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COLUMN ONE

Japan's Case of the Unlikely Streetwalker

An economist moonlighting as a prostitute and the foreigner declared guilty of her death highlight overlooked aspects of the society.

March 19, 2001|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — The pair, whose lives would briefly intersect, were from different worlds.

Govinda Prasad Mainali was an illegal immigrant waiting tables in an Indian restaurant here, sending much of his salary home to his family in Nepal.

Yasuko Watanabe was a promising economist earning nearly $100,000 a year by day, but still driven to stand on a street corner and turn four tricks a night.

After the 39-year-old Watanabe was found slain in a seedy one-room apartment in 1997, Mainali was arrested and charged with the crime.

The case has captivated Japan, and not only because of its salacious details. It has exposed two long-overlooked aspects of Japanese society: the notoriously tough judicial treatment of foreigners and the peculiar attitudes toward prostitution.

Mainali, who admits to having had sex with Watanabe but insists he didn't kill her, was judged not guilty by a lower court that cited a lack of evidence. Nevertheless, authorities refused to let him out of jail while prosecutors appealed, something that Mainali's lawyers say has never happened to a Japanese.

With no new evidence and no clarification beyond an assertion that there was no doubt about his guilt, an appeals court overturned the ruling in December and sentenced Mainali to life in prison.

Mainali, 33, shivers in the cold solitary-confinement cell where he has been held for nearly four years, unable to see his wife and two young daughters. "I'm innocent. I didn't do anything wrong," he recently told visitors.

"It was the murder of the law by the guardians of the law," said Shinichi Sano, a well-respected journalist and author. His book about the killing, "Tokyo Electric Power Co. Office Lady Murder Case," has climbed the bestseller list.

Prosecutors and police refused to comment.

Meanwhile, widespread publicity continues to trigger sympathy for the victim's involvement in prostitution. A seminar last month, "Backstage in the Cinderella Story," drew about 800 well-heeled participants, some of whom said they had either sold or been tempted to sell their bodies. The urge has been dubbed the "Yasuko Syndrome," after Watanabe.

Women regularly visit Tokyo's Maruyamacho area of "love hotels," which are designed for trysts, to lay fresh purple orchids or pray at a small shrine known unofficially as Yasuko Jizo. It is a stone statue of a woman, her mouth painted with fresh lipstick.

Several women at the "Cinderella" symposium said that, as with Watanabe, money was not behind their urge to offer themselves for sale. The women said they craved something else that's less clear. Mayumi Watanabe, 29--no relation to Yasuko--said she had felt driven to take money for sex with men she dated, but then felt miserable.

Some observers suggest that many Japanese women have a hard time relating to men because typically onerous working hours and commutes keep fathers largely absent from their families. Moreover, sex here seems to have little context: Though pornography is ubiquitous--nude pictures appear in newspapers openly read on subways--there is no sexual education in schools, and Shinto and Buddhist religions serve more as philosophies than moral compasses.

Single professional women have a particularly tough lot in Japan because they fit into neither the overwhelmingly male professional world nor the traditional world: Those who do work are expected--and prodded--to marry, have children and leave the work force.

Victim Attended Prestigious University

Yasuko Watanabe was born in 1957, grew up in a well-to-do Tokyo neighborhood and attended prestigious Keio University, where she majored in economics. Her father died of cancer while she was in college. She felt a strong obligation to support her mother and sister.

Driven and goal-oriented, she followed in her father's footsteps to Tokyo Electric, one of only nine women hired in 1980 and among the few on the company's "career track." Nevertheless, like all women in the firm, she was required to wear a uniform, although the men were not. She detested making tea for her male colleagues and bosses, as female employees in Japan--no matter how successful--typically are required to do.

Her downfall seemed to have been triggered by jealousy over a female rival's selection to attend a program at Harvard University, author Sano said.

When the utility lent Watanabe temporarily to a quasi-governmental think tank a few years later, she considered it a demotion. She wanted a more prestigious appointment in the Foreign Ministry or Ministry of International Trade and Industry, Sano wrote. Nevertheless, a paper of hers on structural changes in household economics won her acclaim within the institute.

Her professional success didn't deter her from doubling at night in a hostess bar, where men pay high prices for women to flirt with and pour drinks for them.

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