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Soaplands thrive despite police cleanup campaign

Date Posted: 2005-12-22

A police-driven drive to purge Okinawa’s entertainment districts of illicit sexual activities is meeting with mixed results.

Okinawa Prefectural Police began the campaign last December, targeting sex shops, soaplands and bars in the downtown Naha-Matsuyama area for purification and cleanup. Shop owners and patrons say the police have curbed some activity, but that the world’s oldest profession continues to live and prosper.

Businessmen say the sex shops will never disappear, but acknowledge they’ve become more resourceful in developing skills and tricks to work around police and their sting operations. Once open storefronts with bright signs are now transforming to shops in normal apartment houses, normal bars or normal restaurants. The sexual favors are now taking place in special rooms, behind public walls or curtains, or on upper floors away from prying eyes.

Police say they’ve shut down 29 shops over the past year, and arrested the owners. Other owners say life goes on, with activities being tucked into the normal looking buildings which have the bar rooms inside.

The secret to avoiding detection, owners say, is using workers known as ‘catchers’ who work the streets looking for potential customers. The catchers are linked to the sex establishment via two-way radios or cell phones, touting their prizes to passers by. “Hey guys! We have beautiful girls and drinks. Come on by” they proclaim to men wandering the Matsuyama streets. Once interest is established, the catchers screen the potential guests as they escort the customer to the building, where hidden cameras make a further study to be sure they’re not inviting an undercover cop into the place.

Catchers say they enjoy the work, and that “this business is too good to stop.” Building owners say they know there’s potentially illegal activity taking place inside, but point out “if nobody else wants to rent my building, I have no income at all. So…I don’t care who rents my building.” In fact, many of the buildings being used for sex shops have “For Rent” signs posted on the doors and windows to fool police.

Police say they’re not discouraged, noting they’ve increased arrests and prosecution by some 700% over the past year, arresting dozens of owners and workers. They say they’re concerned about the negative image the sex industry presents to tourists.

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