The Many Facets of Japanese Love Hotels

I’m very happy to say that my required biology class in order to complete my entrance into the master of social work program is finally behind me. I completed the last exam last night and am now free for a few weeks to figure out what I got myself into.

In the meantime, let’s discuss something else.

While I was leaving class after the exam last night, I was casually talking with some classmates about a controversial topic to many westerners: Japanese love hotels. I thought I’d talk about it with everyone today.

"Love Hotel Hill" in the Dougenzaka area of Shibuya, Tokyo- picture from lonelyplanet.com.

“Love Hotel Hill” in the Dougenzaka area of Shibuya, Tokyo- picture from lonelyplanet.com.

Have you ever heard of a “love hotel”? If you have, and you’re a westerner, you probably heard that they are places where people can have affairs with no questions asked and people in the sex industry can practice their trade without it falling into legal question. “Prostitution” is illegal in Japan –that is, “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment”- isn’t legal, which is how Japanese law defines prostitution. However, the sex industry is differentiated in Japanese culture from “prostitution”, and accessible spaces for different types of sexual expression exist, such as love hotels (moral outrage and backlash does still occur, however). This is due to the fact that Japanese law doesn’t equate sexual actions that do not result in vaginal penetration with sex. Due to this, a world of sex play that includes oral sex and various fetish-style sexual behaviors, are fair game. In fact, soaplands, a place where a person can receive a personalized “bathing experience” via a lovely and –skilled- woman, have noted a distinct increase in older adult customers and Chinese tourists as of late, and they even come armed with ED medication. You can read about it here.

Despite how these areas are generally regarded in the western imagination, the meaning and function of love hotels appears to be far more complex than any binary, right-and-wrong, cultural or social explanation.

In Sarah Chaplin’s 2007 book, “Japanese Love Hotels: A Cultural History”, Chaplin discusses the concept of a love hotel as a meaningful part of a changing culture of Japan, heavily influenced by the post-war occupation and subsequent Japanese postmodernization. She calls love hotels, “…a democratic and accessible place at the service of the general public, the love hotel offers a powerful window on the changing nature of the Japanese relationship both to their own culture and to other cultures, which has become embodied in the design and use of the love hotel” (Chaplin, 2007 p.4). And while love hotels and other spaces for sexual activity in Japan are easy to criticize by westerners, it is important to remember that love hotels and other sexually-charged areas are common throughout the world, although they tend to be associated with Japan.

However, I didn’t plan on discussing how people in the sex industry intersects with love hotels or any moral or ethical issues therein, but how some married

A menu/sign, typical of a love hotel, listing the rates and services within the establishment

A menu/sign, typical of a love hotel, listing the rates for using the establishment

couples utilize love hotels. Yeah, I said married couples. I thought I’d demonstrate how these spaces can and are used in ways that westerners may not expect, just as some food for thought. Turns out, love hotels aren’t just for “illicit” sexual activity, but are actually among the only ways for some couples and married people to gain privacy for intimacy.

In a most fascinating article in Asian Studies Review by Ho Swee Lin in 2008 entitled, “Private Love in Public Space: Love Hotels and the Transformation of Intimacy in Contemporary Japan”, Lin discusses how many couples rely on love hotels for their own intimate lives. Thanks to typically very small living spaces and many Japanese homes utilizing shoji doors (that use paper as a barrier), privacy between couples can be complicated to the point where sex can disappear. In these cases, a few hours away in a love hotel can keep a marriage or relationship alive and flourishing. As it stands, sex in Japan is often problematic, as working long hours as well as company socializing over drinks and food afterwards, are not only normal but quite expected. This creates a situation where being home with energy and time for sex can be rare. Entangled further by a lack of privacy can make sex impossible for some. In this way, love hotels are an important resource for not just the sexual expression of strangers or clients, but also couples and married people.

A love hotel with no windows, presumably for privacy located in Kabuki-cho (from wikipedia)

A love hotel with no windows, presumably for privacy located in Kabuki-cho (from wikipedia)

Additionally, and among the most interesting points Lin discusses, is how the very separateness of a love hotel, as a different and distinct space from the home, empowers women to pursue love and relationships without compromising their independence. Without bringing a lover into the home to engage in intimacy, women who are in relationships with children from prior marriages or who just simply want relief from the persistent social pressure to have certain types of relationships, can control how intimacy takes place in their lives and in their children’s lives. The love hotel can enable women to remain in control of their family lives while not compromising their own sexual needs or desires.

So then, the sex industry in Japan -and probably everywhere- has unexpected roles in many people’s lives. I hope this article has created a more diverse way of looking at the sex industry in Japan, love hotels, and the concept of contemporary love and sex. It’s unfortunate that in many cases, the way westerners come to understand eastern culture is to hear only the most grotesque and extreme, so I hope this discussion has provided some “rounding-out” of the concepts and a more intermediate notion of the role of love hotels in Japan.

What do you all think?

2 thoughts on “The Many Facets of Japanese Love Hotels

  1. Knowing how hotel sex can recharge a Western romance, I’m not surprised at all that love hotels would be popular with Japanese couples. Any change from the exhaustion and the pressure and the constant crowd of people has got to be a welcome change!

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