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Both female and male prostitutes walked the streets, offering a full range of services. Reliable data are difficult to come by, but softer services seem to be gaining popularity at the expense of harder ones such as vaginal sex which is illegal but widely available or oral sex which is legal. The sex trade in Japan has long been about not only intercourse, but also the yearning for intimacy and romance, says Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist, and these are the services that are growing.
Onakura shops allow men to masturbate, while female employees watch. The pornography industry is in rude health, too. The shift to less carnal services started after the second world war, when the prudish American occupiers urged the Japanese authorities, against their better judgment, to outlaw payment for vaginal sex in More recently, however, demographic and economic factors have accelerated the change. Rather than having intercourse, he says, they simply want to spend time in the company of young women.
Akira Ikoma, the editor of My Journey , a sex magazine, says that today his publication is aimed mainly at men in their 50s and 60s. The photos are demure: no genitalia and not many breasts. At the same time, the sex industry is adjusting to cater to young Japanese who are also less interested in carnal pleasures. Once it was common for young men to lose their virginity to prostitutes in Yoshiwara, something known as fudeoroshi , meaning writing with a new brush.
Now virgins often remain so indefinitely. Many young people see sex as mendokusai , or tiresome, says Mr Yamada. Services that make masturbation more enjoyable are booming, such as websites that offer chats with naked girls or video parlours where men can watch adult DVDs in a private booth.
Some see all this as a sign of the decreasing confidence of Japanese men. If they pay extra they get a pat or the woman stares directly into their eyes. Sociologists reckon the lack of confidence may also account for another trend in the sex industry: the fetishism of young girls.