Winner of the 2022 John Whitney Hall Book Prize, sponsored by the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) - Northeast Asia Council.
Contemporary Japan is home to one of the world's largest and most diversified markets for sex. Widely understood to be socially necessary, the sex industry operates and recruits openly, staffed by a diverse group of women who are attracted by its high pay and the promise of autonomy—but whose work remains stigmatized and unmentionable. Based on fieldwork with adult Japanese women in Tokyo's sex industry, Healing Labor explores the relationship between how sex workers think about what sex is and what it does and the political-economic roles and possibilities that they imagine for themselves. Gabriele Koch reveals how Japanese sex workers regard sex as a deeply feminized care—a healing labor—that is both necessary and significant for the well-being and productivity of men. In this nuanced ethnography that approaches sex as a social practice with political and economic effects, Koch compellingly illustrates the linkages between women's work, sex, and the gendered economy.
About the author
Gabriele Koch is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale-NUS College.
"This is an intelligent and insightful study of Japanese female sex workers who provide iyashi or 'healing care' to Japan's depleted male workers. Koch makes a compelling and provocative case for the productive role of sex work in the Japanese gendered economy. It is both marginalized and necessary, caught in a gray area between legality and illegality, and dependent on the perception that it is done by amateurs. Yet, these characteristics shape the risks sex workers face and undermine their claims to labor rights. In contrast to anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution activists, they do not consider themselves as exploited and coerced."
—Nicole Constable, University of Pittsburgh
"Exceptional sensibility and true originality characterize Gabriele Koch's Healing Labor, which has sex workers tell their stories on their own terms while bringing to life the globally most pertinent debates about labor, care, and sexual commerce. An elegantly written, pathbreaking book that carries its theoretical sophistication and great erudition lightly."
—Sabine Frühstück, University of California, Santa Barbara
"One of the pleasures of Gabriele Koch's new book...is how its erudition is mixed with an anthropologist's ear on the ground."
—Nicolas Gattig, The Japan Times
"[Rather] than simply use her interviews as interesting details to supplement an analysis that lies elsewhere, a problem present in many ethnographies, [Koch] grounds her argument about the Japanese economy firmly in the methodology of anthropology....Koch strikes the perfect balance between detail and analysis. Highly recommended."
—M. J. Wert, CHOICE
"Koch's well-organized and fluently written book will not only enlighten anthropologists with an interest in gender issues, the sex industry, labor relations, and women's rights, but will also provide valuable insights for anyone interested in the Japanese economic system and workplace. It should certainly be recommended reading for anyone planning to work in Japan."
—Brigitte Steger, The Journal of Japanese Studies
"[Healing Labor] is an incisive exploration of sex work as both a form of gendered work and care that is helpful to scholars of Japan in particular, and East Asia more generally; scholars interested in health, caregiving, and labor or economics regardless of geographic focus; and scholars interested in sex and sexuality, gender, and social justice."
—Pamela Runestad, H-Japan
"Koch's well-informed and eloquent work provides an outstanding example of an ethnography that remains close to the voices of her interlocutors, but never loses sight of the larger structural issues of the environment within which they eke out a living. It opens up a whole range of important questions concerning the sex industry in Japan and beyond... Future researchers will be well counseled to take Koch's book as a starting point in their own inquiries. With its stringent analysis and clarity of voice, it is well suited for a range of courses and, in my experience, a great hit with undergraduate and post-graduate students alike."
—Fabio Gygi, Monumenta Nipponica
"[T]his book demonstrates a conceptual advance for this area of study via its introduction of the key term 'healing labor,' to explain the above-noted fundamental contradictions of sex work and the social values they are embedded within in Japan."
—Kaoru Aoyama, Pacific Affairs