Although Airi, 18, is not a high school pupil, she wears her school uniform at a café in Tokyo because, she says, it makes her more popular with customers than when she wears her regular clothes. Picture: The Washington Post

In Japan's 'high school dating' business, girls are matched with older men, writes Anna Fifield.

High school dating? No big deal in many parts of the world – but in Japan, it means something quite different.

Here, “high school dating” matches girls in uniforms with men in their 40s and 50s, and older. And it means money changing hands.

Sometimes this involves a walk around the block or a drink in a bar. More often, it involves sex.

“It’s easy to talk to these girls,” said one man in his 30s who was sitting at a wooden school desk in AKB High School, a café in Akihabara, Tokyo. A 17-year-old girl in a school uniform brought the man and his colleague beers.

They admitted that the uniforms were a big part of the attraction. “They look so cute,” said his friend, in his 40s.

This is Japan’s shady “JK” or “high school dating” business. (Joshi kosei means “high school girl” in Japanese.)

Although some cafés like this are relatively innocent – those that employ high school girls must close by 10pm, which means the men aren’t too late getting home to their wives – there is a large part of this world that is not.

There are various levels of high school dating, starting with cafés staffed by underage girls and peep shows where high school girls sit behind a one-way mirror in their school uniforms, posing according to customers’ requests.

There is also “tour guiding”, when girls go for a walk with men, a walk that often ends with some kind of sexual service.

Kazue Muta, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Osaka University, said the element of taboo made girls in school uniforms sexually attractive to men. “Japan is a patriarchal society, and it has this mentality that the young and seemingly innocent are valuable and more alluring,” she said.

Yuki Aoyama, a photographer known for his “schoolgirl complex” pictures, said it was just a business. “There are men who want to spend time with high school girls, and there are girls who want to make money,” he said.

One of the people trying to do something about it is Jun Tachibana, from the non-profit Bond Project, which is trying to get girls off the streets.

Tachibana and two colleagues were out on patrol on a recent night in the busy area around Shibuya, looking for girls who might be in trouble.

“Hi,” Tachibana said, approaching a girl crouching, carrying two bags. She had the look of a girl who didn’t want to go home that night.

Tachibana recognised her as a 17-year-old they had found in this area before. “Why don’t you go home? I’ll see you off at the station,” she said, offering to accompany the girl to the tracks. But the girl refused.

“There are girls in difficult situations – they could be coming from a poor family or could be sexually abused at home,” Tachibana said. “Often these girls don’t have a place to stay, so they get into the JK business.”

A man walks by ads in the Akihabara area of Tokyo. Picture: Washington Post

This night, Tachibana had some luck. She returned to the meeting place later and persuaded the girl to go home.

But getting girls off the street one by one will not make much difference when there is still so much demand – particularly for those still in school.

“If there are two 16-year-old girls, and one’s at school and one’s not, customers will always choose the one who’s at school,” said one JK business manager who asked to be called Taka.

One of his businesses involved peep shows where girls between 15 and 17 years old sat in their school uniforms, their legs arranged so their underwear was visible. Men paid $60 (R806) to watch a girl of their choosing for 30 minutes.

“Many Japanese men find something erotic in a school uniform,” Taka said.

Girls involved in the JK business are insistent that they choose to do this work, and Taka says it’s not exploitation because the girls want to be in the business.

Mio, a 17-year-old in her second year of high school in Tokyo, started in this business last year, having sex with a man in a karaoke room for $30.

“When I’m at home at night, I get lonely and want to be needed by someone. That’s when I do it,” said Mio.

Now she posts on a messaging app on weekends and finds an eager audience, sometimes college students, sometimes men in their 50s, the same age as her father.

Once, a man choked her during sex. Another, she said, “wouldn’t stop when I said no”. But generally, the men treat her well, she said.

Mio described a home life where her parents hated each other and she hated them. “I wish I could stop. I might be able to stop it if I don’t feel lonely anymore.”

Advocates for girls say this practice is nothing short of child prostitution.

“Some girls tell me it’s as easy as working at a karaoke or a fast-food store, but that’s not right,” said Yumeno Nito, a 27-year-old who runs Colabo, a support group that helps exploited girls. “They are talked into believing that this is the same kind of work, by adults who treat them kindly at first to lure them into the business.”

Nito’s group has helped girls who have been raped or assaulted, and girls with mental or learning difficulties who are talked into doing degrading things because they think it will make them feel worthwhile.

Even if ordinary Japanese considered the practice deviant, they placed the blame on the girls, said Muta. High school girls who become pregnant are regularly expelled from school.

When authorities discussed ways to curb the practice, they tended to come up with ideas such as imposing curfews on girls, rather than penalising men for having sex with high schoolers, Muta said.

Regulations have been tightened slightly in recent years to address exploitation. Girls were banned from officially working in “high school girl” stores in 2014, but many still do. Legislating would not solve the problem, said Tachibana.

“These girls are still children, and what they are going through is sexual exploitation,” she said. “But imposing stricter regulations will just push these activities underground and actually could make it even more dangerous for girls.”

Instead, it’s important to understand how these girls ended up in the business. Japanese society has long considered this a situation in which the girls should take responsibility for their actions, but Nito says this attitude overlooks the girls’ backgrounds.

“They often don’t receive the necessary help because they are just considered prostitutes or girls who are behaving badly,” she said. “Unless this changes, girls will continue being lured into the JK business.”