Physical space is a commodity; a well understood resource with price driven by supply and demand. In some places its abundance can lead to somewhat bizarre cultural norms. Take, for example, Houston, Texas, a city where, according to a recent survey, fully 25 percent of the land space within the city is taken up by parking (and just 2.6 percent is park space).
Conversely, Tokyo’s legendarily high real-estate prices push design and social norms in a different direction. The city that first spawned coffin (now rebranded as ‘pod’) hotels has embraced other space-efficient approaches.
The red light districts in most large Japanese cities will feature tower blocks, wherein each floor is occupied by a small bar, club or restaurant. This enables small businesses to exist in close proximity to larger venues and offers patrons a vast array of niche establishments to visit.
Want to find a bar dedicated to anything from Rock‘n’Roll to rope bondage? Tokyo has you covered.
What Tokyo also offers is a commercialization of what could be seen as personal space. The phenomenon of “love hotels” has been extensively covered by western media, often with the observation that cramped accommodation and a punishing rental market makes it extremely difficulty for Japan’s younger generation to find places for sex. What’s less often talked about is the challenge facing people who want to masturbate.
The same challenges facing young couples equally apply to a teenager who just wants to indulge in a little self-love. And it should probably be stressed that masturbation, at least among male Japanese people, is certainly a thing.
At one point during my trip I encountered a full height display case stuffed with a variety of Tenga’s disposable masturbator products. I actually struggled to get a picture of this because of a gaggle of teenage boys who spent a full 20 minutes in front of this display discussing the products as if they were discussing fine wine.
Indeed, Tenga is seemingly popular enough in Japan to support a market for Tenga branded t-shirts, complete with potentially nightmare-inducing mascot.
Akihabara, for the uninitiated (oh my sweet summer child) is Tokyo’s geek district. Walking around the place is a little like visiting the subconscious of a 14-year-old boy (and sorry to be gendered, but it is a majority male-gaze kind of a place).
The kind of place where you can get merchandise for even the most obscure anime and manga lines, along with a dizzying array of sex toys.
Fancy a Pokemon plushie with an oddly unspecified orifice? That can be yours for less than ¥50,000 (about £350). Mocking the niche aspects of Akihabara is like shooting fish in a barrel, but it’s actually difficult to convey quite how intense an experience the place can be. It’s like someone accidentally switched off the limiters and everything’s been turned up to 11.
As I wandered around, I spotted a sign for SOD (Soft On Demand) which struck me at once as a sign that is as concerned with the potential alternative meanings of that acronym as it is with reaching its intended audience.
SOD, as it turns out, is essentially the basement of a sex shop that contains a handful of booths where clientele can lock themselves away with a computer, VR headset, and a literal wall-mounted tissue dispenser.
And yes you might be right, and we didn’t ask, but we think that’s a vacuum cleaner in the picture too.
Any doubts over the intended use of these booths were quickly dispelled by a helpful display stand that informed me that “All products are adult videos (pornographic)” and that “When viewing VR it is recommended to use adult goods.” Prices for renting the booths start at ¥1,500 (a little over £10) for a sixty-minute session.
On the face of it this is pretty good value. High-end VR porn setups can easily set someone back £1,000, but it occurs to me that what’s really on offer here is space. Not just in the physical sense (the booths, while spacious enough for one, are still smaller than a typical bedroom) but rather personal space; a space that’s to some extent free from judgement.
However, what really stumped me was the thought of how much this would cost cumulatively. Do I think it’s great that there is a solution for people who’s domestic circumstances won’t grant them the space to even have a wank in peace? Absolutely.
Does the idea of paying a tenner every time I want to have a wank send shivers up my spine? Yes, that too.
Space is a valuable commodity, but it would seem that in Tokyo at least, so too is the privacy to masturbate.