Akihabara in Japan is a bustling hub crammed with stores that sell anything from electronics to manga to souvenirs. Yet, there is a darker side that attracts a very specific but sizeable audience. There is one street known as “JK alley” or “schoolgirl alley”. Here, underage girls – often dressed in school uniforms – ply a very unique trade under the watchful eyes of their “bosses”.

Older men will pay to spend time with the girls; this could range from getting their fortunes read, having a cup of tea, massages, or going for a walk. And in some cases, these “walking dates” turn out to be a front for prostitution where the underage girl will have sex with the man.

An annual review of human trafficking in Japan singled out JK walking dates, saying that they are often fronts for prostitution.

In 2016, Maud De Boer-Buquicchio, the UN special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography made a statement at the 31st session of the Human Rights Council. She said that she was highly concerned about the sexual commodification of children in the “JK” business, which targets high school-aged girls and facilitates their sexual abuse and exploitation.

“The problem exists, and we can ignore it, deny it, or find the most effective way of combatting it in order to better protect teenage girls in Japan,” she argued.

Fostered by Japan’s JK culture, which means joshi kosei or high school girl, images of young girls are depicted everywhere and used to sell everything. Young girls are especially popular in cartoons and comic books. This fetishisation of schoolgirls in Japanese society has steadily grown since the 1980s.

“Haruto Kakimoto”, a 30something old Japanese-British businessman, who spent a lot of time in Tokyo, said that the relationship between men and wanting to have sex with young girls is not something that is hidden away as it is in Western countries.

“You see guys reading these comic books about grown men having sex with little girls on the train all the time. It’s almost like a normal part of society,” he explained.

“You have to understand that Japan shut itself off for 2,000 years to the entire world. It didn’t have any influence from Christianity or Islam so sex was not seen as something that should be regulated or ruled. The taboos in Western countries surrounding sex because of religious guidelines, never happened in Japan so they are, by nature, far more sexually liberated.

“This “dirty old man” phrase we use in the West is not really used in Japan. Because they feel there is nothing wrong with having fantasies or perversions – even when you get older. So in a country where sex has never been regulated – it is monetised. They kind of see it as all men have fantasies and it is a natural part of human life. Guys are going to think about it and want to do it so they think they might as well provide outlets for it and monetise it.”

Jake Aldenstein is a journalist who spent more than 20 years investigating the Japanese underworld. Working closely with Vice News, he said in a documentary:

“You could sort of encourage education that would let women think of themselves as something other than sexual merchandise to be purchased by men. Part of the reason this Lolita culture exists in Japan is because the life and the opportunities for women are so bad. The society is one of the most misogynistic, sexist societies in a developed country in the world.  I would not want to be a woman here. “

This often means that vulnerable young girls, too often, get caught up in this sordid world of sexual perversion that caters to the desires of adult men. Most of the girls in JK alley are there because they were isolated at home or school, before ultimately ending up in the industry.

Because Japanese culture heavily focuses on honour, the girls feel trapped and unable to ask for help from their families due to not wanting to disappoint them. As such, most would prefer to face the strife of enforced prostitution than to face the shame of asking for help from loved ones.