Involuntary Consent: The Illusion of Choice in Japan’s Adult Video Industry

Akiko Takeyama is a professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Kansas. She is also President of the Association for Feminist Anthropology (2023-2025) in the American Anthropological Association. As an interdisciplinary, feminist scholar, trained as a cultural anthropologist, her scholarship focuses on changing gender, sexuality, and class dynamics in the context of (neo)liberal globalization. Her work provides fine-grained ethnography to better understand how social inequalities are perpetuated in the name of individual choice. She uses Japan as a window into asking enduring questions about patriarchal nation-building, capitalistic profit-seeking, and the political philosophy of liberalism. Her first book, Staged Seduction: Selling Dreams in a Tokyo Host Club (Stanford University Press, 2016), was a finalist for the 2017 Michelle Rosaldo Book Prize at the Association for Feminist Anthropology.
Yui Kurosawa '26 interviewed Dr. Akiko Takeyama on February 19, 2024.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Akiko Takeyama.

Tell us the story of what prompted you to write the book, Involuntary Consent: The Illusion of Choice in Japan’s Adult Video Industry. 

When I did my first work about Japan's host clubs and looked at the male hosts and their female clients, I was interested in how anything could be commodified in a post-industrial, neoliberal context in which individual freedom of choice and self-responsibility are paramount. Some of the problems were that male hosts, who lacked job prospects or social networks, would self-exploit by working long hours in ways that ruined their health. Some even went bankrupt or struggled to find other work. In extreme cases, some female clients resorted to prostitution to earn money to spend at the host clubs. Yet no one I interviewed said they felt trapped or coerced. The hosts said no one forced them to work there, and the women said no one forced them to return. It was about personal consent and decision-making. This idea of consent intrigued me: you can exploit and harm people legally as long as you get consent. 

I also wanted to study human trafficking, looking beyond Japan's national borders. Trafficking has three components: labor, sex, and organ trafficking. Organ trafficking is extremely difficult to research ethnographically, so I focused on labor and sex trafficking, volunteering at an anti-trafficking NGO. Many calls to their hotline came from Japanese women claiming to have trouble in adult video (AV) productions and concern about the release of their images on the internet, which is part of larger discourse on sexual exploitation in Japan. The discourse surrounding AV was commonly referred to as “AV出演強要”or “Forced AV Performance” and was picked up by the Japanese media and U.S. Department of State as a human rights violation and a form of human trafficking, respectively. This was also true of the "JK business," which refers to commercial activities done by high school girls to provide male customers with sexual arousal. Again, human trafficking encompasses a spectrum from forced trafficking to coercion by trickery. This background led me to study consent negotiations in Japan's adult video industry. 

Japanese people often prioritize social relationships and conflict-aversion, even at the expense of their self-interest. In Japanese culture, you write, “individuality is only valued insofar as social relationships [are] not compromised” (p. 51). But this prevents AV actresses from communicating their discomfort before and during filming. By contrast, American ideals adopt diametrically opposed values like individuality and self-advocacy. It almost seems as though the embrace of Japanese ethics is conducive to AV actresses’ exploitation. Yet this selflessness and humility are also what make Japanese culture uniquely beautiful. Has Japanese collectivism gone too far? 

Many of the adult video actresses in Japan do not have experiences abroad. Of course they travel, but are not really immersed in other cultures. In other words, there aren't many cultural references for them to make. I could imagine escaping Japan to other parts of the world, but most of these AV actresses are stuck in the same country and context. Naturally, they try to figure out how things work best within their given context. You are right, this beautiful part of Japanese culture can be taken advantage of to exploit people. Similarly, I don't think other systems are designed or intended to exploit people. But everything has a kind of ugly dimension. Even the legal system, designed to protect the weak, often ends up protecting the interests of the strong who can hire lawyers and mobilize resources to win cases. 

There is a Japanese social ethos that emphasizes relationships, harmony, and collective good. That often enables cooperation, mutual assistance and understanding in times of disaster. But the same ethics discriminate against non-Japanese who are not part of the community. Thus, it depends on context and definitions of inclusion. The conventional value of Japanese social relationships has been complicated by Western notions of individualism. If individuals sticking out used to get hammered down, nevertheless some extraordinary talent and creativity is welcomed in Japan’s free market today. Such a gradual shift and adoption is nothing new during Japan's modernization. 

Interestingly, political reforms in the 21st century highlight that Japanese citizens should be self-governing individuals rather than passive objects of governance, even though Japanese citizens have been already granted these same rights and sovereignty in the post-WWII constitution. But the liberal notion of progress requires a sense of moving forward. Market-oriented neoliberal individualism and Japanese social ethics of harmony, though opposite, can mesh well partly because concepts like liberalism and the social ethos keep changing. This kind of individualism has been accommodated for more than 20-30 years in Japan. However, individualized responsibility without a strong social safety net negatively impacts marginalized groups like women and non-natives. In a way, Japanese collectivism and individualism enable each other. 

