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Platonic Sex: The Wild Ride of Japanese Porn Star Iijima Ai

Iijima Ai, from the cover of her CD.

If you go by statistics, Ookubo Matsue (大久保松恵) wasn’t supposed to go anywhere. A middle school dropout who left her parents’ house in her mid-teens, Matsue had little education, few supporters, and fewer prospects. She sank deeper and deeper into layers of Japan’s sexual underworld, from which few women ever escape.

But Matsue was a phoenix. Demonstrating a tenacity in controlling her own destiny, and an uncanny ability to rebrand herself, Matsue — reborn as Iijima Ai (飯島愛) — made the unlikely leap from video porn star to TV variety show staple.

Unfortunately for Ai, her triumph over adversity would prove short-lived. An unexpected health setback led to a tragedy that, a decade later, is still the subject of rumor and speculation.

The Young Matsue

Born in Tokyo in 1972 (eight months before your intrepid author, which makes said author feel very old), Ai spent the first chunk of her life navigating her rigid household. In her autobiography Platonic Sex, she describes her parents as incredibly strict, and relentlessly focused on pushing their daughter to higher and higher levels of achievement. Ultimately, it proved too much pressure for Ai. In one incident, she relates coming home elated that she had gotten 90% on a math test — her weakest subject — only to have her mother ask her why she didn’t get 100 like the girl at the top of her class. Ai recounts how she yearned to be judged on her own merits:

できないのは自分が一番わかってる。
「あなたの努力が足りない」
母はいつもそう私にいい続けた。
精いっぱい努力したのに……。
一生懸命がんばったのがこの結果なのに、ほめてもらえない。いくら努力したってその子に追いついていくことなんてできない。いつしか〝努力〟という言葉が大嫌いになった。
がんばったときに、がんばったことを認めてもらいたい。
I knew more than anyone that I couldn’t do that.
“You’re not exerting enough effort.” That’s what my mom always told me. Even though I had given every ounce of effort…
I couldn’t win any praise, even though I’d gone all out. No matter how hard I pushed, I’d never catch the other girl. I came to hate the word “effort”.
I wanted to be acknowledged when I did my best.

While her mother’s mistreatment of her was emotional, her father’s lapsed into the physical, particularly as Ai became a teenager and grew more rebellious. In order to escape the tensions in her home, Ai began skipping school and frequenting disco clubs in Shinjuku. She became adept at stealing money from her parents to pay for her adventures. One night, she recounts her father storming into a club, dragging her home, and cutting her hair off. When Ai resisted, he threw the scissors aside and began beating her, while all the while Ai’s mother begged him to stop.

It wasn’t long after that Ai left her house and moved in with her then-boyfriend. The relationship ended when he caused a scene at his parents’ house and was dragged off to rehab. Nearly broke and desperate, Ai found herself indebted to a man named Ishikawa, who lent her enough money to situate herself in an apartment and keep herself off of the streets. In order to make that money back and sustain herself, Ai entered the world of professional hostesses.

It helps here to understand a little bit about how Japanese night life operates. All businesses considered to be related to sex or sex appeal fall under the general purview of the Fuueihou (風営法), or Law for Sex Industries. The Fuueihou regulates business such as soaplands, which offer erotic massages, as well as “delivery health” (デリヘリ), a euphemism for hotel sexual room service. The Fuueihou also governs businesses that sell sex appeal. This includes host clubs, cabaret clubs, “snacks” and girl’s bars — all businesses where, essentially, people come to drink and party while pretty men and women (the hosts and hostesses) smile at them and pretend to enjoy their vapid attempts at humor.

Advertisement for Vanilla, a cabaret club in Osaka. It ain’t cheap to look like this all the time, as Iijima Ai would soon find out.

Ai found herself in the hostess world before she was legally an adult. It was the roaring 80s, when the country was at its economic peak and the rest of the world feared they would one day just become subsidiaries of Japan Inc. The country was awash in money, and businessmen were not averse to throwing some at beautiful women in exchange for leering at them for a few hours. Ai worked as a hostess in the Roppongi district of Tokyo until her age became an issue, after which she moved to a more traditional, formal milieu in the ritzier section of Ginza. It was in this world that Ai was christened with her new name:

みんなに愛される子になるようにと、お店のママが源氏名を「愛」とつけてくれたのだ。それ以来、知り合った人たちはみんな「愛ちゃん」と呼ぶ。
The store’s mama [female manager] gave me my working name, “Ai”, so that I’d become a girl who’s loved by everybody. From that day on, everyone who knew me called me “Ai”.

Ai’s life during this time is littered with colorful stories, such as when she shelled out cash to pay for her sex buddy’s gonorrhea treatment after he’d started selling himself to various men — including the man who’d lent Ai the money for her apartment. It was also a time of financial stress. The upkeep of being a hostess — clothes, hair, nails — was a drain on Ai’s finances. The young woman’s penchant for partying didn’t help, either. Additionally, in Japan’s host world, it’s not uncommon for stores to saddle their hosts and hostesses with a customer’s debt when someone stiffs the store on a bill. In short, Ai’s road to “easy money” was anything but.

At age 18, Ai took a trip to New York City, where she became so infatuated with the town that she vowed to move there as an exchange student. But by that time, Ai had around US $30,000 of personal debt, plus another $20K of customer debt the club had laid on her. Not to mention, it would cost several tens of thousands of more dollars to afford to enter any sort of exchange student program, and to move to New York.

