Itako’s premier documentary Boys for Sale chronicles the experiences of various young men working in the ‘urisen’: the Japanese male prostitution industry. Despite the heavy topics discussed – prostitution, sexual assault, and sexually transmitted diseases – Boys for Sale maintains a steady tone. It casts no judgment on the industry and takes no stand for or against urisens. Itako merely presents the facts and the testimonies of the boys, allowing the audience to form their own opinions. 
This is not to say, however, that the film isn’t decidedly disturbing. Perhaps most tragic of all is that their tales are unremarkable and unsurprising in the context of the larger prostitution trade – for example, most boys are forced to become urisens by financial necessity; they are coerced into the industry rather than making a free choice. Yet despite the exposition of tragedy, the filmmakers maintain that change “is going to be an uphill battle.” In this interview, executive producer Ian Thomas Ash and producer/director of photography Adrian ‘Uchujin’ Storey discuss the nuances of the film and how they expect Boys for Sale to inspire change.
You’ve created an incredibly powerful film that exposes the urisen industry, which is something that remains largely undiscussed in the public sphere. What inspired you to make this film in the first place?
Ian Thomas Ash: Thank you so much! Adrian and I were looking for a film to work on together and when I told him about these bars where the boys were for sale, he thought it was a great idea. We spent about a year researching the area and visiting the bars to see if it was even possible to make a film about it. Later, the other team members, led by director Itako, joined the team.
Will Boys for Sale change the perception of homosexuality and prostitution in Japan? What do you hope the audience will take away from this film?
Ian: We have had a difficult time arranging screenings/distribution in Japan. The film has only screened here twice – one time at Nakano, and another time at a university in Tokyo. We certainly hope that the film can be part of a larger discussion about sexuality and safe sex in Japan but it is going to be an uphill battle.
Adrian ‘Uchujin’ Storey: I think if the film was given an audience in Japan, it could have some positive effect on attitudes towards homosexuality and prostitution. The problem is that, despite winning multiple best documentary awards and screening at almost forty international film festivals, the film has been rejected from every Japanese film festival it has been entered in. This comes as little surprise given the country’s attitude towards the parts of its society that it does not want to be discussed domestically.
Instead of merely blurring the boys’ faces, you gave them decorative masks to hide their identities. Why did you make this artistic choice?
Ian: Adrian explored some of the different (and traditional) ways of hiding the interviewees’ identities, such as backlit shadows and pixelation, but those didn’t seem right. A few weeks before filming, I visited a friend’s boutique and she had all of these gorgeous masquerade masks on display. I sent a photo of them to Adrian, and he was like, “yes!” Lots of people who see the film comment on the masks and we are really glad that they helped add to the telling of the stories by the boys whilst not being too distracting.
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Male prostitution is legal because of a loophole in the law, which mentions nothing about same-sex prostitution. Why do you think the Japanese government doesn’t have any plans to rectify this law? How would the industry change if urisen bars became illegal?
Ian: I am not aware of any current legislation being introduced to close this loophole. After all, as we find out in the film, even some politicians visit these bars! But how would the industry change if urisen bars became illegal? They would go more underground, including online – a trend we are already seeing – and would therefore become even more dangerous to the boys due to then having less protection and regulation.
Adrian: As is hinted at in the film, many of the urisen claim that some of their clients are politicians and high-ranking police officials. This fact alone would go a long way to explaining why the government has no plans to change the current laws. I do not think much would change if the bars were to become illegal; one only needs to look at the situation in Japan regarding heterosexual prostitution to see that. Just because something is technically illegal, does not mean that it does not take place.
What do you think of prostitution in general? Should it be legalized? What are the benefits and downsides?
Ian: I do not really have a strong opinion about prostitution in general when it involves consenting adults. Sex workers who are educated about the risks and how to protect themselves and their clients, and who choose this work should be able to work without stigma or prejudice. However, the coercion of young people into the sex trade, like some of the boys who were documented in the film, is an issue that needs to be addressed. But this has less to do with prostitution per se and more with the protection of vulnerable young people.
Adrian: Personally, I can see no valid argument for not legalizing prostitution. If we look at countries where legalization has taken place, what we see is far better protection for sex workers, better working conditions, and the removal of criminal elements often involved in other far more harmful criminal practices from the industry, and increased tax revenues. Prostitution is often referred to as the oldest industry: men and women have sold sex for hundreds of years and will obviously continue to do so. The only sane course seems to be to protect those working in the industry, not criminalize them.
How many of the urisens are underage? Are there not laws protecting children and outlawing their involvement in prostitution? What are the cultural attitudes around paedophilia and statutory rape?
Ian: No one could really know. I think some of the boys are actually older than they say and some are younger. Certainly, there are laws to protect children in Japan but they are not always enforced. Like in many societies throughout the world, a culture of adults (mostly men) having relationships with young children (especially boys) in Japan has been historically documented, although this is, of course, illegal under current law.
Adrian: We did not meet any urisens who admitted to being underage during the course of making the film, though it seems obvious that there are some. The attitudes around paedophilia in Japan differ greatly from that of most western countries. Very young women (early teens), for example, are sexualized in photographs and comics in a way that would shock and disturb most western audiences. Only very recently did it become illegal to possess child pornography images.
