Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Random Thoughts: The Extinction of Love Hotels

The hotel pictured above offered rooms for 2980 yen ($29.16 USD) for 2 hours. 

One of the things that my husband and I wanted to do before we left Japan was to stay at a love hotel. For those who don't know what such things are, they are what they sound like. They rent the space out for a limited time so that people who want to have trysts can get a room. They're also billed as being for relaxation or other activities, but few people check into a room with a bed just to chill. It's a lot cheaper to go to a coffee shop and buy a $5 cup of coffee and use their free wi-fi. In a culture in which many young, single adults live with their parents and in cities in which few people have cars or public spaces where they can get privacy, love hotels have served an important purpose.

Unfortunately, my husband and I ran out of time and we never had the chance to enjoy the dubious pleasures of a love hotel. That may sound weird from two people who lived in Japan for 23 years, but, after deciding to go back to the U.S., we had an enormous bucket list of things to do before leaving and it didn't make the cut. Obviously, as two old married people with an apartment of our own in which to do any dirty, sinful business that we wanted to get up to, we didn't need to go to one. We just wanted to experience the atmosphere and see what it was like. I also would have taken a ton of pictures inside the room and written a blog post about it at the time had we actually done it.

Though I didn't stay in a love hotel, I did learn quite a few things about them which you can only learn from someone who knows them from outside of what happens in the rooms. There are plenty of sites out there which will tell you what it's like inside of one. There aren't so many, if any, that will tell you in English what they're all about and what their future is likely to be.

One of my former students was a man who was in charge of managing a large number of love hotels. He worked under an owner who was looking to divest himself of them. The reason the owner of these properties wanted to walk away from them was that the rules in Japan regarding them had changed. He told me that love hotels are an endangered species. He said that the law currently says that there can be no future creation of such businesses. The ones that currently exist can continue, but no new ones can be built.

I'm not sure why this happened, but I can make a few guesses. One is that they aren't something that people welcome in their neighborhoods. They look seedy in some cases, tend to attract sex workers and their clients (obviously), and they also see a steady stream of short-term visitors, not infrequently arriving or leaving in an inebriated state. I don't think people who live near them likely feel entirely comfortable with the furtive business going on or perhaps with the atmosphere those places create.

My student wasn't entirely happy with the way things were going. He didn't want to lose his work and the plan that he hoped to follow through on was one in which he could buy the businesses from the owner before he surrendered them to another entity. Selling the love hotels was not going to be an easy thing, after all. The main reason for this was that they were losing popularity anyway. He said that part of the reason for this was a loss of interest on the part of clientele (something which would occur as a result of the increasing loss of interest in sex that we read about in Japan), the shrinking population of young people, and the limits imposed on remodeling and expanding existing hotels.

I asked my student why he wanted to buy out his boss's love hotel business when the industry was being bureaucratically suffocated and the customer base was shrinking. He had a plan, and it was based on sound thinking, but I wasn't sure how it was going to go over in Japan. After acquiring the hotels, he wanted to slowly convert them into retirement homes for those who needed assisted living. With the aging population growing, and families increasingly lacking the capability to look after their infirm relatives, he felt that former love hotels would be ideal because they had rooms with private baths that offered a lot of privacy and amenities. That privacy, for those who don't know, include shielded entrances for discrete coming and going, but also unobtrusive staff positioning.

The bigger questions about the business that I asked him were a little harder to address. The primary one was whether or not older Japanese folks would feel comfortable inhabiting a place that used to be devoted to fulfilling carnal desires. If they knew what it used to be, and it would likely be easy to find out or already known, would they avoid it? The other problem was regarding how the inhabitants medical needs would be met. While the rooms were easy to make comfortable and could be altered to remove their sometimes garish and lurid decor, and the baths were certainly large and accommodating, it's a sure bet that none of them had anything resembling medical support. He did say that it was not an easy thing or a sure one, but that was his hope.

