Nicknamed “prostitution island,” Watakano was once hailed as a mini sex paradise. In its prime from the late ‘70s to mid ‘80s, Japanese civil servants, policemen, and salarymen from the nearest main island would take a 3-minute boat ride to this carnal wonderland, where a quarter of its 270 residents were sex workers.
The entire economy of the 1.5-square-kilometer island, in the central prefecture of Mie, thrived on what was known as “selling girls,” who in the ‘80s could each make as much as two million yen ($19,000), or the equivalent of $26,000 today, every month. Residents who weren’t sex workers ran grocery stores, cafes, and apartment complexes. Hidden yet prosperous, Watakano Island enjoyed decades of economic wealth.
But when Japan’s economic bubble burst in 1992, businesses could no longer afford paying for workers’ lavish company holidays, and high spenders stopped visiting the island.
Nearly three decades later today, hardly any sex workers reside on Watakano. To residents who built thriving businesses on the back on the sex trade, the empty karaoke bars and quiet hallways are a reminder of both the island’s vibrant past and its decay.
“You wonder why such a small island in the Japanese countryside has these massive hotels and shops,” Mizuho Takagi, a 45-year-old nonfiction writer who has researched Watakano extensively, told VICE World News. “Thanks to these girls, the island’s residents led wealthy lives. That’s why it was protected for so long.”
The island’s demise was owed in part to changing laws. In 1998, Japan legalized escort services and, in Takagi’s words, “diversified prostitution,” although it remains illegal to sell vaginal sex to this date.
“Now with one phone call, a girl comes. There’s no reason to go all the way to the island,” he said.
“Sure, customers can’t have vaginal sex like they could with the girls at Watakano, but businessmen don’t have to spend the 100,000 yen ($950) on travel, stay, and sex,” Takagi said.
While salarymen found new ways of team bonding and entertainment, the number of firefighters, policemen, and civil servants who would regularly visit the island also diminished in 2015, a year before Mie Prefecture held its first G7 Summit.
Authorities cracked down on prostitution on the island and forced many sex workers to look for work in other parts of the country, Takagi said.
Though Watakano Island is now synonymous with prostitution, the land was first used as a place of shelter during the Edo period between the 1600s to mid 1800s. Sailors traveling from Osaka to Edo (old Tokyo) would stop on the island when the sea was too rough. Island residents took advantage of this foot traffic and sold sailors produce, mended their uniforms, and cooked them food. Over time, a profitable sex trade grew.
While illegal, the vaginal sex services readily offered on the island set it apart from Japan’s other red light districts.
Most workers sold two forms of labor, “short” and “long,” both of which included vaginal sex. “Short” took 60 minutes and cost 20,000 yen ($190). “Long” meant overnight service and cost double. Men picked their female companions at drinking venues that were “much like Thailand’s gogo bars,” Takagi said.
“It was a really popular destination for large groups. Not only could they ‘buy girls,’ they could visit the island’s onsen and see the famous Ise Grand Shrine nearby. For men, that’s a dream, right?” Takagi said.
But the island also carries a dark reputation. Stories of missing girls, possible victims of human trafficking, further added to the island’s murkiness. One victim Takagi spoke with during his research described how she managed to escape the island after being sold.
“Her boyfriend suggested they take a trip to the island. While she was using the bathroom, he disappeared and a mama-san (female brothel owner) came out to tell her ‘You’ve just been sold for 2 million yen.’ She was forced to work there until she earned that money back,” Takagi said.
According to Takagi, the geography of Watakano Island made it easy for human traffickers to keep possibly kidnapped women—the only way to escape was by boat. Though some victims managed to swim the 500 meters to the main island, others were trapped for several years.
The stories of Watakano’s sex workers didn’t end with its decline.
Many of them were Thai women who borrowed money to go to Japan in search of economic opportunities and had to pay off their debts through sex work, Takagi said. After the 2015 crackdown, these women just had to find ways to earn their freedom elsewhere.