To make matters worse, Ai’s ambition was ill-timed. Sin-related businesses in Japan are sometimes called mizu shoubai (水商売), or “water enterprises”, because the profits from such businesses vary immensely according to the whim of the clientele. Japan’s economic bubble had just burst, and the hostess industry was hit hard by the downturn in discretionary income. It was, in short, a bad time to be selling water.

Ai needed money — lots of it, and quickly. In her mind, that left her with one option.

From Porn Star to TV Star

In 1992, at age 19, Ai made her debut as an “AV star” — the Japanese euphemism for the porn industry. The contract term was for a mere three months, from which Ai stood to accrue 10 million yen (around USD $100,000). Ai approached the work with a “fuck it” swagger. She committed to finishing out her three month contract, and told herself that, if it proved too onerous, she’d simply walk. She insisted on zero actual filmed intercourse; the only actual sex she filmed were the parts that couldn’t possibly be faked.

A cover from Ai’s days in the Japan adult film industry.

More than anything, Ai approached the work with no pretentions that it would lead to anything greater. In Platonic Sex, she recalls meeting other girls who viewed the work as a step toward celebrity. “No one in the [AV production] office ever thought that….all these cute girls, who were prettier than celebrities, were used and thrown aside.”

Which makes what happened next especially ironic. As part of her package deal, producers put Ai on late night TV programs, such as Gilgamesh Night, where she became known as the “Thong Queen” (Tバックの女王). (Warning: Video NSFW.)

Between her AV movies, her photo shoot compilations, and her TV appearances, Ai became unexpectedly popular. Her production company offered to extend her contract for double her original price. Ai’s popularity began spilling into Japan’s exceedingly popular variety show world, and she began appearing on mainstream programs. In 1994, she officially quit the AV world. In other words, Ai followed exactly the path she had thought was so improbable.

Ai in an appearance on variety show Sma-Sma, playing the part of a hostess dealing with a rude customer.

Ai reported losing many friendships — and even a relationship — due to her work in the AV world. One thing she didn’t lose was her parents. Ai reconnected with her mother and father and made amends with both. In her autobiography, Ai published extracts of her mother’s journal from the days when Ai was running wild; after one section in which her mother recounts her joy on a day when Ai actually went to school, the adult Ai reflects:

平気で嘘をついたし、平気でお金もとった。タバコもシンナーもやったし、男とも寝た。それがカッコイイと思ってた。私は不幸な子だと思っていた。でも、そのことで、母がこんなに苦しんでいたなんてまったく気づかなかった。
I brazenly lied; I brazenly took money. I smoked, huffed paint thinner, and slept with boys. I thought it was cool. I thought I was an unlucky child. I never once noticed how much I was hurting my mom.

Ai would remain a staple of the variety show circuit for well over the next decade, as her youthful beauty grew into adult poise. Periodic appearances on different shows led her to become a recurring guest on such programs as The Best of Japan and London Hearts. Her autobiography, released in 2000, was a titillating bestseller, and was eventually made into a semi-autobiographical film.

Ookubo Matsue, runaway and middle school dropout, was on top of the world…which made what happened next all the more tragic.

Ai’s (Mostly) Unexpected Death

In a spot on a variety program recorded around 2005, Ai recounted a trip to a famous fortune teller in Taiwan who gave her a rather unsettling prediction: “She said I’d be dead or something in three years.”

(JP) Link: Iijima Ai — “I’ll Die in 3 Years”; Video of Ai’s Words Cause Stir on Internet

Sadly, that fortune teller was right on the money.

In 2007, Ai announced she was retiring from the entertainment world altogether. At the time, she was dealing with some heavy health issues, including a severe kidney infection that led her to have “urine like tomato juice”. (Apologies to anyone who was drinking a V-8 while reading that…) Later in the year, Ai talked about what lay ahead for the rest of her life; she talked about how she might become a counselor.

Ai’s last post to her popular blog was on December 5th, 2008. On December 24th, a friend found her unconscious in her apartment. Iijima Ai was dead at the tender age of 36.

Ai’s death has been the source of speculation for years since her passing. The official cause of death was pneumonia, leading many to speculate how a young woman in her mid-30s could die alone in her apartment from a treatable illness. Some began to suggest that she had died from AIDS, a rumor based in nothing but her somewhat salacious past; others said she might have accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills. Her personal physician officially denied both rumors in a piece on Excite News last year.

A smiling Iijima Ai.

What’s certain is that Ai was admired and loved by many. On February 6th, 2009, variety host Nakai Masahiro devoted the 300th episode of his show as a farewell to Iijima Ai. Her official farewell ceremony was held in Tokyo’s Prince Hotel a month later, and was attended by 1500 people. Her blog, which her parents kept running until 2016, became a kind of meeting post for fans for years, who would take to her final post not only to say farewell, but to talk to one another.

But although she left the world much loved, she never found what she was truly seeking:

私はいつも探し続けている。
生まれた時からずーっと探し続けている。
ピッたりと重なり合うことができるハートを作れる相手を。
I’m always searching. Since I’ve been born I’ve been searching desperately. Searching for a partner with whom I can create a perfectly overlapping heart.

Japan Monogatari is the Japan you don’t learn about in anime — stories about real people and events that often get little coverage in the English speaking world. Read more at JapanMonogatari.com, and follow us on Facebook.