Sana looked down in coy embarrassment and spoke in a shy whisper about her new way of making pocket cash: going out with middle-aged men for money.
“Brand-name designer things - girls want to buy nice dresses,” the 17-year-old explained as neon lights shone and music blared around her in Tokyo’s lively - and seedy - Shinjuku district.
Sana says she hasn’t had sex with any of her “dates,” but she is perilously close to joining a growing number of girls in Japan who have fallen into prostitution to satisfy a craving for ritzy handbags and clothes.
“They are bored with school and life, so they go out on the town,” said Noriko Yamaguchi, a counselor with the Sakai Women’s League. “But on the town, you need money.”
More and more girls are going after that money. Last year, 5,481 girls ages 14 to 19 were detained temporarily by authorities for involvement in the sex industry, a 39 percent increase over the 3,946 picked up in 1993, the National Police Agency said. And experts say the problem is much greater than such statistics suggest.
The dramatic increase has prompted a crackdown on so-called “telephone clubs,” where girls chat with potential customers and sometimes arrange meetings that lead to sex. Police say increasing numbers of schoolgirls are involved in the clubs - with a growing percentage of them under age 15.
The trend has prompted a string of lurid television specials and news segments about the girls, who speak matter-of-factly about liaisons with free-spending men known as “papas” who are old enough to be their fathers.
It also has triggered some soul-searching about whether Japan’s rapid rise to affluence has replaced the traditional values of home and family with an all-out pursuit of high-status luxury goods.
“Some people think money can solve any problem, and the tendency is becoming more obvious these days,” said Hiroshi Nakamura, a counselor at Tokyo Sogo Kyoiku Center, a hotline service for troubled teens.
While the girls often are depicted as materialistic, Yamaguchi puts much of the blame on the men and society.
“These girls are being victimized,” she said. “It is too easy for them to fall into prostitution. The sex industry is everywhere they look.”
Sana said she meets her dates by simply walking around Shinjuku, usually with a fellow student, in her pleated skirt and blue school sweater - a sure-fire draw for men on the prowl.
Customers approach and offer money, usually only about $18, for a date at a singing club or restaurant. Sana said that, so far, she has rejected offers of cash for something more.
Sex, of course, brings in much more money.
Junko Kobayashi, 18, said a friend of hers met a lawyer who paid her $720 for spending the night with him - more than enough for a bottom-of-the-line $450 Louis Vuitton bag or high-priced sunglasses favored by status-conscious high-schoolers.
Kobayashi said she hasn’t done that yet because she is comfortable with the $450 a month she receives from an allowance and a part-time job. But she said she’s not ruling out a date or two.
“If I really ran out of money, then I might consider having dinner with someone,” she said.
At Ombra Mai Fu, one of the cheaper telephone clubs among Shinjuku’s countless peep-show houses and video porn shops, the manager was upfront about the possibilities of customers arranging outside meetings. “It all depends on what you want,” he said.
While the growth in the teen sex industry has parents and officials pulling their hair, some girls shrug at the practice, believing - naively, experts say - that they could control a “date” with an older man.
Chika Takahashi, 15, said she doesn’t know much about the business, but she is growing restless with her $90 monthly allowance.
“I’m kind of interested because I know I can get some pocket money,” she said one day after school. “It’s OK if the man takes me out to dinner or something, but I won’t go any further than that.”