Prostitution in Japan

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Tokyo Yoshiwara, antique postcard

Prostitution in Japan has existed throughout the country's history. While the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1956 states that "No person may either do prostitution or become the customer of it," various loopholes, liberal interpretations of the law, and loose enforcement have allowed the sex industry to prosper and earn an estimated 2.3 trillion yen ($24 billion dollars) a year, which accounts for 0.4 to 0.5% of the nation's GDP.[citation needed]

In Japan, the "sex industry" is not synonymous with prostitution. Since Japanese law defines prostitution as "intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment", most sex clubs offer only non-coital services to remain legal.[1] This has led Joan Sinclair, the author of Pink Box, to observe that the sex industry in Japan ironically "offer[s] absolutely everything imaginable but sex".[2]



From the 15th century, Chinese, Koreans and other East Asian visitors frequented brothels in Japan.[3]

This practice later continued among visitors from "the Western regions", mainly European traders who often came with their South Asian lascar crew (in addition to African crew members, in some cases).[4] This began with the arrival of Portuguese ships to Japan in the 16th century, when the local Japanese people assumed that the Portuguese were from Tenjiku ("Heavenly Abode"), the Japanese name for the Indian subcontinent (due to its importance as the birthplace of Buddhism), and that Christianity was a new "Indian faith". These mistaken assumptions were due to the Indian state of Goa being a central base for the Portuguese East India Company and also due to a significant portion of the crew on Portuguese ships being Indian Christians.[5]

Portuguese visitors and their South Asian and African crew members often engaged in slavery in Japan, where they bought or captured young Japanese women and girls, who were either used as sexual slaves on their ships or taken to Macau and other Portuguese colonies in Southeast Asia, the Americas,[4] and India, where there was a community of Japanese slaves and traders in Goa by the early 17th century.[6] Later European East India companies, including those of the Dutch and British, were involved in prostitution while visiting or staying in Japan.[7]

Shogunate era

Map of the Yoshiwara from 1846.

In 1617, the Tokugawa Shogunate issued an order restricting prostitution to certain areas on the outskirts of cities, known as yūkaku (遊廓、遊郭?, pleasure quarter). The three most famous were Yoshiwara in Edo (present-day Tokyo), Shinmachi in Osaka, and Shimabara in Kyoto.

Prostitutes and courtesans were licensed as yūjo (遊女), "women of pleasure", and ranked according to an elaborate hierarchy, with oiran and later tayū at the apex. The districts were walled and guarded for both taxation and access control. Rōnin, masterless samurai, were not allowed in and neither were the prostitutes let out, except to visit dying relatives and, once a year, for hanami (viewing cherry blossoms).

Prewar modern era

The opening of Japan and the subsequent flood of Western influences into Japan brought about a series of changes in the Meiji period. Japanese novelists, notably Higuchi Ichiyō, started to draw attention to the confinement and squalid existence of the lower-class prostitutes in the red-light districts. In 1908, Ministry of Home Affairs Ordinance No. 16 penalized unregulated prostitution.[citation needed]


Karayuki-san (唐行きさん "Ms. Gone-to-China"?) were Japanese women who traveled to East Asia and Southeast Asia in the second half of the 19th century to work as prostitutes. Many of these women were said to have originated from the Amakusa Islands of Kumamoto Prefecture, which had a large and long-stigmatized Japanese Christian community.[8]

Many of the women who went overseas to work as karayuki-san were the daughters of poor agricultural or fishing families. The mediators that arranged for the women to go overseas would search for girls of appropriate age in poor farming communities and pay their parents, telling them they were going overseas on public duty. The mediators would then make money by passing the girls onto people in the prostitution industry. With the money the mediators received, some would also go on to set up their own overseas brothels.[citation needed]

The end of the Meiji period was the golden age for karayuki-san, and the girls that would go on these overseas voyages were known fondly as joshigun (女子軍), or "army of girls". However, with the internationalization of Japan things began to change, and soon enough karayuki-san were considered shameful. During the 1910s and 1920s, Japanese officials overseas worked hard to eliminate Japanese brothels and maintain Japanese prestige.[9][10] Many of the Japanese prostitutes returned to Japan, but some remained.

