Will Thailand Become Japan?
In his fabulous and honest book about western men, imperialism, and sexuality, Richard Bernstein tells the story of two GIs in Japan right after the end of WW2. The soldiers go to a suburb of Tokyo where they enter a family’s house; the parents present their two teenage daughters, whom the soldiers then have sex with. In exchange for the service, they give the parents some soap and chocolate. Running late, the soldiers discover they have no way to get home; they can’t find a taxi or anyone to get them back to base. So they go to the nearby train station, find an empty train, board it, and take it by themselves back to camp. They disembark, get to the barracks, and go to sleep.
This story is incredible for a number of reasons. For one, the idea of Japan being so poor as to lack soap is odd; so too is the idea of foreigners able to abuse the national infrastructure like that. For another, westerners find the concept of parents offering their children as sexual toys in exchange for meagre essentials horrific and extremely sad. Some will read this and blame the parents; others will pity them. Many will do both at the same time. But in many parts of the world, this is part of survival. It is more palatable in the non-Christian parts of the planet, but plenty of Catholics in Brazil and the Philippines are doing much worse than those Japanese parents did several generations ago.
Thailand, with its Buddhist mai pen rai way of life and socio-economic dominance of a Thai-Chinese minority, has had a sex industry flourish since long before western men arrived on its shores. And no matter how rich, powerful, and advanced Thailand will get, its sex industry will continue to thrive for Thai men. A constant flow of poor Isaan farm girls will provide the flesh trade with its commodity. <Really? So why are the nubmers of ladies falling *dramatcially* in venues for Thai men just as they are in venues for foreign men? – Stick>
I know this because this is the case in Japan today. Despite the country’s wealth—its GDP per capita once exceeded America’s, and is now, at $38,492, still higher than most countries on Earth and all other countries in Asia—Japan has a flourishing prostitution industry. My personal favorite, conceptually speaking, is the Japanese blowjob bar (the “pink salon” or “pinsaro”). I’ve never been in one, but the descriptions I’ve read online and heard from friends consistently tell the same story: a number of men sit on chairs in a very dark room, with little divider between them, and the women rotate every few minutes, servicing men until they hear a bell that tells them to get up, bow, and move on to the next customer. The services cost about US$30-$50, or so I’m told.
The presence of these bars in Japan runs counter to the left-wing western narrative about imperialism and about prostitution being the last resort result of poverty. A few of these girls have given interviews online; many seem quite dumb and interested in making a quick buck. While they’re not from wealthy backgrounds, they’re not desperate and about to die of starvation if they don’t sell their bodies. In other words, they’re not unlike the girls in Thailand.
Yet western men don’t visit Japan as a sex tourist destination. Most pinsaro don’t accept foreign customers; most prostitutes in Japan do not accept foreigner clients. The days of riding private trains after getting some sex in exchange for soap and chocolate are over.
Why this is the case is obvious: the Japanese got rich. Whether you think it’s from their own ingenuity or from American interventionism, in either case foreign men will find paid sex much harder to get than in the past. To a certain extent, this is also true for Korea, although it is not yet at the level of insularity as the Japanese. It may get to that point, but it might not; for whatever reason, Korea exports a lot more prostitutes than Japan. However, paid sex in Korea has followed the same trend as Japan: it’s more expensive and harder to get as a foreigner.
Will this happen in Thailand? If you read Stickman’s reports and the many punters’ essays on the subject, the inevitable conclusion would be, yes, it will. For sure, this is the goal of the elites in Thailand. The military is making what moves it can to rid the country of the Nana Plazas and Soi Cowboys of the country. At the same time, it knows it cannot shut these playgrounds down overnight. It will be a slow and gradual trend, and it may take decades. But the goal is clear: to make Thailand as rich as Japan and Korea, and to rid the nation of the shame of having to sell flesh to foreigners.
However, they will fail. Despite punters’ lamentations, and despite Stickman’s confidence that Thailand will eventually gentrify its way out of the past, the country will not become Japan. It won’t even become Korea. Yes, the bar areas may shrink, but the country will always sell flesh to foreign men.
There are a few reasons why this is the case:
1. Lack of racial solidarity – For the Japanese and Koreans, the shame of selling their daughters to foreigners was great. This is why the red light districts near the U.S. military bases in Korea were full of Filipinas in the 1950s and 1960s. Thailand’s elites lack this idea that they must save their daughters from foreign men. To them, Isaan girls are foreigners; why should they care who those farmers’ daughters sleep with?
