Mo' Smut in Japan - Porn and Prostitution
By Justin Hall and Jane Pinckard, Fri Feb 14 09:30:00 GMT 2003

Japan is again at the mobile forefront - only now with sex.


People will use any available technology to get off. If possible, they will use technology to get off with each other. Japan has more advanced mobile-phone technology than most of the world, and their cellular sexuality has kept pace. The Japanese mobile Internet is popular after midnight, showing that people might be skipping the pay-per-view or the newsstand in favor of finding fantasies at their fingertips.

Hot Pics on a Small Screen

In Japan, the phone screens are prettier and the porn looks better. Japan mobile insider David "DC" Collier put it succinctly: "Europe is no less horny, but in Japan they have pictures. A black-and-white lame little WAP thing is just less appealing than a high-resolution cute little i-mode thing." There are thousands of sites offering small jpeg photos, covering a wide range of tastes and fetishes.

This is static content - sexy images you can see in nearly any medium, nearly any market. But unlike most other places in the world, Japan has a burgeoning market for romance, dating and sex video games on PCs. There is software for both men and women, for the timid as well as the adventurous - from "Tokimeki: Girl's Side", in which you play a high-school girl trying to win the love of the cutest boy in school, to "Hard Office Love", a gay-themed hard-core sex romp in an office setting. Predictably, Japanese companies have ported some of these sex games to mobile phones. You can enjoy the likes of "Strip Rock-Paper-Scissors," "Erotic Campus" or "Extreme Nurse" on the small screen. Like their PC predecessors, most of these games promise an erotic image reward if you pick the right answer to a series of simple questions.

Neither does Japan neglect the textual side of sexual. The tradition of the "pillow book" began in this country - an intimate personal narrative shared among a small clique of close friends. Today, this tradition continues as independent authors distribute short erotic texts for reading on mobile phones. It might seem excruciating to read lengthy stories on a tiny screen, but the character-based Japanese language is much denser than European languages, and more content can be packed into a smaller text area.

Interpersonal

Being able to look at a frisky story or thumbnail picture of a porn star anywhere may be a remarkable convenience of mobile technology, but it's barely a communications innovation. Where the mobile phone really shines is in its ability to connect people across space and time. What better way to find a lonely/horny/available play partner in your town than to search from phone to phone, across the mobile Internet?

Mobile phone dating sites exploded in Japan between 1999 and 2000 - bulletin boards introduced people, charging money for reading and replying to personal advertisements. One programmer wished to remain unnamed as he described the architecture of his Japanese mobile phone dating site.

Commissioned by a company in the adult video business, the site followed basic Japanese dating site architecture: reading messages on the bulletin board would cost 10 yen, replying to messages would cost between 30-50 yen. But only men paid - women participated for free. "I don't know how they were advertising!" he exclaimed, but within one week of launching, they had over 50,000 subscribers; by the end of the first month, over 100,000. He assumed it was through their adult videos and magazines; many dating sites are infamous for their overuse of "meiwaku mail" - mobile phone spam.

He reported that 80% of their registered users were men. The company he was working for had five men in the office who were set up to pretend they were female, but after the first week they had enough registered female participants. Most of the messages, he observed, were short and straightforward, and most of the active public posters were women: "I am 18 years old, I look like [some celebrity]. I am free now, email me." Or "I am 40 years old, I'm doing my laundry. But I'm bored [at 3am]." Thousands of men replied - "You look like [that celebrity]? I look like [this celebrity]. Let's meet up."

Most of the people who find each other through these dating sites are eager simply to carry out frenzied short text messaging with their new "mairu-tomo" (mail friend). If things work out well, then the two parties can use private mobile phone mail channels to negotiate a meeting place and time, and even details such as price and services. Aside from virtual friends and possible dates, mobile networks turn out to be a perfect place to arrange prostitution.

The Kids Are Not Alright

Some of these dating sites are quite segmented - advertising housewives, girls in high school uniforms, office workers, or more kinky pleasures. Many of the dating services are location-based - listing possible companions town by town. And anyone who is participating has their phone with them, meaning they're immediately reachable. Add mobile phone cameras and multimedia screens to the mix, and you've got a perfect platform for paid sex services.

What's worse, in the eyes of the law, is the suspicion than many female participants in this system are underage. When the anonymous programmer saw an advertisement reading "16 years old, $200" he ordered the company to find another host for their mobile dating site. According to the Asia Times, of the 836 cases of child prostitution recorded in the year 2000, 53 percent involved telephone dating services. This year, law enforcement officials in Japan are pushing stronger penalties for underage participation in dating sites.

Underage prostitution, occasional rapes or even murder resulting from a date arranged over mobile phones explain why DoCoMo has had longstanding rules against introducing strangers to other strangers over the i-mode mobile Internet. It's still this way today: the official DoCoMo i-mode sites feature mostly very controlled, almost ceremonial ways for strangers to interact. The hot and heavy dating sites didn't fit in the with the DoCoMo notion that i-mode would be a predictable, walled garden of content online. So they remain shadowy, touch-and-go enterprises in the vast pool of "unofficial" i-mode content.

Got Rep?

The mobile phone in Japan has been used in pursuit of a system of no-commitment intimacy on demand, for free or for money. There are people all over the world available for short dates - conversation without sex, sex without conversation. Today in Japan those people can easily find each other over the mobile Internet.

It's an incredible convenience, and it's created some staggering problems. Especially in a culture like Japan, where personal, face-to-face introductions are taken very seriously, the chance to cut loose and meet a fantasy through the cyber-world must seem like some great freedom. But that freedom is outpacing social codes.

If users in Japan yield some privacy and submit to web-wide user authentication then kids could be more effectively screened from adult dating areas. And these identities could be used for accountability. These are top-down systems for regulating behavior in online adult playlands; short of an effective moral crusade, they might be the only hard-and-fast solution to curtail internet-enabled child prostitution.

Perhaps there are tools that users can employ to police their own online space. Cameras in phones allow for some preliminary screening measures between dating parties. Reputation systems, linking up social networks through buddy lists in phones, could provide accountability.

But maybe the whole allure of mobile phone dating and mobile porn lies in the notion that this device can bridge an unknown gap - through this bit of plastic and silicon in your hand, you can navigate the menus and promises to seek the perfect cure for loneliness. For at least one night.

Humans in an increasingly interconnected world suffer an exhilarating accessibility to all things strange and wonderful under the sun. Mini-porn at your fingertips! Secret strip poker in your palm at the board meeting! The perfect late-night erotic encounter! The ability to search and find these things might increase our hunger. Human sexuality best excites us as provocative mystery: in the mind, and now, in the mobile. And still, ultimately, in the flesh - where the problems and the promise of sex lie.


It's Vice Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles on the future of mobility. And share your views on this topic in the Podium.

Jane Pinckard studies the social worlds built by technological tools, especially in that mysterious space between the east and west. She is personally involved in media culture through www.umamitsunami.com, and writes about video games for www.gamegirladvance.com.

Justin Hall has been writing about digital culture for over a decade now, mostly on his web site Links.net. He splits his time between Japan and the United States, west of the Mississippi.