Exploring Enjo Kosai

enjo kosai

In a previous article here on Otaku Lounge discussing gyaru street fashion and subculture, I made brief mention of something called ‘enjo kosai’ – translating roughly to ‘assistance relationship’, but probably better understood by the term ‘compensated dating’. Today I’d like to expand on this by taking a brief look not only at the background behind the term, but also how it’s been viewed by Japanese media and the general public.

The simplest explanation of enjo kosai probably makes it sound about as literal as the above term suggests: participants – usually high school and junior high school girls – are paid for their time and companionship given to older, often reasonably wealthy men. Sometimes this payment is simply in the form of money, although for the gyaru who supposedly began the trend, gifts of expensive brand-name items are also fairly common. Contrary to the image of scantily-clad schoolgirls standing about on street corners or approaching possible targets themselves in the hopes of luring in a benefactor however, arrangements are usually made through phone or email clubs, where girls list their cellphone numbers or otherwise register online via webpages specifically geared towards enjo kosai.

enjo kosai phone club

However, what actually constitutes enjo kosai is still a matter of opinion. While a common perception of the practice essentially paints it as a form of child prostitution, in which girls sell sexual favours in exchange for money or designer goods, others insist that the exchange of a girl’s company, and nothing more, make up the vast majority of cases. Anthropologist Laura Miller, for example, argues in a journal article (‘Those Naughty Teenage Girls: Japanese Kogals, Slang, and Media Assessments’, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14) that most enjo kosai ‘dates’ consist simply of groups of girls accompanying groups of older men to karaoke bars for several hours and then being compensated for their time, with physical intimacy having no part in the exchange.

Regardless of this kind of debate, enjo kosai is largely perceived as being an extension of Japan’s long-growing focus on materialism, especially among groups of teenage and young adult women. In particular, the practice of enjo kosai still seems to conjure images of the classic 90s kogal look as previously described here – shortened school skirts paired with baggy white socks held up with sock glue, artificially tanned skin, and bleached hair paired with a thick layer of pale makeup… though needless to say, this style has evolved somewhat since then. The criticism remains basically the same, however; critics condemn gyaru, particularly those engaging in enjo kosai, as shallow and obsessed with conspicuous consumption – women who support their lifestyle by leeching from either their parents or their skeevy patrons. Conversely, admirers portray them as active, exuberant, and ‘the women of today.’

90s gyaru

Some worry that girls involved in enjo kosai will grow up to be unfit wives and mothers, stemming from fears that, as adults, they will be quick to abandon their familial commitments in exchange for material benefits – in other words, the antithesis of the ‘Good Wife, Wise Mother’ as coined by Japanese educator and Confucian scholar Nakamura Masanao in 1875. This much-espoused ideology places a large emphasis on women mastering domestic skills such as cooking and sewing, and fulfilling their patriotic duty by bearing children. Although this rather patriarchal philosophy began to significantly weaken following the Second World War, some historians argue that it was still very much visible up until the 1980s and still plays a part in the Japanese consciousness today. Certainly Japan cannot be said to be a nation that prizes gender equality or emancipation – small wonder then that many are quick to denounce the seemingly very selfish and improper behavior surrounding enjo kosai.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, select feminist groups and individuals such as sociologist Ueno Chizuko view this as a practice of empowerment, since girls participating in enjo kosai are seen as rejecting traditional Japanese virtues of female modesty and restraint. Enjo kosai therefore becomes an act which, according to Miller, undermines the “patriarchal models propriety used to evaluate and control women” by asserting control over their bodies and the means by which they support themselves.

Unsurprisingly largely frowned upon by the Japanese public, a television poll carried out in the late 90s, when enjo kosai reached peak social saturation, said that 70% of respondents opposed the practice of enjo kosai. Sensationalist media attention on the subject at the time meant that many perceived it as a widespread phenomenon and large-scale social issue. To combat the problem, some prefectures instituted a program in which plain-clothes police officers and volunteers approached young women who appeared to be participating in ‘juvenile delinquent behaviour’ (staying out past 11pm, underage smoking or drinking, etc.) in order to offer guidance against such actions. Under extreme circumstances, police could take teenagers to a police station or specific centre for ‘formal guidance’ and enter them into a confidential police directory. The official objective of this program was not to ostracise, but rather to give assistance and attempt to steer girls away from what was seen as a dangerous and immoral activity. Ironically, other surveys carried out during the late 1990s concluded that fewer than 10% of all high school girls engaged in enjo kosai, while over 90% of interviewees attested to feeling uncomfortable with the exchange of any kind of sexual services for money or gifts.

enjo kosai newsweek

This is of course not to say that those women who engage in enjo kosai are in a danger-free environment, and it’s worth noting that many of the men engaging in enjo kosai cannot be charged with statutory rape if any kind of sexual act does take place. The laws in Japan against both rape and engaging in sexual activities with a minor result in severe punishment for those found guilty, but the national age of consent in Japan is 13 (although it should also be pointed out that individual prefectures can and do have ordinances prohibiting sexual activities with anyone under the age of 18). There also exists a strong sentiment that sexual abuse is a shameful experience for the victim, and in turn for the victim’s family, which is likely to cause an under-reportage of incidences of rape. Sexual abuse lawyers within Japan might enjoy an extremely high conviction rate, but this is only assuming that victims speak out in the first place. The result is that some women become “double victims … firstly of sexual abuse and secondly of silence … She might have entered enjokosai with qualms, but to be raped and report it would double the shame.” (Jennifer Liddy, ‘Enjo kosai: “Compensated Dating”’).

