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Boy’s town: Documentary examines underside of Tokyo gay quarter

"Boys For Sale"
“Boys For Sale,” which provides a unique view of the trade in boys in the 2-chome gay quarter, will screen at Tokyo AIDS Week on November 26

TOKYO (TR) – At the opening of the documentary “Boys For Sale,” a look at the underside of the trade in young boys in the 2-chome gay quarter of Shinjuku Ward, a former male prostitute says, “I guess if you’d never experienced this, it would be hard to understand.”

Such a summation could not be more accurate.

The film, which will make its Japan premiere at the Tokyo AIDS Week 2017 this weekend, includes interviews with urisen, who are young guys who engage in sex with men. The film presents a rare view of this underground business through the unsettling stories of the boys in candid interviews.

“I think, in general, people are surprised by it,”  said American executive producer Ian Thomas Ash during an interview in Tokyo earlier this month. “I think especially because the guys are so frank, they are so frank.”

That is clear from the start. The aforementioned former prostitute, who later went on to manage an urisen bar, says that boys seeking work at his establishment would ask him how he could get an erection. He answered, “Money. Making money will get you hard.”

The film introduces the 2-chome area, the biggest gay quarter in Japan. The district includes about 800 businesses catering to homosexual clientele: gay and lesbian bars, dance clubs, adult shops and the urisen parlors.

A customer arriving at an urisen business will have his pick of about five boys, many as young as 19, standing behind the counter. Should one be to his liking, he will invite the boy to his table for a drink. If a mutual interest develops, they will then disappear together to a special room or hotel for sex in exchange for money. (Japan’s Anti-Prostitution Law does not prohibit non-coital intercourse.)

“Ostensibly, this is supposed to be a sexy kind of industry,” said Ash. “And yet, when you just get a little bit deeper into it and have a conversation with these guys, any veneer of sexiness just completely disappears, and you are just feeling disbelief about what is going to happen — that we were going to bring these guys back to their bar, and 20 minutes later, some 70-year-old guy was going to try to rape them. That was really hard for us to think about.”

HIV and AIDS in Japan

"Boys For Sale"
Boys are purchased for sex at bars in the 2-chome area of Shinjuku Ward

As far as the timing of the production of the film, which was completed earlier this year, Ash says that the crew feels that homosexuality has become a hot topic in Japan. For example, Tokyo’s Shibuya ward became the first district in Japan to recognize same-sex marriage in 2015. Another reason, says Ash, is Japan’s general lack of awareness regarding sexually transmitted diseases.

“When people are not able to be their true selves, and live their lives fully and honestly, it can lead to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases,” Ash said. “It’s an issue that we feel really strongly about because, as somebody says in the film, sex education in Japanese schools leaves a lot to be desired. So you have kids, basically young kids, or young adults, engaging in sex work who do not have a comprehension about what they are doing. We are not talking about educated sex workers who are choosing sex work as work and taking care of themselves and their clients safely. There isn’t that kind of thing going on.”

In Japan, the majority of HIV infections, which can lead to AIDS, are the result of homosexual contact. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reported that a total of 1,011 people became infected with HIV in 2016. Of those persons, 735 (or 73 percent) contracted the virus through homosexual intercourse.

About one quarter of "Boys For Sale" is animated
About one quarter of “Boys For Sale” is animated

In “Boys For Sale,” the majority of the guys working as sex workers identify as straight and have girlfriends, and a percentage of their clients are married, according to Ash.

“This is not just a gay problem, that’s the thing,” said Ash. “It’s not going to stay in the gay community, and, unlike other industrialized countries, there are people that are not being diagnosed with HIV because they are not being tested; they are being diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. They go to the hospital, that’s the first time they realize what they have, when they are diagnosed with AIDS. That is not happening to this degree in other first-world countries.”

Building trust

In conducting the interviews, Ash and British director of photography Adrian Storey had to develop trust with their subjects. For about one year, the pair visited bars in 2-chome — “Basically, the first year of the film, the budget was all alcohol,” Ash said — trying to develop a relationship with the managers and boys. Should they wish to protect to their identities, the boys were provided masks to wear.

“We talked to hundreds of guys during the research phase,” Ash said. “During the actual filming, all of the guys were given a choice about whether they want to be filmed or not, and then, if they agreed to be filmed, if they would cover their face, like wear a mask, or have their voice changed.”

After wrapping up the film, Ash felt that one of the big takeaways was regarding the age of consent. All of the interviewees are over over 18, and many of them are 20 or older, but that does not mean they are ready for the real world, he believes.

“Technically, they may be adults, and yet, through their lack of experience and lack of education, they really are ‘boys’ in many ways,” he said. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Well, they are 18, so they can decide for themselves.’ I don’t know that they have the tools to to be able to decide things for themselves, and I am not talking about being an urisen; I am talking about things in general.”

Overseas reception

A former urisen: “I guess if you’d never experienced this, it would be hard to understand”

Even though the subject matter of the film, which includes pornographic animation, is not something generally associated with Japan, that has not proved to be problematic for foreign audiences. Thus far, it has taken three awards at film festivals outside of Japan.

Storey participated in a question-and-answer session following a screening at the Porn Film Festival Berlin in October. “It was a real pleasure to answer questions from such a genuinely engaged audience who were understandably shocked by some of the issues raised, particularly those surrounding sexual health and sexually transmitted diseases,” said Storey, who attended the screening, by email.

Ash speculates that the content of the film could be behind its inability to land a screening in Japan. Thus far, it has been turned down by four domestic film festivals. However, he is pleased that it will be appear at Tokyo AIDS Week 2017.

“To he really honest, as filmmakers, it’s maybe not the Japan premiere that we had been envisioning,” Ash said. “And yet, as an event that has ability to make a social impact and to present our view as filmmakers, we are really, really thrilled to be screened inside of that event.”

Note: “Boys For Sale,” directed by Itako, will screen at Tokyo AIDS Week 2017 at the Nakano Industrial Promotion Center on November 26.