“Prostitution is often referred to as the oldest industry: men and women have sold sex for hundreds of years and will obviously continue to do so. The only sane course seems to protect those working in the industry and not criminalize them.” Adrian ‘Uchujin’ Storey
Why do children turn to prostitution as a profession?
Ian: When people watch it, they’ll see that this is documented in the stories of the boys in the film. Some may have run away from home while others were displaced by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters.
Adrian: I think the reason young people turn to prostitution as a source of income is the one mentioned by several of the urisens in the film: economic necessity. This is by no means unique to Japan. Whilst it is not expressly mentioned in the film, the concept of ‘joushi kosai’ (or ‘compensated dating’) also exists, particularly amongst young women and, by extension, young men.
The manager of one urisen bar says, “We use applications to advertise ‘high paying part-time jobs’ as well as ‘rental boyfriends.’” Many of the boys also assert that they have been tricked. Do you think that these bars use deception to trick young boys into entering the industry? What other kinds of corruption exist?
Ian: Some of the bars do use dishonest tactics to entice the boys into coming for an interview. These include promises of high pay, a place to live, and downplaying the actual work they will be required to do. Other corruption includes withholding from the boys the potential danger and health risks or even worse – purposefully providing them with misleading information.
Adrian: A number of the bars undoubtedly used deception to get the boys into the industry. Again, this practice is not uniquely a Japanese problem but is rife throughout the sex industry across the world. It is compounded and exacerbated by the illegality of sex work. I think it is important not to view all sex workers as victims, but in the case of such deception and sleight of hand descriptions of the work, it is unavoidable to view some of the urisens as such.
One other form of corruption that we came across is mentioned in the film, that is the taking of a ‘deposit’ from an urisen, so that when they want to quit they have to work out a notice period to get their deposit back. This unethical practice is designed purely to benefit the bosses of the bars, and leaves many urisens feeling trapped as the deposits often run to ten times or more the fee for a single encounter.
Most of the boys pretend to be heterosexual to entice and please clients. Why is this more popular? What is the appeal of having a homosexual encounter with a heterosexual boy?
Ian: The appeal for a man to have sex with a guy who identifies as heterosexual could be explained by there being a challenge – as having sex with a guy who identifies as homosexual would be relatively easy compared to having sex with one who identifies as straight. Also, it is important to recognize that not all of the boys who identify as straight are lying. Although they have sex with men for money, in their private lives they may exclusively have relationships with women. The term used to describe them would be MSM, or ‘men who have sex with men.’
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Two different urisens testify to being raped, with one boy telling a harrowing story of being gang-raped while handcuffed and blindfolded. How common is sexual assault in this line of work? Are there any repercussions for clients?
Ian: It is difficult to say how common sexual assault is among sex workers in general, but I would suggest that because of the stigma and shame associated with having sex for money, it is certainly much higher than reported.
Adrian: Almost all of the urisen we spoke to had stories of sexual assault. If the urisen we spoke to can be viewed as a representative cross-section of the industry, it seems sexual assault is extremely common. The chances of any of the clients suffering repercussions for such assaults are almost zero. No urisen would go to the police to report such an attack due to the stigma associated with their work, and the attitudes of the police towards sex workers.
Most boys don’t use condoms with clients, and one urisen asks if men can even contract STDs, believing that they are transmitted only through blood contact. Japan is the only developed country that is seeing an increase in HIV/AIDS. Why is this?
Ian: As someone says in the film, sex education in Japan is really lacking and talking about these issues is not commonplace. Specifically regarding the rise in cases of HIV infection, as another person in the film says, perhaps it is due to apathy and the belief that the crisis is over.
The Delivery Boys, who distribute condoms and information fliers to urisen bars and similar locations, are fighting to increase awareness and promote safe sex. How effective has this been? Can we expect to see a change in Japan?
Ian: How effective their campaign is/has been is hard to gauge but their ongoing work is ever more important. Their work is part of a small but growing campaign to raise awareness about issues surrounding sexuality and sexual health.
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One woman testifies that sex education is required in schools, but is extremely inadequate. What do they teach in schools? Are there any plans to improve this?
Ian: What is taught varies for each school district. But just as one example, there has been a recent debate regarding how sex education is taught in junior high schools in Tokyo. Earlier this year, a Tokyo metropolitan assembly member objected to terms such as ‘sexual intercourse’, ‘birth control’, and ‘abortion’ being used in a junior high school sex education class, stating that “topics like sexual intercourse and birth control are inappropriate for junior high school students.” I find this crazy – high school or college is too late to be learning about these topics! Basic sexual education should begin in elementary school, not after young people are already sexually active.
You end the film with the various boys talking about their dreams for the future. Can they ever live a normal life? What are the psychological and emotional ramifications of prostitution?
Ian: The psychological and emotional scars of abuse (not necessarily prostitution) will be something that these guys will carry with them for their entire lives, whether or not they are consciously aware of it. But regarding whether or not they can ‘ever live a normal life’, I would ask: what is a normal life? Certainly, my hope for them is that they will find happiness and understand that having sex can be a part of healthy and beautiful relationships, an expression of one’s deep connection and their love for someone else. But how many of us can say that we have truly found this?
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