Given the level of public awareness of enjo kosai, it should be no surprise to stumble upon depictions of the practice in fictional media as well. Common scenarios presented in films and on TV shows portray girls who are either truly desperate for money or else simply confused teenagers, attempting to find their place in the world by acting older and more street-wise than they really are – foolishly engaging in enjo kosai but eventually shown the error of their ways by a concerned friend or teacher. Anno Hideaki’s film Love & Pop and the televised drama version of Great Teacher Onizuka are two live-action examples of this, but there are also several manga and anime titles that feature enjo kosai as a plotline, particularly when attempting to come across as socially relevant. In most of these instances, characters dealing with financial or emotional problems or with peer pressure are seen as sympathetic, while those who are seen as actually enjoying the situation are viewed as immoral or irredeemable.

love & pop

For example, Natsuki, the girlfriend of main character Takumi in the Initial D anime, engages in enjo kosai in the beginning of the series (although the English dub alters this plot so that Natsuki is spending time with her divorced father) – but by the third season, Natsuki has decided to get a job at a fast-food restaurant after Takumi saves her from being raped by the son of her former enjo kosai partner. In the gyaru-centric Super Gals! anime, top student Aya is involved with enjo kosai as a means of escape from her high-pressure academic life until main protagonist Ran helps her to see her own self-worth.

Enjo kosai has also been depicted in a more humorous light by titles like Ranma ½ and Mai-HiME. The former series features Nabiki, a money-hungry character who often accepts dates from classmates but then swindles them, blackmailing them with their own love letters when they threaten to inform others of her habit. In one episode Nabiki meets a girl just as manipulating as herself, and they agree to a challenge where the first of the pair to spend money on a date is the loser. The final showdown sees the two girls constantly foisting bills upon the other while skipping out on paying for themselves. The latter series shows a junior high school student named Nao who is suspected of engaging in enjo kosai when it is revealed that she arranges dates over the internet under the name Juliet. It is later revealed that instead of going through with these ‘dates’, she uses them as a way of mugging her would-be suitors, who for obvious reasons are unable to report the crime.

mai-hime nao

Aside from the odd article or mention in foreign media though, enjo kosai now seems to have become far less of a concern as far as public discourse is concerned. Whether or not the practice has truly been in decline over recent years, or whether the immediacy and newness of the phenomenon has simply worn off as people have become more tech-savvy, is up for debate. However, it may well be that Japan faces a new onslaught of social scrutiny and criticism as the country gains more attention in general during the build-up to major events such as the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Summer Olympics. VICE News, for example, recently released a short documentary titled Schoolgirls for Sale in Japan, which investigated the ‘joshi-kosei osanpo’ (‘high school girl walking’) dates and teenage prostitution. At this point, only time will tell whether these kinds of reports are mainly isolated news stories, or else part of a renewed wave of media interest.

Question of the post: What are your feelings on enjo kosai, and would they change depending on the ages of the participants and what the ‘dates’ consisted of?

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22 thoughts on “Exploring Enjo Kosai

  1. Personally I find it fascinating that people are willing to pay for intimacy, especially when I consider that it might not be sexual in nature. It makes me wonder what kind of fulfillment people get out of it. In a situation where the goal is not sexual what is it? A desire to dote on someone? A quest for some kind of validation? Some poorly understood paternal instinct? Some mix of all of the above depending on the person paying for the service?

    I don’t feel like I understand the situation well enough to say anything of value about the ethics of it. I don’t like it, but that isn’t particularly meaningful.

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    • All the things you mention are possibilities, but there’s another answer in your first sentence – they want intimacy. Maybe they want someone to laugh at their jokes, listen to their work stories, and generally be interested in them for a while. Don’t underestimate how attractive that could be to someone who doesn’t get that in their “normal” life.

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    • Japan has long had a pretty weird relationship with paying for intimacy, sexual or otherwise – host and hostess clubs, ‘cuddle cafes’, places where girls do nothing more than stare at their male customers in the eye and clean out their ears… I think these kinds of things are first and foremost just a way for people to feel close to someone without actually having to pay for sex or sex-related services. Japan can be an extremely socially isolating place where a lot of people just exist in their own little bubble, with little to no meaningful interaction with others – particularly those whose existence is seemingly based solely around work.