2. Corruption – For Thailand to get to the level of purchasing power parity of a first-world country, it will need to clean up its act. Thailand has proven time and time again that it cannot get less corrupt. If anything, the corruption has worsened over the years, and the inability to stop the public piss tests, let alone the countless other transgressions from the BiB, suggests that they are just like all the other previous political elites of Thailand: unable to stop the culture of bribes, corruption, and selfishness that has kept Thailand poor for centuries.
3. Instability – Thailand has had 12 coups since 1932. That’s about one coup every 7 years. For a country to reach the level of wealth and prosperity that makes it too expensive for foreign men to come to get a cheap lay, it first needs a certain level of economic prosperity. Every time Thailand seems to be on the trajectory towards that level, instability messes everything up. Prices were up and glistening condos were being built at a breakneck pace by 1997 and by 2012. People still complain about the high prices in Thailand today, and it is true that the bars have seen higher barfines and more coyotes. But it is still very affordable for many foreign men, and I expect prices will not rise much further in the future if Thailand cannot clean up its political mess.
4. Dependence on commodity revenue – This is a very important issue, and often underappreciated. Thailand is a commodity-driven country, which means its ability to increase income from high-quality goods is limited. This is what helped Japan and Korea escape the middle income trap, and Thailand is nowhere near that level of economic or technological sophistication. What manufacturing exists in the country is controlled and owned by foreigner developers, and the Thai are doing a poor job of replicating that and displacing the foreign investors.
5. Dependence on tourism – Additionally, Thailand’s dependence on money from tourists creates a perverse incentive to keep sex tourism alive. Too many people depend on it as an income driver. In Japan and Korea, tourism was never a big deal—especially in those crucial years of growth and development from emerging market to a fully developed economy. Tourism encourages a labor market that will appeal to visitors: so guides, massage therapists, and, yes, sex workers will always be more welcome in a tourism-driven economy than a non-tourism driven one. If you don’t believe me, compare Las Vegas to Salt Lake City; both are full of Mormons, but only one has cheap and easily available prostitution.
6. Merit – This is a touchy one, but the fact of the matter is that many Isaan parents see their children not as human beings, but as investments in the future. To make sure those investments pay off, they instill the notion of merit. In short, they use guilt to make sure their children do whatever it takes to finance their lives when they are too old to work. Even if Isaan gets wealthy, it’s hard to see this dynamic die completely. And for as long as Thailand remains dependent on commodities and tourism, people in Isaan will be uneducated farmers. Lacking education, they will be unable to encourage their daughters to become professionals or business owners; their daughters, in turn, will resort to prostitution to fund their parents, since they lack the skills to get a job that pays better.
So there you have it. I remain confident that Thailand will remain a sex tourism mecca, and arguably a middle income country full of poor workers willing to perform sex acts or clean houses for small wages. This is partly by design and partly a result of cultural baggage.
But don’t worry; no matter how hard Thailand tries to become like Korea or like Japan, it just doesn’t matter. They will fail.
I cannot comment on what you say about Japan and Korea as I simply have little knowledge of those places.
What I can say, however, is that many of your assertions about Thais, Thailand and different groups within Thailand are based on stereotypes, generalisations, untruths and many are just plain wrong. You have made statements and purported them as facts that actually are not correct at all. You cannot expect to accurately predict the future if those prediction are based on misconceptions, misunderstandings and falsehoods!
I don't know what the future for Thailand's bar industry holds, but what I see is dwindling numbers of girls entering the industry – which I think is a great thing as clearly there are other options these days. You ought to note that this is happening at Thai venues as well as the venues for Western men. Fewer ladies in the industry is one of many reasons why Western men are visiting the bars in decreasing numbers and why the sex tourism industry is in decline, and a much smaller part of tourism overall. Thailand IS developing economically, there are more opportunities and those who may have entered the bar industry in the past are increasingly choosing other options – and that is GREAT!
Of course the bar industry will not disappear completely. There is a bar industry in every country. I do expect though that it will get smaller and smaller and become much more insignificant than it is now.
What is it with the nasty comments about Isaan? Yes, women from that area may make up the majority of ladies working in bar areas where you find Western men but that does NOT mean their parents encourage it. In some families, there may be a daughter who feels a debt to their family or feels that she can help a family who has debts or economic issues. What I can tell you is that most of the ladies working in the bars these days are opportunists and it has nothing to do with pleasing family. You do know that many girls working in the bars often only end 5,000 or 10,000 baht a month home, right? They can make many times that.
Have you even been to Thailand?