Exploring Harajuku Parties, Nightclub Rules, and a "Celibacy Syndrome" In Tokyo

text and photos by Rupert Russell
I've come to document Japan's cultural underground for an ongoing photography project on the avant-garde around the world.

While at Tokyo Harajuku fashion party, Heavy Pop, the first thing that catches my attention is a flier the host hands to me as I enter. Alongside the names of the DJs and promoters are a detailed set of rules, the most striking of which is "Do not approach girls."

Studying the flyer, I wonder if this has something to do with the mysterious "sexless-Japanese-youth-debate" I'd read about. According to media reports, Japan's youth is suffering from a "celibacy syndrome." The statistics are startling. A third of under-30s have never been on a date, and a quarter of men and half of women say that sex just isn't for them. Over the next thirty years the population is projected to plummet by a third. When asked why they're opting out of hooking up, most claim to be too busy with work or content with their platonic friendships alone.

And then there's the most extreme example of social opting out: the hikikomori. At the beginning of the 1990s, after the economy crashed and entry-level work evaporated, scores of young people began to lock themselves in their bedrooms -- permanently. Without a job, one's place in society -- one's da -- is uncertain. As a "recluse" or "shut-away" they avoid interactions that would confer shame and so they save face by facing no one. The Japanese government estimates that 700,000 young people have shut themselves off from society and fears what will happen in 2030 when the parents of the first generation of hikikomori begin to die off. Who will support these people that have never faced the outside world?


Another night out: this time in a trendy club in the middle of Shibuya's red-light district, called the "Love Hotel Hill." A sign with a giant "X" over a man striking the Grease Lightening pose declares "NO DANCING." At first I think it's probably ironic. It's not, I'm told.

To crackdown on Tokyo's nightlife the police have resurrected an arcane 1948 anti-prostitution law that forbids dancing after midnight and popular clubs are frequently raided. One of the first to bear the brunt of this new policy was DJ Takky Ishino, who tweeted in protest "dance is not a crime." His tweet has become a slogan, seen on t-shirts sold around the city. A group called Let's Dance has collected hundreds of thousands of signatures protesting their city's transformation into a 21st-century rendition of Footloose.

Creating rules about when you can and cannot dance is not as out of place as it might seem in a country that's known for being particularly orderly. There are rules for everything. From the correct way to queue for a subway train (double file from the painted platform lines), to the polite way to exchange money with a cashier (in a designated tray, never by hand), seemingly every interaction has its own protocol.

When the stakes of every social interaction are heightened, it's easy to see how  hikikomori's total seclusion and the so-called celibacy syndrome could be a reaction to all of these social guidelines. Rules can make things clear and easy, but too many just leads to confusion. When you consider that dating -- more than any other interaction -- is drenched in messy ambiguity and add to it new rules issued by nightclubs (don't hit on girls) and imposed on nightclubs (no dancing after midnight), it becomes easier to see why people might say "screw it" and throw in the towel. Some nightlife pros have found ways to circumvent the laws but their solutions are far from optimal: many clubs open as early as 5pm and get going by 7pm. For most, it's still too early to be drunk and you're not allowed to dance or talk to girls. It's not ideal if you're looking to score. 

But nightlife has always been as much about creative expression as about sex. Surveying the scene at Heavy Pop, it's tempting to psychologize the counter-cultural display as some kind of momentary unleashing of repressed id. The sparkly Band-Aids the girls wear on their noses or the Christmas baubles hanging from the head of a "killer-Pierrette" definitely suggest something outside of the mainstream. And they most certainly are. But they are also firmly within the bounds of long-established archetypes -- "Lolita," "Princess," "Maid," "Goth" -- that have defined the Harajuku fashion scene for decades. Even the most outlandish outfits have an archetype: the fushigi-chan (translation: "mystery kids," whose outfits defy comprehension).


On the last day of my trip, my Japanese friend Maho and I are walking around Love Hotel Hill (so named because of the prevalence of love hotels, where guests can rent rooms by the hour and are generally associated with prostitution), an area that illustrates the idea that there may be a growing market-based solution to this "celibacy epidemic." Every aspect of a "relationship" is sold as a separate standalone service and regulated in its own way. If you want a date -- and only a date -- you can pick out a girl behind mirrored glass and watch her do "normal things" like reading a book or surfing the web. Want some quick intimacy? Pop into a cuddle café and get your ears cleaned by a girl dressed as a maid or schoolgirl. For something more physical, you'll have to shower first and have a manicure before a member of Japanese mafia -- the Yakuza -- reads you a strict list of "do's and don'ts." And if you're a true Akihabara otaku (geek) who finds real women too much, there's a sex doll delivery service that will bring one right to your home.

What's interesting is that for a country obsessed with technology and the Internet, online dating and dating apps are not widely used, seen by many to still hold a stigma. (Although this may be changing for a certain sub-segment of the population. Ashley Madison, the dating site for married people looking to start extra-marital affairs, recently launched in Japan and has seen astonishing growth.) Porn, too, is often censored but Japan "leads the world in selfie porn." 

During our tour of the neighborhood, I notice a slightly incongruous-looking "Baby Doll" pet store. "Why is there a pet store next to a hostess bar?" I ask Maho. "Because that's where you buy the cat," she replies. It turns out that male customers who seek the most in-demand girls offer to buy them gifts to secure more of their time. Except that the girls can't ask for anything extravagant because then they'd be perceived as shallow and, apparently, undesirable. Instead, they ask for a pet cat, citing their loneliness and vulnerability to the adoring john. Conveniently, a pet store is open next-door. The john buys her the cat, she takes it home, and the next day she returns it and splits the profit with the store. Ferry enough cats home and she'll have enough money for an item she truly wants.

As we continue to walk around, I start to wonder if these customs and Japan's celibacy syndrome aren't the curious outliers that everybody assumes they are. Perhaps these are remarkably rational responses to the perils of dating and relationships and all of the rules that exist in modern courtship no matter the country. Maybe Americans and Europeans will even follow suit, as the difficult realities of dating and hooking up pale in comparison to á la carte services that take credit cards. Perhaps the Japanese are, as usual, just ahead of the curve.

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