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      • No time for real relationships, but enough money and desire for a fake one. I guess my disconnect is with the idea of feeling close to someone you don’t know and are paying to spend time with. Is it typical for Enjo Kosai to involve repeat customers? I guess the whole thing makes more sense to me if it is.

        Rent a girlfriend, pay when you want her to spend time with you! It’s just like real dating only without the emotional stress or time investment of a real relationship!(complete sarcasm)

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        • I doubt anyone’s fooling themselves that they’re buying an actual relationship, even if an obviously fake one. I do think men are paying for a human connection though – in this case, it’s just that it also happens to involve a pretty common fetish, aka hot schoolgirl in a sailor fuku. It’s not paying for a girlfriend, but it is paying for attention, much like you’d get in a host/hostess club only minus the drinking, loud music, and exorbitant fees.

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          • Yeah, I doubt that too. I guess if I think of it as the craigslist of hostess clubs it all sort of clicks into place. That also makes it sound even less appealing…

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    • I’d say it’s pretty similar to the desires that lead to maid cafes, host clubs and dating sims. The fact that these interactions are not entirely “real” can fuel the fantasy. If I had to sum it up in a phrase, people want to experience intimacy without the messy baggage of real-life commitments. It’s similar to how some people seek intimacy online and take their online relationships seriously.

      I’m personally not opposed to any of those things on principle, but Enjo Kosai is a little different in the sense that the possibility for sexual exploitation is always present. For various reasons which Artemis outlined above, it’s very difficult to get accurate stats.

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      • Maid cafes at least have a fun atmosphere going for them. The act is more a fun game than something I need to convince myself is real.(my only experience being American anime cons)

        Host clubs I get. I’ve never been to one, but there is alcohol involved. Get drunk enough and any fantasy seems real.

        Dating sims make enough sense to me. In a fictional setting there is usually a huge lead in for emotional build up and or something sufficiently dramatic to make up for it.

        I think I’d need to be drugged out of my mind to buy in on someone acting into me after I paid them to do it. Maybe that says more about me then anything else? I also have a hard time imagining the average materialistic school girl is very interesting to hang out with.

        When I think about the ethics of it all the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I won’t allow myself to condemn it simply because I don’t like it, but I do stop and wonder what it would take to create something better, whatever that might be.

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  2. Enjo kosai isn’t limited to Japan, it is known in many countries under different names. In Poland such girls are called “galerianki”. I don’t approve of compensated dating if it includes sexual acts. However those girls have free will and it’s their own choice. And it makes me sad that people are becoming more and more materialistic.

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    • Yes, that’s very true – this kind of thing certainly isn’t limited to Japan. I’m afraid I know very little about Poland, but China and Korea have also their issues with this, and materialism definitely seems to play a large part in it.

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  3. This is not limited to Japan. I personally know a few friends who go on dates for money, but no sexual favors are involved (They could be lying, they may not). And they make a living on this and “work” for companies.

    Also consider the cam girls in the USA. Most are sexual live streams, many are not. But they all recieve pay for their “services” and also recieve “gifts” from their viewers in the thousands of dollars. I have a childhood friend who makes a living off this and tells me some of their customers are looking for someone to talk to, companionship. That sounds crazy to me, but who am I to judge a persons reasons.

    None of this means it is right, and in Japan the direct physical contact and age of the girls is ripe for abuse. But this is most certainly not limited to Japan. After re-reading this comment I feel like I have swarmy friends..

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    • That’s true – I don’t think things like this are limited to any country. What seems to make enjo kosai different is the particular culture surrounding it and how much it’s generally accepted (even if not necessarily approved of) by society. I’d also argue that with the rare exception, cam girls are almost always expected to perform a service that’s explicitly sexual in nature, and are often hired by a third party to do so. From what I understand, enjo kosai tends to be the opposite; the service might be seen by some as sexual but supposedly does not involve any sexually explicit acts whatsoever, and girls who engage in enjo kosai also supposedly do so on their own (and traditionally for things like designer goods rather than money).

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  4. I hardly know anything about Japanese culture but for some reason this makes me think of Geisha. As if enjo kasai is some modern day poor excuse for the old Geisha. But after reading this, now I understand why some female anime characters are drawn with baggy white socks. I get it now! All of a sudden, I understand those characters better. Thanks for explaining this.

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    • That’s an interesting way of thinking about it. On the surface I can see how some things may seem quite similar between geisha and women engaging in enjo kosai, although on a deeper level, I think they have far less in common.
      Anyway, you’re very welcome – I’m glad this article was able to clear things up for you. 🙂

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  5. This is an incredibly informative piece. I wish I had read this before writing my own! Thank you for directing me here. It has certainly helped me understand the issue to a greater extent!

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  6. Pingback: The Odd Relationship Between Sex, Youth and Japan’s Schoolgirl Culture | CoffeeHipster

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