Marriage is a woman’s grave. - Old Japanese saying
The subject of Japanese ideas about prostitution has come up in my writings, readings and discussions several times lately, so I will take that as a sign that it’s time to talk about the subject. Obviously this column only gives me room for a very limited overview of the subject, but if anyone is interested there are numerous online resources which explore it in far greater depth. The single most important thing to remember in any discussion of Japanese sexuality is that the Japanese are far more pragmatic about sex than we in the West; sex is not taboo in Shinto, and Japanese women are not brainwashed into thinking of sex as frightening, shameful or humiliating as are Western women. The result of this is that prostitution, though certainly not a choice for all women any more than it is in the West, is not viewed as an inherently degrading profession and historically might offer considerably more freedom and status to women than they would find inside the traditionally rigid and formal Japanese marriage.
Until 1617 prostitution was completely legal in Japan, but in that year the Tokugawa Shogunate issued an order restricting prostitution to certain areas on the outskirts of cities. Yujo (“women of pleasure”) were licensed and ranked according to an elaborate hierarchy, with oiran (courtesans) at the top and brothel girls (who were essentially slaves) at the bottom. These “red-light districts” were not implemented for the moralistic reasons which spurred their creation in the West, but rather to enforce taxation and keep out undesirables such as ronin (masterless samurai); prostitutes were also not allowed to leave the district except under certain rigidly-controlled circumstances. Soon the districts grew into self-contained towns which offered every kind of entertainment a man might want, all entirely run by women. Once a girl became a prostitute her birth-rank ceased to matter, and her status was determined by such factors as beauty, personality, intelligence, education and artistic skills. Even among the oiran there were ranks, of which the highest were the tayu, courtesans fit to entertain nobles. On the other end of the scale, the services of brothel girls were available even to foreigners; in earlier times these were mostly Chinese and Koreans, but later Indians and Portuguese as well. Some of these hapless whores were even sold into slavery to the Portuguese, who either used them as sex-slaves on their ships or resold them in Macau, Goa and even Brazil.
The oiran, on the other hand, enjoyed a status far greater than that of married women, just as the hetaerae of Ancient Greece and the cortigiana of Renaissance Italy did (and for the same reasons). Unlike their Occidental sisters, however, the oiran were not brought down by patriarchs jealous of their power, wealth and influence but rather by their own high standards. Because they were isolated in the “Flower and Willow World” (as their subculture was called) their customs, fashions, manners and even language remained static and became increasingly formal; they required a formal invitation from clients and would go forth to see them in elaborate processions accompanied by servants. Their costumes became more and more ornate, complex and proscribed and even the entertainments they offered were only those which had been practiced for centuries. Eventually they became so detached from the world of men that not even the nobles could relate to them any longer, and by the early 18th century they were supplanted by a new society of courtesans, the geisha; the last known oiran died in 1761.
Though the geisha wore simpler versions of the fashions created by the oiran, they made an effort to remain approachable by speaking in the vernacular dialect, practicing the popular entertainments favored by their clientele and making themselves available to casual visits from customers. They soon replaced the oiran entirely and became so popular by the late 18th century that they were often hired to entertain at banquets and other events outside of the walled pleasure districts, thus running afoul of government regulations and exposing themselves to arrest and forcible return to the districts. But since their popularity continued to increase despite governmental crackdowns, laws were passed which allowed the geisha to operate outside of the districts on condition that they could not offer sexual services while outside. By the end of the century geisha were legally distinguished from prostitutes and forbidden to sell sex at all, though of course many continued to do so just as prostitutes under every prohibitionist regime do. The tradition that “legitimate” geisha do not sell sex dates from this period, and to this day many people both in Japan and abroad insist that geisha are not prostitutes, despite a controversial 1872 law which proposed to apply the term “geisha” to all prostitutes and the existence of diaries from the women themselves dating as late as the 1930s which speak of selling sex. The safest assumption seems to me that, though geisha were legally prohibited from prostitution and publicly avowed that they never practiced it, in actuality many of them did just as many women of every time and place do.
