Teenage Wasteland

12 minute read

Mai and Rika squat on a Shibuya street corner crawling with drunks and hustlers. Dressed almost identically in tight tees and pants, the girlswho say they’re 18 but look 14touch up their lipstick as they draw leers from the men stumbling by. Mai pulls out her bleating cell phone and checks the number on the screen. “My mom,” she tells Rika, tucking the phone back in a Starbucks tote bag without answering. Rika nods. Mai tosses her long hair and declares: “Tonight’s an all-nighter.”

The Shibuya district of Tokyo is a teen mecca by day, by night a neon-signed playground of drinking holes and sex clubs for adult men looking for a good time. Mai and Rika hang here round the clock, part of a new fad sweeping up very young Japanese girls. It’s called puchi iede, or “petite runaway.” Home is what they’re running from. Shibuya, with its 24-7 excitements and black-lit havens, is freedom central. “Petite” refers not to the size of the runaway, though many are mere wisps on the cusp of puberty, but to the short time the girls stay away from home: typically a few days, or until they need clean underwear.

It’s a new form of rebellion for a generation increasingly cut off from its parents. Teens rightly see that hard work doesn’t spell success anymoretheir dutiful parents are facing the gloomiest economic times since World War IIso what’s the point? Why not go out and playfor several days and nights at a time? But running away to Shibuya or other metropolitan party hubs can be anything but a harmless lark. Some young runaways have been murdered. The lure of prostitution, to earn spending money or just to find a warm place to sleep, is hard to avoid considering the vast network of predators trained to sweep young girls off the streets and into the simmering sex industry. Authorities are waking up to the problem, though they’re stumped on how to attack it. And for proudly middle-class Japan, a larger question looms: What kind of generation spends its formative yearsand gets its kickslurking in alleys among drunks and pimps or sponging off licentious men as old as their fathers?

The kids themselves hit the road for reasons ranging from chasing down a beloved pop act to escaping an abusive home. Michiko and Yuko, who are slurping a 1 a.m. dinner of curry-flavored instant noodles on a street corner, are a couple of 17-year-olds who met on a weeklong pursuit of their favorite boy band, Glay clones called Due le Quartz. Parked nearby are their miniature suitcases, one a faux Burberry, the other girlishly pink with a strawberry pattern. Michiko has taken off from her suburban Tokyo home before, but this is a first for Yuko, who rode the rails in from northern Niigata prefecture. “My parents said no, so I just packed a bag and left,” she says. (Like most of the two dozen runaways TIME spoke to, the girls requested their last names be withheld.)

Earlier in the week, Michiko and Yuko had about $200 each saved up from convenience-store jobs. The first nights they slept and showered at $10-an-hour hotels”just us, no men,” says Michikobut tickets to the band’s gigs have eaten up the rest. “Plus, we buy the members gifts,” says Michiko. “You know, so they notice us and maybe let us … you know … ” Yuko giggles. (They’ve heard of groupies who have partied with the band.) Passing men notice them, and the girls know they can always use them for a free meal or a bed. But they settle in a manga kissa, a brightly lit caf lined with shelves of comic books and crowded with other teens, curling up until morning, when they’ll hop a train to the next stop on the boy band’s tour.

They’re not real runaways, the girls insist, because they intend to go home sooner or laterand they have cell phones. “Our parents can reach us anytime,” Yuko argues. “They know where we are, sort of.” Amazingly, the police use the same measure to define a runawayif your parents can contact you, you’re not really missing. Which explains why the official numbers of Tokyo runawaysthough up 15% over the past five yearsremain relatively low. Of the 1.4 million minors in the metropolis, about 2,000 were taken into custody as runaways last year.

Runaways are apprehended only if they commit, or seem likely to commit, a crime. The police department’s own data state that runaways aged 14 and under have swelled to 33% of the total, and girls have become the majority. Yet in Shibuya, uniformed officers manning a centrally located police box rarely glance at the obviously underage, mostly female children streaming past long after midnight. “I don’t have any reason to come into contact with them,” says an officer, who declines to give his name. Michiko says when she’s in a strange city she often asks policemen for directions to the nearest hot-sheet hotel. None ever asks where she’s from or what she’s up to.

Following a spate of sensational news reports on Tokyo runaways earlier this fall, the police belatedly took to the streets. In a highly publicized runaway sweep, 450 officers fanned out over 10 days in mid-September. They found, in all of Tokyo, just 64. By contrast, a reporter in the course of a few hours can find at least half a dozen.It’s almost too easy for a girl to get by on the streets of Tokyo. Grown men are eager to wine and dine or entertain them at all-night karaoke joints. And if they need more cash, girls know they possess a marketable commodity. It’s a crime to sell your body in Japan, but the law is widely ignored. Young girls know how to get sex dates through Internet sites they access on their cell phones. In Tokyo, countless sex shops openly market minors for anything from a grope to intercourse.

At the more innocent end of the scale are venues called omiai clubs. Omiai refers to marriage matchmaking, but in Kabuki-cho, Tokyo’s famed red-light district, it takes on a raunchier meaning. At one such place popular with runaways, girls pay $2 for unlimited access to free sandwiches, juice and karaoke. Male customers pay $30 to make a “match”a no-strings datewhich the girls are free to refuse. At the more lurid end are a dizzying range of brothels called health, cabaret or image clubs. Many market their staff as minors. A Kabuki-cho club made famous by a fire that ravaged its building in September advertised uniformed schoolgirls and was called Super Loosein reference to the girls’ baggy socks.