After the Pacific War, the topic of karayuki-san was a little known fact of Japan's pre-war underbelly. But in 1972 Tomoko Yamazaki published Sandakan Brothel No. 8 which raised awareness of karayuki-san and encouraged further research and reporting.[citation needed]

The main destinations of karayuki-san included China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Borneo, Thailand, and Indonesia. They were often sent to Western colonies in Asia where there was a strong demand from Western military personnel and Chinese men.[11] There were cases of Japanese women being sent to places as far as Siberia, Manchuria, Hawaii, North America (California), and Africa (Zanzibar).

Non-Japanese Asian women working in Japan as dancers, singers, hostesses, and strippers from the second half of the 20th century are sometimes called japayuki-san (ジャパ行きさん, lit. "Miss Gone-to-Japan"), and have become the subject of much controversy.[citation needed] The word itself is derogatory.

Postwar era

Immediately after World War II, the Recreation and Amusement Association was formed by Naruhiko Higashikuni's government to organize brothels to serve the Allied armed forces occupying Japan. On 19 August 1945, the Home Ministry ordered local government offices to establish a prostitution service for Allied soldiers to preserve the "purity" of the "Japanese race". The official declaration stated that "Through the sacrifice of thousands of 'Okichis' of the Shōwa era, 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..."[12] Such clubs were soon established by cabinet councilor Yoshio Kodama and Ryoichi Sasakawa.

SCAP abolished the licensed prostitution system (including the RAA) in 1946, which led to the so-called akasen (赤線?, red line) system, under which licensed nightlife establishments offered sexual services under the guise of being an ordinary club or cafe. Local police authorities traditionally regulated the location of such establishments by drawing red lines on a map. In other areas, so-called "blue line" establishments offered sexual services under the guise of being restaurants, bars or other less strictly-regulated establishments. In Tokyo, the best-known "red line" districts were Yoshiwara and Shinjuku 2-chome, while the best-known "blue line" district was Kabuki-cho.

In 1947, Imperial Ordinance No. 9 punished persons for enticing women to act as prostitutes, but prostitution itself remained legal. Several bills were introduced in the Diet to add further legal penalties for soliciting prostitutes, but were not passed due to disputes over the appropriate extent of punishment.

On May 24, 1956, the Diet of Japan passed the Anti-Prostitution Law, which came into force in April 1958. The Anti-Prostitution Law criminalized the act of committing sexual intercourse in exchange for actual or promised compensation. This eliminated the "red line" and "blue line" systems, but allowed a number of paid sexual services to continue under "sexual entertainment" regulations, e.g. "soaplands" and "fashion health" parlors.

Religious connotations


The Shinto faith does not regard sex as a taboo.


Buddhist teachings regarding sex are quite reserved: "It is true to say that Buddhism, in keeping with the principle of the Middle Way, would advocate neither extreme puritanism nor extreme permissiveness".[13] Buddhism has different rules and protocols for those that are to live the Buddhist principles in the monasteries and the secular part of the [Shanga]. For the Buddhist monks or nuns, chastity is mandatory since they live on the premise of getting rid of any feelings of attachment. Their way of living is regulated by very strict rules concerning behavior, and of course this includes sex.[13][14] As for the secular Buddhists, there are no specific rules to be followed about sex; although, any kind of abuse is regarded as "misconduct".[15] Given the tolerance, respect and understanding that Buddha's teaching observe, and more specifically the respect for other members, the concept of prostitution is highly ill-advised in order to follow the Fourth Noble Truths. Although since Buddhism is such an old philosophy, the authors who talk openly about the relation of Buddhism and prostitution are very modern.


Christianity, which has a minor presence in Japan, regards prostitution as being highly immoral—see Proverbs 23:27–28[16] and Luke 7:36–50.

Prostitution today

Legal status

Article 3 of the Anti-Prostitution Law (売春防止法 Baishun Bōshi Hō?) of 1956[17] states that "No person may either do prostitution or become the customer of it", but no judicial penalty is defined for this act. Instead, the following are prohibited on pain of penalty: soliciting for purposes of prostitution, procuring a person for prostitution, coercing a person into prostitution, receiving compensation from the prostitution of others, inducing a person to be a prostitute by paying an "advance", concluding a contract for making a person a prostitute, furnishing a place for prostitution, engaging in the business of making a person a prostitute, and the furnishing of funds for prostitution.[18]

The definition of prostitution is strictly limited to coitus.[19] This means sale of numerous acts such as oral sex, anal sex, intercrural sex, and other non-coital sex acts are all legal. The Businesses Affecting Public Morals Regulation Law of 1948 (風俗営業取締法 Fūzoku Eigyō Torishimari Hō?),[20] amended in 1985 and 1999, regulates these businesses.


