You may recall that earlier this year I reviewed “Boys for Sale”, a very insightful documentary about Shinjuku’s urisen bars, where mostly straight Japanese boys have sex with men. I caught a screening at the Raindance Film Festival and it was both eye-opening and at times harrowing, and shines a light on one element of Japan’s sex industry that is definitely less talked about in the west.
I felt more people needed to see “Boys for Sale”. So, I’m pleased to bring to you an interview with Ian Thomas Ash, Executive Producer, and Adrian ‘Uchujin’ Storey, Producer/Director of Photography, to get behind the scenes of the documentary.
First things first, please introduce yourself!
IAN: I’m a documentary filmmaker living in Japan. I have directed several documentaries, including on the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and end-of-life care. “Boys for Sale” is the first film in which I have been in a producer role.
ADRIAN: My name is Adrian Storey a.k.a. Uchujin – ‘宇宙人’ – ‘Alien’ in Japanese, I was made in England in the 1970’s and traveled and lived in Asia for 20 years, including extended periods in India, Thailand and Japan. I am a recovering ex-pat who currently lives in the UK where I work as a filmmaker, DOP, camera operator and editor. I was briefly a fashion model and had a stint as a sound engineer for the Dali Lama. Depending on the day my favorite food is either natto or broccoli and my favorite colour is black.
‘Boys for Sale’ takes a very uncompromising and honest look at the world of urisen. What made you decide to make a documentary about the industry?
IAN: Everyone the executive team (including our director Itako and Adrian) felt strongly about capturing the stories of the young men doing this work, which is so difficult, sometimes dangerous and for which they have often not been properly trained. Personally, I can not really imagine doing the work myself, and that made me want to try to understand it more.
ADRIAN: I’ve had several friends who were sex workers in other countries and also friends who worked for NGOs involved in various aspects of sex work outreach. So the subject has always been of great interest to me.
Ian and I had been looking for a long form project to work on together for some time, so when he told me about the somewhat unique case of the mostly self-identifying as straight urisen, it immediately seemed like just the topic we were looking for. It was also apparent right from the start that it had not been previously covered and that to do the subject and the boys justice (and get them to trust us enough to talk on camera) was going to take a lot of preproduction work. I think it appealed to both Ian’s and my way of making documentaries in that we didn’t have an agenda that we wanted to turn into a film, but that the production of the film itself would be a way to answer our own questions and understand the topic.
Was it difficult to persuade some the boys to be interviewed? Were there any you particularly warmed to or empathised with?
IAN: As filmmakers, we want to speak with people who want to speak. Our job is not to convince people who don’t want to speak; it is to provide a space in which people who want to be listened to will share their stories. And most people really want their story to be truly heard. The whole team were really affected by Shouta, the 18 year old kid who had no idea about STDs, including how they were contracted.
ADRIAN: All of the boys were easy to empathise with as they were all so genuine, open and honest with us. It was hard not to feel sympathy with some of them who had particularly harrowing stories of how they came to be urisen and the things that had happened to them in their work.
For me the hardest moment was when the youngest urisen we interviewed was asked about STDs and replied “Oh, men can get those too?” That particular interview emotionally affected all of us. The whole process of making the film reinforced the idea that a simple twist of fate can lead all of us into areas we never dreamed we could end up in, and that rather than judging people who find themselves in those situations the only sane response is empathy.
One thing that really surprised me watching the documentary was the lack of sex education the boys had (e.g. STDs, safe sex). Why do you think Japan has such a poor sex education system, and are there any efforts to improve it?
IAN: We were all surprised about that as well. I’m not an expert on Japan’s educational system, so it’s hard to say why sex education is so insufficient. Does it have something to do with a tendency in Japan to shy away from topics that might make people feel uncomfortable? Quite possibly. But the problem is much more complicated than that.
There are groups like AKTA, an NPO working to educate about HIV/ AIDS in the community (who are featured in the film), but despite decades of effort, I think it has been hard for them to shed light on the topic for the general population.
ADRIAN: It’s a cliché to say it, but Japan is full of glaring contradictions that seem to make little or no sense. You have 6 story sex shops with entire floors devoted to anal sex toys – a frank openness on the one hand, yet it is one of the only developed countries in the world with a HIV infection rate that is increasing – a shocking head in the sand approach on the other.
The illusion of homogeneity, which Japanese society works so hard to maintain makes discussion of issues such as safe sex difficult, because to do so what would require admitting that not everyone follows a heterosexual monogamous lifestyle.
In many ways Japan is a very socially conservative country and yet Shinjuku has a very accessible sex industry. Do Japanese people deliberately avoid talking about urisen bars or is awareness very poor?
