With an estimated 35,000 hotels (rabuhos) spread across the country, photographer Zaza Bertrand explores how they are helping to shift Japanese attitudes towards sex and relationships
Belgian photographer Zaza Bertrand decided to turn a fascination with the concept of intimacy into a stark documentary photo series Japanese Whispers about rabuhos, commonly known as sex hotels, in Japan. These kitschy, neon-lit spaces are representative of a cultural divide that separates sex and love; the public versus the private. Although rabuhos are in many ways frowned upon, they are nonetheless wildly popular and can be found in cities, the countryside and small villages, with an estimated 35,000 across the country. Through these meandering halls, sexual desires and fantasies roam freely outside the confines of domestic subjugation.
For Bertrand, capturing the tension between her subjects was paramount as she hoped to reveal the paradoxical attitudes towards these hotels. Rather than purport a seedy underground, rabuhos offer a strange kind of liberation; one where couples can connect and explore themselves and each other in a safe haven. With housing prices on the up and a well-established conservativism towards the family model, many young Japanese people choose to stay at home and forgo relationships of their own. Privacy, or therein the lack of, has created a demand for sex hotels and has added to this pragmatic decoupling of sexuality and human connection.
Bertrand’s powerful images encapsulate a sense of alienation and isolation; an almost haunting convergence of desire and loneliness. She posted an advert asking for subjects who wanted to be involved in return for a maximum of three hours in a hotel room, all expenses paid. As a documentary photographer by trade, Bertrand was prompted to take a more active role in her shoots to produce what she calls a more “filmic” style. She let her models choose the location, what they wore and how they interacted to tell an authentic story about this hidden world. “Through my work, I always focus on human interaction, physical contact and relationships,” Bertrand says, “and I find it very interesting in Japan because the way they do that is very different.” The fully automated and self-run rabuhos may seem like bizarre and unconventional places, but they signify a deeply entrenched scepticism about heteronormative relationships, particularly in the West. Here, we talk to Bertrand about sex and intimacy in Japan, why rabuhos are an attractive destination for millennials and how the erotic landscape is shifting.
What inspired you to do the project?
Zaza Bertrand: Through my work I always focus on human interaction, physical contact and relationships and I find it very interesting in Japan because the way they do that is very different. The things you can do and cannot do are very complex, and there’s a certain resistance to relationships; a loss of intimacy in general. I was in Japan before on a different project, and I saw these hotels and I thought it would be interesting as I’m very fascinated by their behaviour and how they react to love and sex and relationships.
How did you approach your subjects for the series?
Zaza Bertrand: At first, I tried to approach people going into the hotels but that was hard because people didn’t want to talk. Just before the heat of the moment isn’t the right time! Then I placed some adverts online and I offered them the room for a maximum of three hour, all paid for. Some expected me to shoot them having sex, but that made me very uncomfortable and wasn’t interesting to me; I thought it was better to capture the tension just before it’s going to happen – it creates a more interesting atmosphere. Otherwise, it would be more pornography, which I don’t want to do.
“Some expected me to shoot them having sex…
I thought it was better to capture the tension just before it’s going to happen” – Zaza Bertrand
Why do Japanese people go to the hotels?
Zaza Bertrand: People who go are of all ages and backgrounds, and the people who reacted to my emails were a little bit older. A lot of people go there because they can’t do it at home and there’s no privacy; they’re not very romantic but they have no other option. The housing is really expensive in Japan as well, and because traditional weddings are so expensive people stay with their parents for a long time. Many people are also very career-focused and there’s a bigger emphasis on separating that life from the family.
Are the hotels socially acceptable in Japan?
Zaza Bertrand: I think they’re very accepted but it is still a taboo and people don’t talk about it, yet everybody does it. There are so many of them, I looked it up and there is something like 35,000 hotels in the country. There is a hotel in every small town and in the countryside, it’s a real industry – it’s not just for people to have secret affairs. Privacy is guaranteed so you choose your room with a machine and there’s no one working there to see you.
What was your involvement in the actual shoot? Did you direct it, or did you let nature run its course?
Zaza Bertrand: I come from a documentary background so I used to always let nature run its course, but in this case, it forced me to direct. I didn’t tell my subjects what to wear or instruct their actions, but I did have to take a more active role. I was out of my comfort zone and the situation was a bit strange and uncomfortable, but some couples really had in mind what they wanted to do.
What did you take away from the experience?
Zaza Bertrand: A new way of photographing that is more filmic and I evolved my style; I would like to go further with it and explore these subjects. I will always examine intimacy and human connection, and I really like Japan as it’s so interesting and alien to me.
Is there an overriding message in your photos?
Zaza Bertrand: The images offer a glimpse of a hidden world and give a sense of tension between the subjects and their lives. I used to get nervous when I had to do portrait shots, but now I realise how powerful they can be.