Soaplands town Yoshiwara (2008)

The sex industry in Japan uses a variety of names. Soaplands are bath houses where customers are soaped up and serviced by staff. Fashion health shops and pink salons are notionally massage or esthetic treatment parlors, and image clubs are themed versions of the same (see Cosplay). Call girls operate via delivery health services. Freelancers can get in contact with potential customers via deai sites (Internet Dating sites), and the actual act of prostitution is legally called enjo kōsai or "compensated dating" to avoid legal trouble. Kabukicho, an entertainment and red-light district in Shinjuku, Tokyo, measures only 0.34 km2, and has approximately 3,500 sex parlors, strip theaters, peep shows, "soaplands", 'lovers' banks, porno shops, sex telephone clubs, karaoke bars and clubs, etc.[citation needed]

According to National Police Agency records, out of 85 non-Japanese people arrested for prostitution offenses (売春防止法違反 Baishun Bōshihō Ihan?) in 2007, 37 (43.5%) were mainland Chinese and 13 (15.3%) were Thai, while Taiwanese and Koreans made up 12 (7.2%) each.[21]

Tokyo prostitution

In Tokyo, prostitution dates back several hundred years. In the early 17th century, first attempts were made to criminalize prostitution in Yoshiwara in Edo (present-day Tokyo). A law was passed which required prostitutes to register and work in secured facilities, its main purpose being for tax collection. Prostitutes were divided into classes or ranks, and the men of society would use the services of those afforded to their position in the city.[citation needed]

In modern times, Tokyo's prostitution trade is well regarded for its high class of services and large customer base.[citation needed] Because of Tokyo's position as a top 5 global business and trade city, prostitution continues to thrive in Tokyo. Clients on business trips or trade conventions, along with traditional tourists, continue to provide demands for Tokyo's sex industry, providing economic benefits.[citation needed]


Several terms have been used as euphemisms for the sex industry in Japan:

Human trafficking

Japan is a top destination for victims of human trafficking, according to a report produced by the UNODC.[22]

Women, men and children from East Asia, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Latin America are trafficked to Japan for commercial sexual exploitation.[23]

See also


  1. ^ Japan Times
  2. ^ Pink Box Japan
  3. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (2003), Interracial Intimacy in Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 48, ISBN 0-8264-6074-7 
  4. ^ a b Leupp, Gary P. (2003), Interracial Intimacy in Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 49, ISBN 0-8264-6074-7 
  5. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (2003), Interracial Intimacy in Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 35, ISBN 0-8264-6074-7 
  6. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (2003), Interracial Intimacy in Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 52, ISBN 0-8264-6074-7 
  7. ^ Leupp, Gary P. (2003), Interracial Intimacy in Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 50, ISBN 0-8264-6074-7 
  8. ^ Yamazaki, Tomoko; Sandakan Bordell Nr. 8; München 2005; ISBN 3-89129-406-9
  9. ^ Mayumi Yamamoto, "Spell of the Rebel, Monumental Apprehensions: Japanese Discourses On Pieter Erberveld", Indonesia 77 (April 2004):124–127
  10. ^ William Bradley Horton, "Comfort Women in Indonesia: A Consideration of the Prewar Socio-Legal Context in Indonesia and Japan", Ajiataiheiyotokyu 10(2008):144–146.
  11. ^ Books, UK: Google, 2003-08, ISBN 978-9971-69-267-4, 
  12. ^ Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the making of modern Japan, 2001, p. 538, citing Kinkabara Samon and Takemae Eiji, Showashi: kokumin non naka no haran to gekido no hanseiki-zohoban, 1989, p. 244.
  13. ^ a b "Buddhism and Sex". 2011-06-16. Retrieved 2012-08-03. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Sex and Buddhism - What Buddhism Teaches About Sex". Retrieved 2012-08-03. 
  16. ^ "What does the Bible say about prostitution? Will God forgive a prostitute?". Retrieved 2012-08-03. 
  17. ^ For the name, see WWWJDIC (link).
  18. ^ Hongo, Jun, "Law bends over backward to allow 'fuzoku'", Japan Times, 27 May 2011, p. 3.
  19. ^ Ministry of Justice (Hōmushō), Materials Concerning Prostitution and Its Control in Japan. Tokyo: Ministry of Justice, 1957, p. 32. OCLC no. 19432229. Cited in Sanders, Holly. "Indentured Servitude and the Abolition of Prostitution in Postwar Japan". Cambridge, Mass.: Program on U.S.-Japan Relations, Harvard University, 2006, p. 41.
  20. ^ AKA "Law to Regulate Adult Entertainment Businesses". Sanders, "Indentured Servitude and the Abolition of Prostitution in Postwar Japan", p. 34.
  21. ^ Rainichi Gaikokujin Hanzai no Kenkyo Jōkyō (Heisei 19-nen) (来日外国人犯罪の検挙状況(平成19年)?), p.20
  22. ^ BBC News
  23. ^ United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Further reading