The yakuza runs these joints, and it lures girls into them with live bait. Handsome young men called “catch” hover in the alleys of Shibuya and Kabuki-cho, swooping down on young targets. They’re pretty boys who begin by flattering a girl, acting unthreatening, and then moving swiftly to temptation by dangling the promise of quick money and easy work. It’s a lucrative job, says Eiji, a bottle-blond catch with a bronzed face wearing a skinny black suit. Once he reels a girl in to his employer, he collects up to $200. “The younger and cuter,” Eiji explains, “the more money.”

A block away, Harumi sits alone in a tiny, deserted park next to a by-the-hour hotel shaped like a fairy-tale castle. The last train to Yokohama, where her parents live, has long departed. The 17-year-old is wearing black fishnets under short shorts, her long legs tucked into incongruous combat boots. Harumi lights up a cigarette. With her pale skin, bad teeth and stringy hair, she suddenly appears much older. “Right now I don’t have a lot of money,” she says. “So I’m waiting for this guy I met. He said he’d get me work, introduce me to a store.” Is it prostitution? She shifts her eyes away and says she doesn’t know.

Like pretty-boy Eiji, Hiroaki Shioya roams the streets looking for runaways, but for very different reasons: he’s an officer in Tokyo’s police youth-crimes unit. With his slicked-back hair and dark suit, Shioya blends in with the businessmen out for the night. But as he turns a corner, a clutch of men in garish jogging suits standing around a black Benz start murmuring. One of them begins to tail Shioya, mumbling into a cell phone. Shioya sighs. “All the Mob guys know my face around here,” he says.

By the time the police get involved, it is often too late. Wakako Tokuda was a plump-cheeked schoolgirl attending a prestigious private academy in Kobe. Though she had run away before, Tokuda left home for good last December after her father reportedly blew up over her newly pierced ears. Her 21-year-old boyfriend found the 16-year-old Tokuda strangled late October in the one-room Osaka apartment they shared. It turned out Tokuda had been seduced by the mean streets of Osaka. Journalists found ads for a bar, where patrons paid to fondle girls, featuring Tokuda in a slinky beige teddy. Earlier this month, a 17-year-old drifter was charged with murdering her during a botched burglary. He, too, was a runaway.

It was also too late for Noriko Kamiie. She fled her Osaka home in July after her father scolded her for staying out late the previous night. Just after 10 p.m., though, Kamiie called her mother from her cell phone to say she was heading home. Twenty minutes later, she was pushed handcuffed out of a car on a major expressway 40 km away. Kamiie died of blood loss shortly afterward. In September, a 34-year-old middle-school teacher was arrested for her murder. Police said he had found the girl through a cell-phone dating club and had arranged to meet for sex. Kamiie was 12.

Minors who engage in prostitution can be taken into police custody. (They’re difficult to nab, though, with hoods and catch guys constantly looking out on their behalf. “From time to time we try to stamp out the shops, but they’re like cockroaches,” says Shioya, the undercover cop. “Kill one, there are 50 more.”) Instead of being arrested, minors are brought to one of eight police-run youth centers in Tokyo, whose staff evaluate them and decide on a course of action. The center in Shinjuku detained about 500 youths last year for questioning. Among boys, the range of offenses included robbery, assault and drug use. Almost all the girls were runaways working in the sex trade.

“When we contact the parents, they’re often surprised to hear from us,” says Akira Fumoto, a 30-year veteran officer of youth crimes who runs the center. “Ten years ago, if a child hadn’t returned home for two or three days, parents filed a missing child report. Today, parents believe they’re not missing if they can reach them on their cell phones.” Indeed, of the 2,000 or so runaways Tokyo police apprehended last year, only 1,200 had been reported missing.

Some run away because of lousy conditions at home. “Parents today are overwhelmed by their own problemsmoney, jobs, each other,” says Setsuko Tsuboi, an attorney who takes child-welfare cases pro bono. “They take their frustrations out on their children through neglect or being overly strict, even abusive. Children then feel they have no place in the home, that indeed their lives are worthless.” According to a study by the Health and Welfare Ministry, 72% of girls and 46% of boys who suffered some form of abuse in the home responded by running away. There’s not much of a safety net for those kids. Child abuse was only made illegal in Japan last year; until then, courts regularly returned children to abusive homes.

Few foster homes or state-run orphanages will take in teens who have gotten in trouble with the law. Only two state-run reform facilities in Tokyo accept girls, and then just a handful. The regimen at one, a century-old institution in a leafy suburb, remains unchanged from the days of its founding. Girls in their early to mid-teens exercise, study and farm sweet potatoes and cabbages. They live cheek-by-jowl in tatami-mat rooms, sunny and clean but devoid of pop-star posters or any personal belongings whatsoeverthe girls can’t have cell phones, makeup or even their own underwear. They can leave the campus one day a month on group outings to spend a $23 monthly allowance. Parents rarely visit. The institution employs not a single trained counselor. A common reaction to this rigid rehabilitation: many girls run away. “They know how to make money,” says Kazuko Isogai, the principal, “so they run straight back to that business.” Even if they stay, the institution returns them to the big bad world when they become “adults”at age 15.

Hana and Aya, both 15, loiter outside a fast-food joint in Shibuya staring at a sheet of purikura photos, instant snapshots printed on stickers taken in arcade booths. It features the two in various poses with four guys who look to be in their mid-20s. “We can’t go home because our parents would smell the drink on us,” says Hana, her face clouding. “I hate them. They’re so strict.” Lately she’s run away for longer periods, sometimes sleeping at her friend Aya’s house, sometimes partying for days on end. Hana brightens and nudges Aya, pointing to a few dyed-blond punks slouching down the alley. “Hey, how about those guys?” Aya shakes her head. They go back to studying their photos, waiting for a better-looking option. Anything to avoid going home.

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