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Navigating Japan’s nyotaimori netherworld

Night of the Body (Issei Kato, Reuters)
Night of the Body (Issei Kato, Reuters)

TOKYO (TR) – For at least as long as nyotaimori — the practice of serving sushi on the body of a naked female’s torso — has been making inroads overseas, the media has been raising the same question: Where does the practice fit within the context of Japanese culture?

For an answer, one can turn to the 168-cm-long body of Miho Wakabayashi. Until last year, the 30-year-old’s bare stomach and limbs were adorned with fish and fresh fruit slices once a month at the Sleeping Beauty “happening bar” in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. (Such a drinking establishment is one in which customers engage in uninhibited intimate activities with one another.)

“It was a show promoted as a special event,” says Wakabayashi, who is also a part-time stripper, sometimes performing at the legendary Rokku-za theater in Asakusa, and an actress in adult films. “It was used as a kind of ice-breaker intended to draw laughs.”

Yet it is generally nonexistent today, she believes, “and because it is so rare, when the organizers of the bar announce they are going to do it, it is a good way to get more people to attend.”

Perceptions of nyotaimori overseas, however, are quite different. News stories covering the openings of nyotaimori enterprises from Florida to London over the past decade refer to it as a form of Japanese food culture and not as an underground activity — a misunderstanding that has resulted in substantial resentment.

The Spanish film “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo,” which was released this year and features Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”), includes a nyotaimori scene (see trailer below; warning: contains adult content) in which suited male guests use chopsticks to sample fish morsels spread atop a beautiful woman.

“It is a national disgrace for Japanese women,” announced Atsuko Yamaguchi in the Sankei Shimbun (June 3) after the film premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival. “Some may argue that one shouldn’t be overly critical about a movie yet it still catches my attention to see how foreigners perceive Japan as I am myself a Japanese living abroad.”

Not long after a fetish fashion event in Tokyo’s Ginza district dubbed “Night of the Body,” which featured a blonde-haired model using her torso as a tray to serve sweets, Sankei Sports, June 8, was perturbed that the practice was described in foreign-media outlets as being in concert with Japanese style. “Is this a form of Japanese culture?” demanded the headline of the tabloid.

Yasuharu Ishizawa, a professor at Gakushuin Women’s College and editor of the 2004 book “Nihon Wa Dou Hojirareteiruka” (How Japan Is Viewed), which includes a chapter about the reportage of nyotaimori on a Chinese Web page, says that foreign correspondents seeking sensational stories are largely responsible for cultural misrepresentations. But he also adds that Japanese people tend to be highly sensitive in these cases.

“At the conclusion of World War II, the GHQ (General Headquarters) came to Japan and tried to change Japanese culture and the Japanese social and political system,” Ishizawa says. “Under that process, Japanese people realized that their culture was considered strange and different. So they became very sensitive to how Westerners view them.”

Sensitivities aside, given that the naked female form in connection to food is not unusual in Japan — for example, plastic plates molded into the shape of a female form are for sale on — there is likely some kind of legacy in Japan of bringing nudity and sushi together.

A peek at the holdings at the National Diet Library reveals nothing substantial about nyotaimori’s origins. News archives of the sometimes unreliable tabloids, however, show that, like with Wakabayashi’s performances, it seems to have attained nearly mythic status and appears focused within the seedy realms occupied by fuzoku (sex) businesses.

A fuzoku reporter for Sports Hochi (April 14, 2004) wrote about witnessing nyotaimori at a hot-spring resort in Shizuoka Prefecture in the early ’80s.

That same year, Shukan Asahi Geino (April 29) reported on a nyotaimori and massage service in Tokyo that operated under deri heru (out-call sex) principles. It often served clients in hotel rooms for a rate of 30,000 yen that included sushi and erotic extras.

Earlier this year, Nikkan Gendai (May 23) looked back at a shop that opened in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho entertainment district in June 1998. It was a mix of sushi and sex services. But salmonella eventually became a problem, perhaps as a result of the fish being warmed following contact with the girls skin, and forced the establishment to shut its doors.

Internet searches show that strip clubs, such as Shinjuku’s Kabukicho DX, sometimes offer nyotaimori during performances on stage.

Jake Adelstein, author of “Tokyo Vice,” a memoir documenting his 12 years of reporting on crime for the Yomiuri Shimbun, says that nyotaimori has its fans within various organized crime groups but adds that it is generally considered over-the-top for today’s tastes. “It still takes place and it was definitely something that the yakuza liked to do at parties,” he explains, “but as for now, it’s less popular [with gangsters] than before.”

He cites the aforementioned bacteria problem as being one reason for the decline in interest and adds that nyotaimori in its ultimate form (fully nude) is illegal since public decency laws require underpants — a requirement that prevents the classic finisher to a nyotaimori event: the administration of wakamezake, an explicit act involving the woman’s pubic hairs and a sake decanter. (Note: Wakabayashi performed in a thong.)

For yakuza, this became a deterrent in that it gave police unwanted leverage for making busts. In 2004, the Asahi Shimbun (April 15) reported that two members of the Inagawa-kai crime syndicate in Gunma Prefecture used a nyotaimori show to commemorate a release from prison and were subsequently arrested for allowing minors to view the proceedings.

Wakabayashi believes that an old-fashioned view of nudity is what has allowed the practice to evolve and remain in these obscure areas. “In the Western community,” she says, “if there is an artistic object that contains nudity it could be considered as a type of expression. In Japan, it is deemed taboo before any kind of examination that might lead it to be considered artistic.”

The actress, however, does not agree with the Japanese critics when it comes to the portrayal of nyotaimori overseas. At least, she says, it indicates that others are interested and observing Japan: “It shows they are paying attention.”

Note: A similar version of this report originally appeared in the Japan Times on December 3, 2009.