You write of an intelligent AV actress Sato, who was discouraged by her video producer from sharing her philosophical thoughts on a blog because “men could not masturbate to smart women” (pg. 85). Is this a uniquely Japanese phenomenon? How might such a sexual preference affect romantic relationships? 

Both the US and Japan have sexual double standards for men and women, but it seems more extreme in Japan, partly because of culturally scripted eroticism. Historically, women’s shyness has been part of the fantasy narrative for men to objectify them. Seeing women’s act of getting rid of shyness and transforming into a sexual being is appealing to the male ego. Firstly, this gendered, cultural script shapes heterosexual eroticism. Secondly, AV actresses know that inexperienced women are highly commodified, with greater value than veteran actresses. In other words, AV actresses cater to the erotic fantasy. The script is about male chauvinism wherein women’s intelligence may intervene as a turn-off. 

Part of this is the adult video actresses' perceived lack of intelligence, reflecting the double standard where women are labeled either as respectable or as whores, whereas men don't face that labeling. Men expect wives and daughters to be respectable while seeking promiscuity and lack of intelligence in commercial sex. This is a projection by male viewers onto AV actresses. In reality some are highly intelligent, but present themselves in complicated ways, like Sato who was smart but couldn't function in mainstream society. By degrading herself as a sex worker, no one feels threatened even if she says something intelligent. So why can't women like Sato be both intelligent and sexy? It’s largely because of the male-centered Japanese society as well as chauvinistic eroticism. Essentially, Japan's male-dominated social system means women must conform to existing logic and expectations, negotiating their sexual and other interests while remaining respectable citizens. 

Talent agencies that recruit women to the AV industry act based on the assumption that no woman will 100 percent voluntarily take off her clothes and have sex on camera. This pushes agencies to adopt manipulative tactics to recruit women. Is there really a lack of women who would enthusiastically agree to become an AV actress? And by extension, is a trust-based, healthy relationship between agencies and AV actresses possible? 

Some women may not care about taking off their clothes initially. They may pretend because that's what's expected. Also, at shooting studios, everyone is naked, so taking off clothes is not that special, almost like at a public bath. However, lacking embarrassment or shyness devalues women's commodity potential. As I said, even at auditions they report less sexual experience than is actually the case. Agencies also advise them to appear shy. Again, observed behavior in shooting and on screen may not reflect actual intentions. Like a movie, adult video is a fiction. But it is presented as if a reality show. In other words, some women may not care about having sex on camera but act as scripts expect them to act. 

Highly commodifiable women with beauty and "respectable" traits may be difficult to recruit for AV. Meanwhile, women who lack expected beauty and traits may apply for the job though they are less desired. There is a gap between what agencies want and who applies. Agencies talk of “high spec” women who likely won't take off their clothes on camera. While the acts may not be special, consequences like social stigma, discrimination and lifelong threats complicate what AV actresses exactly consent to. 

I believe trustworthy relationships between agencies and women can exist. But social expectations and lingering consequences have a huge impact. Indeed, one's children and grandchildren potentially seeing an old video, or one feeling embarrassed about one's past, can be very damaging due to stigma. That was the most harmful part that I found trumps trustworthy relationships. 

In your interview with porn director Akasaka, you ask him about the forceful and manipulative ways that women are often recruited into the AV industry. He responds by saying, “I have no idea how women are brought to this industry. Honestly, I don't even want to know” (p. 127). Shouldn’t he be legally required to know? 

Even if legally required to know, there's always room for manipulation. For example, adult video makers now videotape the whole contracting process. Women read the contract line-by-line and consent on camera. This protects companies' interests because women can't later claim they weren't informed, since contracts are confidential. However, nobody knows how she got to that point or the consequences of signing. Similarly, at the most controversial points, women may pretend to fully consent. People, including companies, only want to know what they want to know, and not more. In other words, there is intentional unknowing. 

Moreover, legalization has its limitations. The social and legal systems are male-dominated spheres. Around 70-80% of lawyers in Japan are men. Remember the court case where a 19-year old was sexually assaulted by her father, but judges said she could have escaped so it was deemed consensual. My point is that when perceptions and law are dominated by privileged men, there are always opportunities for injustice, even with legal obligations to know. Therefore, I don't think legal requirements would fully solve issues since the system itself remains male-dominated, with upper class and middle-class men using resources to protect their interests.

Yui Kurosawa '26Student Journalist

interiot, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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