While many people across the world are banding together to fight the spread of COVID-19, not everyone’s responding well to the crisis. One of the latter people is Japanese comedian Okamura Takashi, who’s under fire for comments on his radio show that many in Japan say are not just sexist, but cruel.
“After Corona, Pretty Girls Will Become Sex Workers”
Okamura, one-half of the comedy duo Ninety Nine along with partner Yabe Hiroyuki, made the comments on his show Okamura Takashi’s All Night Japan. A big part of Okamura’s program is responding to mail from his listeners. In one segment, he took up a query from a male listener who asked what to do about sex clubs during Japan’s ongoing state of emergency. (As we’ve discussed before on UJ, various types of sex work and sex businesses are legal in Japan.)
Okamura responded in words that have since become infamous:
Hold off. God never gives you a challenge you can’t overcome….
After Corona, pretty girls will become sex workers for a short time.
Okamura continued to expand upon his “reasoning”:
Because if they don’t earn money in a short time frame they’ll be hard-pressed. So in a three-month span, you’ll see pretty girls suddenly start working hard then suddenly quit….So, be patient. Be patient, save up your money to go to sex clubs, economize if you’re not working, and set your sites on those three months. Let’s dig in and stand tall.
The bit was obviously intended (emphasis on “intended”) to be comedy. During the recording of the piece, you can hear members of the staff joining in on laughter from the sidelines.
“Systemic Sexual Exploitation”
Okamura isn’t a minor figure in Japanese entertainment. Besides his radio show, the comedian is the host of the popular NHK program Chiko-chan Scolded Me! (智子ちゃんに叱られる), a quiz-style show aimed at families starring a five-year-old character in a giant doll costume who rebukes guests when they can’t answer the show’s questions. In other words, the contrast between his day job and his night rant is pretty stark.
Twitter commenters in Japan lit into Okamura for basically saying that men should exploit women who fall on hard times:
For ppl of means who go to sex shops to say so frankly that they’re looking forward for ppl w/o means to become sex workers to make ends meet is an impressive display of grotesque, systemic sexual exploitation.
One comment that gained a lot of attention came from Nito Yumeno, the head of the organization Colabo, which provides services and counseling for girls under 18 who can’t go home. As we’ve discussed before, such girls sometimes find themselves ensnared in “JK businesses” – illegal operations in Japan that sell sex with minors.
Our disordered society, where people can boldly state things like they’re looking forward to more pretty girls joining sex shops because coronavirus has left more people in economic distress.
Another commenter said that the carnival atmosphere of the radio studio was even worse than Okamura’s comments:
Listened to Okamura Takashi. And while he’s certifiably awful, the injections of laughter from his staff were disgusting. That mood of ppl gleelfully sharing stories about riding this out by reveling in women brought low by coronavirus was hell.
Sex Workers Respond
Sex workers in Japan also had a few things to say about Okamura’s comments. Sex worker and popular YouTuber Imaga Haru replied in a tweet that garnered 15K likes:
Lots of views re: Okamura Takashi’s words popping up. Tons of replies that make me go ‘nononono’. But as for saving ‘people in economic distress’ – that’s not the job of sex work, it’s primarily the job of a social welfare system.
Kaname Yukiko, head of the sex workers advocacy group SWASH, argues that Okamura’s comments have done even larger damage by stirring up societal prejudice against sex workers:
At a critical and pressing time like this, when the Economic Ministry is deciding whether sex businesses can receive economic assistance, Okamura’s comments going viral has created a national opinion of, “Well, we can’t say sex work is like other kinds of labor, can we”. Given this development, the Economic Ministry has said “People won’t understand” and has indicated its disapproval of such assistance.
Amina Dujean, a former idol in Japan who is also a sex worker and sex worker’s rights advocate, noted that there’s a larger topic that people both inside and outside of Japan are ignoring: that Okamura’s comments show there are few decent economic opportunities for young women in Japan’s large cities.
An Apology – and a Backlash
The firestorm continued all week. One activist, Yamamoto Kazuna, circulated a petition demanding that NHK censor or fire Okamura from his gig on Chiko-chan; it’s amassed over 11,000 signatures to date.
Japan Broadcasting, which airs Okamura’s radio program, apologized within a day of his statement. Faced with losing his career over his comments, Okamura took to his radio program the other day and issued an apology as well. “I made an extremely rude comment towards the many people who are living in harsh economic conditions and painful situations.” Okamura also received a public tongue-lashing from his Ninety-Nine partner, Yabe Hiroyuki, who called his comments “pathetic”. “This is all on you,” he told his partner. “Of course people are gonna look at this as chauvinistic.”
Sadly, just as Twitter user Katsube Genki predicted would happen, a small army of devotees soon rose up in Okamura’s defense. Writing on Huffington Post JP, Yamamoto Kazuna notes that her petition has been subject to a backlash from supporters saying that it “goes too far.” Indeed, earlier this week, the hashtag #岡村頑張れ (Hang In There, Okamura) began trending on JP Twitter.
For her part, Yamamoto says she started the petition because she’s tired of such incidents being resolved merely by words:
All of these statements from famous people and politicians that have blown up have been dispatched with an apology letter containing bromides like “I apologize to anyone who was offended.”
Then the day after, someone else says something that blows up…rinse and repeat.
That’s because these statements are now tolerated because society’s satisfied with such rote apologies.
Feminist activist and #KuToo founder Ishikawa Yumi made a broader point about the petition, saying it’s not really about Okamura at all:
The Okamura Takashi petition isn’t about him. It’s about using his influence. It’s not about saving him. It’s about getting NHK to take prejudice against women and sex workers seriously. Of course it’d be great if he also learns from it but I’m not getting my hopes up.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no sign that NHK – or anyone else – will take any harsher action than demanding that Okamura say he’s sorry. For now, at least, this appears to be yet another example of prejudice towards women in Japan that will be forgotten come the next news cycle. Kudos to all of the activists like Yamamoto who are working to ensure that doesn’t happen.