After Japan was opened to Western influence in the second half of the 19th century, the Japanese began to adopt more Western notions of control over prostitutes and passed a number of new laws which made it harder to do business even in the red-light districts. This led to the trend of many young women from poor families who would once have gone to the districts seeking employment in China, Korea and Thailand instead; these women were called karayuki-san (literally, “Miss Gone-overseas”) and with them came a new profession for Japan: The pimp. These men made a career of recruiting poor young women, mostly from fishing families, and then arranging for their travel to Asian brothels (some even went as far as Zanzibar, Hawaii and California). Thus as so often happens when governments enact laws to “protect” whores, it actually opens them up for exploitation by unprincipled men. By the 1910s the Japanese government began to see this asjoshigun (“army of girls”) as shameful and damaging to Japanese prestige, and so enacted a series of initiatives throughout the ‘10s and ‘20s to bring expatriate Japanese prostitutes home.
Soon after this the Japanese began expanding their empire into Asia, and almost immediately discovered that sexually frustrated soldiers far from home have a tendency to rape local women and thereby breed resentment in the occupied territories; to prevent this it was decided to open military brothels (euphemistically referred to as “comfort stations”) staffed with Japanese prostitutes (“comfort women”). But as Japan continued to expand its Asian presence, the military soon ran out of volunteers and began actively recruiting prostitutes in China and Korea. When this strategy failed to obtain whores in the required numbers officials resorted first to misrepresentation (recruiting poor women as prostitutes throughout the Empire by greatly overstating the pay they would receive), then to deception (women were told they were being recruited as nurses or factory workers), and eventually to straightforward abduction. It is estimated that about 200,000 women were enslaved in these wartime brothels, though many Japanese propagandists both in and out of the government claim the number was much lower (some claim as few as 20,000) and deny that any women were ever forced despite the testimony of thousands of victims. Only 25% of the victims survived, and most of the survivors were rendered sterile by disease and physical trauma. The issue remains controversial to this day, and historical revisionism of the Holocaust Denial type has become quite popular in recent years.
One aspect of the “comfort station” practice which is rarely discussed, though, is that it did not end when the war did; its staff and clientele merely changed. The Japanese government recognized that just as its own horny soldiers had tended to rape women in territories they had occupied, so the Allied troops now posed the same danger in Japan. A government bureau whose English name was the Recreation and Amusement Association was therefore formed to set up and administrate “comfort stations” to service the occupying army. The official declaration stated that “…we shall construct a dike to hold back the mad frenzy of the occupation troops and cultivate and preserve the purity of our race long into the future…” The stations were abolished a year later, then in 1947 the act of recruiting women as prostitutes was made illegal despite the fact that the government itself was doing so the year before! Though the official brothels were gone, independent Japanese prostitutes (who often dressed as geishasand styled themselves “geisha girls”) continued to do brisk business with the troops; the idea of injecting silicone gel into a woman’s breasts to enlarge them was first developed by Japanese doctors after repeated requests from hookers eager to enhance their desirability to American customers. But whether because of rape, amateur activities or Japanese prostitutes being less scrupulous about condom use than their Western sisters, venereal disease rates among American troops soared and under intense pressure from the US, the Japanese government legally banned prostitution for the very first time in 1956.
Even in this case, however, Japan did things differently from Western nations. Prostitution was defined only as vaginal intercourse for pay; every other form of commercial sex (including oral and anal sex) is completely legal! Besides the usual array of call girls, escorts, brothels (including themed brothels where the girls dress as popular anime characters), strip clubs and massage parlors there are also spas and bathhouses where sexual services are available in addition to the mundane ones. And though there are still a small number of geisha, the exclusive modern practitioners of the art absolutely disdain sexual services (unless kept by a patron) due to the desire to maintain tradition and to keep for themselves and the men who appreciate them a pale remnant of the once-extensive “Flower and Willow World” separate and distinct from the noise and bustle of the thriving Japanese sex trade.