Japanese ‘sugar baby’ sent to prison after swindling men out of $1 million and selling a guide on how to do it

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“Sugar babies,” or people who typically seek financial support from an older romantic partner, are used to receiving a lot, be it lavish jewelry, vacations, or cars—but one 25-year-old woman got something far less exciting: a prison sentence.

Mai Watanabe, a 25-year-old Japanese woman, was sentenced to a nine-year prison term and fined the equivalent of $51,700 by the Nagoya District Court on Monday for defrauding three men out of about $1 million. Watanabe—who goes by the moniker “Itadakijoshi Riri-chan,” which roughly translates to “Sugar Baby Riri”—cheated the so-called “sugar daddies” through romantic scams, and sold a manual detailing how others could do the same.

Watanabe met the men through social media and dating apps, The Japan Times reported. She spent the proceeds on a man she loved, according to the outlet, with the aim of making him the best salesman at a club in Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district. The publication said the judge presiding over the case, Yoichi Omura, deemed that Watanabe’s motives were “selfish,” leaving no room for leniency from the court. He added that “she took advantage of [the victims’] feelings for her.” Her case is an extreme example of the potential disasters that brew within the sugar dating world—which include anything from fraud, sexual exploitation, violence, and trafficking—and can often go overlooked.

Her moniker, “Itadakijoshi,” literally translates to “girls who receive,” according to a list of Japan’s buzzwords, and refers to younger women who date or are intimate with older men in exchange for financial benefits. The term was nominated as one of Japan’s top buzzwords of 2023. But despite its popularity, sugar dating is an inherently exploitative scenario, according to a study that analyzed the economic compensation involved with sugaring, and could be considered a “veiled form of prostitution” if the relationship is transactional in a sexual nature. The charges against Watanabe, though, don’t include such allegations.

Watanabe’s trial took place in December, The Japan Times reported, and she was charged with defrauding three men of about $1 million between 2021 and 2023 and for helping a 21-year-old woman defraud two other men of a total of roughly $64,594. Watanabe sold the woman a manual in 2022 titled, “A Reference Book for Sugar Babies,” in the Japanese city of Nagoya. During the trial, Watanabe pleaded guilty, the outlet reported, stating she “thought it was fair game to commit fraud for the sake of the host,” but also added that she “did something really bad.”

The charges against her also include income tax evasion and failing to declare about $258,377—her income for two years through 2022. 

Sugar dating and related scams are far from uncommon. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, there were 64,003 reports of romance fraud in 2023, which caused a total loss of more than $1.1 billion and a median loss of $2,000 per person. It’s the highest reported loss of any form of imposter scam, the FTC wrote in a report, and the losses suggest that financial consequences of romantic fraud “can be devastating.”    

Dating apps and social media tend to be the spots potential sugar scammers look to first, according to a 2023 report by the commission. That’s where nearly 60% of people who were victims of fraud through a romance hoax first made contact with the scammer. From there, according to the report, the sweet talk quickly moves to messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Google Chat or Telegram.

Sugar dating is most prevalent among young women in their 20s and older men who are often financially stable or wealthy, according to a Ball State University thesis that analyzed college-aged women’s motivations for sugar dating. The thesis found the most important reason college-aged women sugar date is to get financial help for their household expenses and education fees. Luxury motivations, like going out to nice dinners, shopping, and taking expensive vacations, were also rated as highly important–while other traditional relationship expectations, like finding a long-term romantic partner and supporting children, were rated as less important motivators. 

To be sure, the financial factor is critical. Apps like Seeking, a popular platform for sugar daters, often offer subtle encouragement of the arrangements. Seeking’s website implores you to “experience the luxury lifestyle,” and describes the platform as a place “where beautiful, wealthy and successful people connect.” On average, sugar babies who are members of Seeking can receive about $2,200 per month, the Ball State University thesis found. For sugar daddies, the main motivations to sugar date include companionship, engaging and intellectual conversation, and intimacy. According to the thesis, sites like Seeking “seem to be aware of these preferences and offer special membership perks to sugar babies that register using a university email address,” to encourage educated women to join the platform.  

Research about sugar dating is relatively limited, according to a National Center on Sexual Exploitation report, but the center states “the majority of sugar dating and other similar sex for money” arrangements are illegal, as they are forms of prostitution. Sugar babies themselves “have noted how often sex is expected,” the report states, with one sugar baby saying that even if “sex was never a requirement on SeekingArrangement, I found it was often the main aspiration for these men.”

The report implores that state level prostitution statutes “should reflect this reality, regardless of the wealth of the parties involved.”

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