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History of Prostitution in Japan: The Edo Period Part Three

Men's Cyzo - Original Japanese Date: March 9th, 2015
English Translation Published: August 14th, 2015

The Edo period was one of the longest periods of peace in Japanese history and also was considered the golden age of prostitutes and the brothel industry.

(Translator's note: This post is a continuation of a previous entry.)


Once clandestine to outside eyes, Japan's ages old system of prostitution was now on the international stage and quickly those belonging to this line of work found themselves liberated. Thus, the María Luz Incident also led to geishas and other 'entertainers of the night' being emancipated from their tea houses and brothels in the '1872 Ordinance Liberating All Geisha and Prostitutes.' This ordinance caused an extraordinary volte-face in how red light districts—both sanctioned and non-sanctioned—operated.

Official brothels found themselves out of business almost immediately. However, many instead of simply closing up shop re-branded themselves as conference halls and inns that happen to have attractive female staff.

Prostitution never went away of course. These inns basically were unchanged from the brothels they used to be with their prostitutes now working essentially freelance. The brothel industry Japan may have outwardly changed during the Meiji Restoration, but it never went away. These types of rental rooms still exist today and are found all over Tokyo and the nation as well. It's said over 50,000 women work in Japan work in the health (prostitution) industry.


Japanese high class entertainers over a river.


Westernization wasn't a gentle, smooth transition for Japan's brothel industry. The liberation of prostitutes may have sounded good on paper, but turning nearly an entire group of workers freelance overnight may have hurt more than helped. There also was the reintroduction of Christianity. Highly restricted in the Edo period, but now allowed to flourish saw even more western ideals creep into Japanese society. Soon enough, prostitution = evil was part of everyday vernacular. This thought process was led by vocal and burgeoning Christian female groups.

Their appeals may have had some merit as young women were often bought by brothels at a young age. However, their early lives were spent studying and becoming women of the world and only entertained men through physical means when they were of age. This definitely had its downside with destitute families finding the only way they could survive would be to sell their own kin into a kind of virtual slavery. It's a tough way of life because even those at the top such as the aforementioned tayuu are never truly free.

Prostitution saw new life after the WW2 when Japan was in a rush to recreate itself as a modern, industrialized nation free of its past burdens. We will learn more about this in the final part of our series.


Written by Miyuki Nakagawara


Men's Cyzo recommends this title to readers of this article.


(Translator's note: You can never truly enforce a prohibition on prostitution. It never works. The banning of brothels may have put an end to slavery, but with that came the risks of many women who may have been learned in the arts of entertainment in situations where street skills and knowing how to simply survive would have been paramount. Some could not make the change and others prospered. The Meiji Restoration was fast and relentless with change as old Japan was swept away for an industrialized future.)

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