In the end, I think my student gave up on his idea. Finding the money to acquire his boss's chain of hotels was too difficult and the uncertainty of his proposition was daunting. Though I had no particular interest in the preservation of love hotels, I did feel a little sad that this unique and somewhat amusing aspect of Japanese culture seemed to be facing extinction.


  1. Oh no, this is sad news! I wonder if this applies to love hotels on the outskirts of town as well? Most of the love hotels where I lived (and there were lots) were in the middle of nowhere (and thus could have fantastic architecture).

    I was pretty wary of the concept at first, since "rent by the hour" motels where I live in the US are super sketchy. Not to go too much in the TMI area, but visiting love hotels in Japan was really fun and not just for the obvious reasons. There's karaoke, lots of movies on TV (and that includes regular ones! I always caught up on films I had missed from the US) and fun greasy food, and the interior decor was always pretty awesome.

    Even though I lived with just my boyfriend and wasn't "escaping" anyone back home (parents, kids), going to a love hotel for a few hours in an afternoon was always a fun way to get away from it all, like a mini-vacation.

    I imagine you have shared it in pieces and will share more of it later, but I am really curious as to what was on your bucket list.

  2. I say "good riddance". These "hotels" are run by the Yakuza and are in fact brothels. Sure, one could go there with one's spouse or girl-/boyfriend, but the many lonely Japanese men who don't have either use them in combination with a "compensated date" who is sent there from another branch of the company.
    It's a great example of Japanese dishonesty / tatemae: They don't call it brothel or prostitution, but "Love Hotel" and "compensated dating. The Japanese get to brag: "There is no prostitution in Japan, unlike in your country!", while most people are too intimidated to just call these things what they really are.
    Another side effect of these "hotels" being run by the Yakuza is that they can be built cheap without obeying fire and construction laws, making them death traps whenever a fire breaks out.

    1. I was under the impression that the soaplands and "herusu" were the brothels. These may have been havens for prostitutes, but I didn't think they were filled with girls lounging around waiting for Johns. However, since I have no experience with one, I can't say.

      I can say that I mentioned this on Facebook and one of my friends went there and mentioned nothing about seeing prostitutes. However, he is gay and went there with another man, so maybe he wasn't paying much attention to any women hanging about.

    2. I have one friend whose father owns a chain of love hotels and a former student whose family are also in the business, and neither are yakusa! I've also visited love hotels in half a dozen prefectures (my husband and I prefer them as cheep accommodation when traveling) and the only thing I've seen in six years that could in any way indicate prostitution was one hotel in Nagoya that had a gift shop with LV hand bags. That's hardly a damning indication of illicit activity. The poor fire safety is definitely a real concern though, the doors lock from the outside and you can't open them until you have paid to leave. I assume there's a fire fail-safe, but it does feel quite unsafe.

    3. Thanks, Sophelia! I also didn't think my former student's boss was a yakuza nor did it ever come up that there was a connection between love hotels and organized crime, but I can't claim to be an authority on such points. ;-)

  3. Sophelia, how do you tell they are not affiliated with the Yakuza? By the nature of organized crime, they might have been chosen as the guys who run those hotels as a front.
    They might not look like, or belong to the Yakuza themselves, but they are either employed by them or they are working under a front company which in turn is owned by a Yakuza business - who are most often the land owners or realtors owning and renting the properties and land where such hotels can be built.
    In a country where even the biggest industries, renowned companies, all media, and all political parties are heavily influenced by and obliged to organised crime, it is extremely unlikely that a business that is tied to the sex industry isn't in some complicated way owned by the Yakuza.
    This is just the way Japan works. The Yakuza are not only those low-level thugs with missing fingers you know from the movies. In Japan, billion dollar businesses, for example all entertainment, all real estate and all construction, even businesses occupying skyscrapers in central Tokyo, are Yakuza businesses.
    All Japanese are aware of this, and it is so normal for them that it might never come up in conversation - it's implied.


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