IAN: It’s hard to say. Certainly most people who we talk to in Japan about the film deny really knowing what an urisen is. But do they really not know or are they feigning not knowing, simply because the topic could be seen as embarrassing? Sometimes it is hard to tell.
ADRIAN: A brief examination of the variety of sex-related services available in Tokyo makes it clear that pretty much everyone is catered for. However, like everything in Japan there is a very clear distinction between the public face of things and the actual reality. During the making of the film I talked to many Japanese friends and colleagues about what I was working on and only a tiny percentage had any idea, or admitted to having any idea, what the word “urisen” even meant.
I came away with the impression that awareness of the “urisen” was surprisingly low in comparison to other sex related services. But also that people were a little reticent to admit knowing they existed due to the nature of the urisens’ clientele and prevailing attitudes to homosexuality.
It doesn’t appear that there are any kind of trade union protections for the boys, who some would argue are being exploited. Who is looking out for them?
IAN: That is such a great question. To some degree, within the senpai/ kohai relationship, the senior boys may be able to look out for them to a degree. And while there is one manager in the film who is seen as being quite exploitative, there are other managers – like Atsushi, who is in the film – who try to be as caring as they know how. If the boys have serious questions about STDs, for example, they could go to AKTA, which is located in the neighbourhood where they work. But many of them may not even have enough awareness to think to do that. In those cases, the guys- especially the most vulnerable ones like those who have runaway from home- may not have anyone looking out or advocating for them.
ADRIAN: Almost no one. There are NGOs such as AKTA (featured in the film) who are doing outreach work and trying to promote condom use with their “delivery boys” programme. But essentially the boys have fallen through the cracks of mainstream Japanese society and are left to fend for themselves, often as shown in the film, with precious little of the knowledge of how to protect themselves, which we take for granted in the west.
Can you explain why the boys identify as ‘straight’ while working, even though they are having sex with other men?
IAN: Even in the west, there is a clear distinction between men who self-identify as gay and those who do not, despite having sex with other men. The later are referred to as “men who have sex with men”. Most of the boys really are straight and simply see having sex with men as their job. A small percentage may be gay but are told they can make more money if they present as straight. And still others may likely be gay, but they are simply not ready to admit it due to societal pressures or may even be unaware of it themselves.
ADRIAN: I think this again relates to Japanese society’s rigid social structures that frown upon any form of alternative lifestyle. It seemed to me that at least some of the boys who self-identified as straight were doing so to protect themselves both from society’s condemnation and also for simple self-preservation. “If I say I’m straight, then this is just a job” and that the actual situation was a little more complicated. This is evidenced by the way language is used in the film when the boys were asked about their sexualities, responses such as “I’m extremely normal” are highly problematic when viewed from a western standpoint as they clearly imply that homosexuality is “abnormal”.
What has been the reception of ‘Boys for Sale’, both in Japan and overseas?
IAN: The film has been really well received abroad. “Boys for Sale” has played at independent film festivals, Japanese film festivals, Queer film festivals, Erotic film festivals and will even be screening in a Human Rights film festival next month. Every audience asks different questions, but they always seem really engaged and interested to debate what is depicted in the documentary. “Boys for Sale” screened for the first time in Japan on 26 November at an event during Tokyo AIDS Week.
ADRIAN: I’m very proud to say the film has been extremely well-received overseas. Audiences have been very engaged as evidenced by sold-out screenings, extra screenings added at multiple festivals and the post-screening Q&As. The Q&As have been particularly interesting with this film as despite its subject being about a tiny area of Tokyo, the issues raised are universal and not specific to Japan. Many of the audiences have been very well informed on issues like sexual health and so have been particularly interested in that aspect of the film.
What message do you want people to take away from ‘Boys for Sale’?
IAN: I hope that people will be able to truly listen to the stories of these guys and think about how vulnerable populations can be affected by things that are often out of their control. Putting themselves in the situation of the boys, I want them to ask themselves what they would do.
ADRIAN: This is a frequently asked question and personally I always find it very difficult to answer. I had no agenda when I made the film, no point I wanted to get across. For me it was always about trying to understand the boys and their lives. I hope that we made a film that lets the boys speak for themselves and presents their opinions, thoughts and feelings as honestly and transparently as possible. People should take away from that whatever they like.
Are you hoping to do any more screenings of ‘Boys for Sale’ in the UK? Are there any plans for a DVD release?
IAN: We have submitted to a couple of more festivals in the UK and are waiting to hear back from them. For filmmakers, a theatrical release is always a dream, but for us I think that is a long shot. Our best bet now is getting some kind of distribution, most likely online.