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  • Belle Brett

Digging Deep: Four Books on Japan's Nightlife that Informed My Novel

The first draft of my novel, Gina in the Floating World, reflected my own experiences as a foreign bar hostess in a Tokyo suburb in the mid-1970s. As an experience that for me was both challenging and fascinating, it was a story I wanted to tell. But my own tale wasn’t substantive enough to be a memoir, nor sufficiently engaging in terms of plot to be a good novel. Encouraged by an editor to ramp up the drama and the sex, I took my assignment seriously, but that meant going beyond my own limited knowledge to make my narrative credible. I know how annoying it can be when an author fails to get the details right. Even with a naïve, unreliable narrator, whose confusion over the culture sometimes results in some incorrect observations and interpretations, I wanted to be sure that the night world that makes up a chunk of my story was based on actual practices.

Fortunately, I love research, and the more I did research on this subject, the more I wanted to know. Each new source would lead me to other sources. It’s a wonder I found time to write at all! Early on I uncovered several whole books that served as the backbone of my research efforts. Here is a brief summary of how four of these books, all covering topics related to Japanese bar culture and other institutions in the “mizu shobai” or water trades that encompass Japan’s nightlife, as well as customs and attitudes around sex, contributed to my understanding of the world in which my protagonist found herself.

Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club by Anne Allison (University of Chicago Press, 1994.) As a participant observer on an academic mission. Allison not only takes a deep dive into the world of one specific club, she also provides a detailed analysis of the meaning of this environment for the players in it. Carried out in the early 1980s, close to the time period of my novel, this ethnographic study carried particular weight for me.

Butterflies of the Night: Mama-sans, Geisha, Strippers, and the Japanese Men They Serve by Lisa Louis (Tengu Books, 1992). Louis’s book provides a broader view of the mizu shobai. It begins with Louis’s own experience as a bar hostess, but through interviews explores related corners of this unique night world. Her chapter, “A Special Kind of Sleaze” introduced me to “the ejaculation industry,” and such venues as the no-panty coffee shop and “soaplands,” both of which I refer to in my novel. Louis also talks about the role of the yakuza in Japanese nightlife.

Pink Samurai: The Pursuit and the Politics of Sex in Japan by Nicholas Bornoff (Harper Collins, 1991). This tome (the paperback version clocks in at 698 pages) covers an even greater swath of information related to sex in Japan than the other two books. Whereas Nightwork and Butterflies of the Night focus on the establishments that cater to sexual desire (and fantasy) at the time the books were written, Pink Samurai provides an extensive history of attitudes and customs around sex as well as the development of the various institutions that exemplify these attitudes and customs. The section on shunga (“spring pictures”), the erotic art prints that emerged at the end of the seventeenth century, gave me insights that enhanced my own discussion of this art form in my novel as did Bornoff’s examination of erotic manga.

Bar Flower: My Decadently Destructive Days and Nights as a Tokyo Nightclub Hostess by Lea Jacobson (St. Martin’s Press, 2008). This memoir came out after my novel had taken the general shape it would assume. But I was curious how well my depiction of the more sophisticated club scene would match Jacobson’s. Her emotional journey had some resonance for me, especially the challenges of working long nights in the bar culture, with all the drinking and the need to play a role with the male customers.

I read books on other topics, such as Zen, martial arts, and Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints of the floating world), and, of course, I did a great deal of research on the Internet on specific aspects of Japanese culture. But these four books were the foundational sources that allowed me to verify and build on my experiences in order to create a believable story laced with intriguing details.

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