  • Araki, Nobuyoshi. Tokyo Lucky Hole. Köln; New York: Taschen, 1997. ISBN 3-8228-8189-9. 768 pages. Black and white photographs of Shinjuku sex workers, clients, and businesses taken 1983–5.
  • Associated Press. "Women turn to selling sexual favors in Japan". Taipei Times, December 9, 2002, p. 11. Accessed 11 October 2006.
  • Bornoff, Nicholas. Pink Samurai: Love, Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan. New York: Pocket Books, 1991. ISBN 0-671-74265-5.
  • Clements, Steven Langhorne. Tokyo Pink Guide. Tokyo: Yenbooks, 1993. ISBN 0-8048-1915-7.
  • Constantine, Peter. Japan's Sex Trade: A Journey Through Japan's Erotic Subcultures. Tokyo: Yenbooks, 1993. ISBN 4-900737-00-3.
  • "The Day the Red Lights Went Out in Japan". MSN-Mainichi Daily News. April 1, 2008. Accessed April 2, 2008.
  • De Becker, J. E. The Nightless City ... or, The "History of the Yoshiwara Yūkwaku"., 4th ed. rev. Yokohama [etc.] M. Nössler & Co.; London, Probsthain & Co., 1905. ISBN 1-933330-38-4.
  • De Becker, J. E. The Nightless City: Geisha and Courtesan Life in Old Tokyo (reprint). Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2007. ISBN 0-486-45563-7.
  • De Mente, Boye Lafayette. Mizu Shobai: The Pleasure Girls and Flesh Pots of Japan. London: Ortolan Press, 1966.
  • De Mente, Boye Lafayette. Sex and the Japanese: The Sensual Side of Japan. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-8048-3826-7.
  • De Mente, Boye Lafayette. Tadahito Nadamoto (illus.). Some Prefer Geisha: The Lively Art of Mistress Keeping in Japan. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1966.
  • Fitzpatrick, William. Tokyo After Dark. New York: McFadden Books, 1965.
  • French, Howard W. "Japan's Red Light 'Scouts' and Their Gullible Discoveries". The New York Times. November 15, 2001. Accessed 11 October 2006.
  • Goodwin, Janet R. Selling Songs and Smiles: The Sex Trade in Heian and Kamakura Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007. ISBN 0-8248-3068-7, ISBN 0-8248-3097-0.
  • Japan The Trafficking of Women.
  • Kamiyama, Masuo. "The day Japan's red lights flickered out". MSN-Mainichi Daily News. February 25, 2006. Accessed 11 October 2006.
  • Kattoulas, Velisarios. "Human Trafficking: Bright Lights, Brutal Life". Far East Economic Review. August 3, 2000. Accessed 11 October 2006.
  • Longstreet, Stephen, and Ethel Longstreet. Yoshiwara: City of the Senses. New York: McKay, 1970.
  • McMurtrie, Douglas C. Ancient Prostitution in Japan. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-4253-7206-6. Originally published in Stone, Lee Alexander (ed.). The Story of Phallicism volume 2. Chicago: Pascal Covici, 1927. Reprinted Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-7661-4115-2.
  • Seigle, Cecilia Segawa. Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of ihe Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993. ISBN 0-8248-1488-6.
  • Sinclair, Joan (2006). Pink Box: Inside Japan's Sex Clubs. New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0-8109-9259-0. 
  • The World's Oldest Debate? Prostitution and the State in Imperial Japan, 1900–1945
  • Talmadge, Eric. Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath. Tokyo ; New York: Kodansha International, 2006. ISBN 4-7700-3020-7.
  • Yokoyama, M. "Analysis of Prostitution in Japan". International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 19, no. 1 (1995): 47–60.
  • Yokoyama, M. "Emergence of Anti-Prostitution Law in Japan—Analysis from Sociology of Criminal Law". International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 17, no. 2 (1993): 211–218.

External links