back and stroke their hair — customers are made to feel like everything is okay. That’s a big part of the urisen experience.

Is that where the inspiration for the film came from?
My friend Adrian Storey — who’s also the film’s director of photography — and I were looking for something interesting to work on. We’d heard about the urisen and visited Shinjuku 2-Chome together to find out if it was something we might want to spend some time with.

How many of the bars in Shinjuku 2-Chome have boys on the menu
There are currently between 10 and 12 bars that specialize in urisen. There used to be a lot more, but the number of bars is decreasing. Now with apps and technology, you can order boys on your phone to come to your house or your hotel.

Are urisen widely known in Japan?
No. When we speak about the film with Japanese people, we have to explain to them what it means because many have not heard of the word. They understand the concept of older men having sex with boys because it’s been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. But the fact that there are bars that specialize in this now isn’t well-known.

Are these boys considered what we’d call “hustlers” in the U.S.?
No. The term “hustler” or “prostitute” is more pejorative and implies that the customer is taken advantage of by the sex worker. This is the opposite. It’s more transactional. The boys talk about selling their bodies or being “purchased,” which is problematic because we don’t buy or sell people. But that’s the direct translation of the Japanese word they’re using and very much reflects their view of their place in life.

What’s the average age of the boys?
The average age they told us was 20 to 22. There were guys who said they were 19, but I’d say their actual average age was 24.

And did they all identify as straight?
They all present as straight in the bar. Two of them identified as bisexual in interviews, but many think, This is how I need to understand my situation or else I cannot do it. Some people simply cannot be gay. So everything they say you have to take with a grain of salt.

Tell me about cultural acceptance of prostitution in Japan. It’s a conservative culture, no?
Not necessarily. It’s definitely traditional, but also pragmatic. It’s understood that people would visit sex workers. Traditionally, gay people have been less able to live their lives openly. They’ve had no choice but to get married, have children and live a so-called “traditional” life. So they use bars like these as an outlet for their sexuality.

In the film it’s stated that Japan used to be mainly bisexual. What does that mean exactly?
People were more fluid. There wasn’t the same gay vs. straight delineation. There are famous stories of samurai having male lovers. Men would have deep emotional relationships with other men. Older scholars, teachers or Buddhist priests would take on young prepubescent students and have sexual relationships with them. Like other cultures — Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern — there’s been a tradition of older men taking on young apprentices. That’s not unique to Japan.

How did you get access to the urisen?
Adrian and I were in 2-Chome for 10 months trying to develop relationships with the bars and some of the boys. We’d pay $5 and talk to the guys for 30 minutes. We listened to their stories, learned where were they from and tried to figure out why they were there.

Why were they there?
Some of them ran away from home. Many didn’t have great relationships with their families. Others were there because of the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

The tsunami? Why?
After the disaster, there was an influx of people coming to Tokyo to do sex work. Two of the boys in the film who are currently working as urisens came from the disaster area. One of them lost his house in the tsunami. Another lost his job due to the nuclear meltdown. It’s actually quite common after a natural disaster or in a war zone for victims and vulnerable people to enter sex work. We generally look at that as far as it affects women and small children. It didn’t occur to me that it also happened to young men. But it makes sense.

So when a customer enters the urisen bar, what happens?
The boys are sitting on little stools behind the counter when no customers are there. They may be on their phone contacting previous customers asking if they want to come in, reading comic books or playing games on their phone. When the customer does come in, they put the comic book or phone down and stand up so they can be viewed. The customer takes appraisal of the boys, and if one is the customer’s type, the boy will be invited to the table for a drink and be paid $5 for 30 minutes of conversation.

And they order sexual services off a menu?
Yes. There are different courses on the menu. You can order S&M, for example, but the majority of customers are interested in what would be considered fairly typical sexual experiences. There may be a portion of customers that want something a bit more hardcore. Two of the 10 boys in the film talked about getting raped. Two more talked about diaper play — spit play, shit play, piss play. I think that’s a fairly accurate representation, 20 percent or so for each.

It sounds like that would be traumatic, but the boys didn’t seem traumatized.
Once you take that leap into sex work, I think you’ve got to be pretty pragmatic about stuff. Sometimes I think you’re so shocked about something that you don’t know how to respond. When you’re in the trenches and someone suddenly shits on you, you just deal with it. Because what’s the alternative? They can’t quit.

What about these masks? Some of them are quite flamboyant. Were they meant to be feminizing?
No. We offered everyone the option of disguising their faces and their voices. There were 15 masks to choose from. We had boys choose one that best reflected them. We didn’t want them all to look like robbers or Zorro. We wanted it to be visually interesting. In the sex rooms, there are mirrors. It was Adrian’s vision to utilize the mirrors along with the masks as metaphors referencing the masks that we wear in our lives and the boys reflecting on their stories.

Do the boys live at the bar?
There are dormitories at the bars with rooms that sleep up to eight boys. Many of them didn’t like the actual work part but pointed to dorm life as a highlight of the experience, kind of like they were on a school trip. Some of the guys have run away from home. Many don’t have great relationships with their families. So when they arrive, there’s a camaraderie and they feel like they’re part of a community — like a sports team or an army unit. They all have a shared scar from doing sex work; they’ve all been in the same battle together. It’s a brotherhood.

Give me a sense of the money these boys make.
Well, like I said, they earn $5 for 30 minutes at a table drinking. As for the “courses,” one of the bars had an “early bird special” where you could order one of the guys for an hour for $60. That’s what you pay the bar, though, the boy himself is getting about $40 of that — for an hour of unsafe sex — and might do that multiple times in a day. At the upper range, it may be that you’re paying the bar $120 for an hour and the boy is getting something like $70 or $80. But never more than that.

So it’s mostly unsafe sex?
I’d hope not, but some bars are known for being loose with their rules and two of the boys in the film came from one of those bars. One of them said very clearly that they were forced to do things they didn’t want to do, but when they were in the sex rooms, refusing wasn’t an option. I’d say a significant portion of time they’d be doing things that were unsafe.

Talk about the animation and music you use in the film, both of which are huge storytelling devices.
It’s a claustrophobic film because many of the scenes are in the tiny sex rooms, so the illustration served to open things up and expand the world. Itako, the film’s director, worked with the illustrator, N Tani Studio, to determine how to illustrate these stories in a respectful way, despite them being shocking and explicit. The music is original and mostly shamisen, a three-stringed, traditional Japanese musical instrument. It’s played by a shamisen player and a Western cello player who go by the name Kazaguruma. So the music is really East-West.

What was the most memorable moment working on the film?
I remember sitting knee-to-knee with an 18-year-old young man. He explained he was working as a urisen because his family had money troubles and he wanted to help. His stomach was growling very loudly during the interview. I said, “You haven’t eaten, have you?” He said, “No, I haven’t eaten dinner yet.” I asked, “What did you have for lunch?” He said, “No, I didn’t have lunch either.” I said, “Did you eat breakfast?” He said, “No, I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

So we took him to a cheap family restaurant. He looked at the menu and said, “I can have anything I want? Oh, they have ice cream!” After dinner, he got an ice cream cone and was eating it like a 5-year-old kid in heaven. The whole time I was thinking, Now I’m going to bring him back to the bar so some 70- or 80-year old guy can try to rape him. That was as horrible as it was memorable.