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History of Prostitution in Japan: The Edo Period Part Two

Men's Cyzo - Original Japanese Date: March 9th, 2015
English Translation Published: August 12th, 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.)


Red light districts of the Edo period were not for common folk. They were priced far out of the reach of the working class. Of course even those on tighter budgets enjoyed sampling a sliver of what was offered here, thus lower priced alternatives came into being called okabasho which also translates somewhat as 'red light district'. These were more numerous than the three official ones and remnants exist even today in various parts of Tokyo. Women who worked in okabasho-designated areas generally could be considered prostitutes—or jyorou (which you should not call anyone today as it is an extremely prejudiced word!).

The types of jyorou were numerous and they can be considered the foundation of Japan's modern-day brothel industry. One such example were yuna--women of the bathhouse. Because firewood was an expensive commodity during the Edo period, townspeople tended to bathe in communal bathhouses called sento. Yuna, who helped bathed customers during business hours and sometimes went further than that after, could be considered the ancestors to modern day soapland queens. At their peak, over 200 yuna-staffed bathhouses existed in the Tokyo area alone.


Japanese yuna at work.

Other types of Edo period prostitutes also existed: there were the traditional street walkers called yodaka along with meshimorionna whom worked as maids at inn while also selling their bodies and of course, miko never totally left the picture. This truly was the golden age of the Japanese brothel that eclipses even what's available today.

Of course, even under the isolationist rule-set crafted by the Tokugawa shogunate who were the de facto leaders during the Edo period, western influences still managed to find their way into the country with the brothel industry not being immune. Influences were light until something disastrous happened during the turbulent years following the collapse of the Tokugawa regime during what's now known as the Meiji Restoration: the María Luz Incident.

During the late 19th century, a Peruvian vessel found itself damaged greatly from a harsh storm and took refuge in Japanese waters within the port of Yokohama. On board were hundreds of Chinese 'slaves' (the article uses the word for slave here, but the crux of the issue as noted in Wikipedia is whether they were actual 'slaves' or 'indentured servants'.) and several managed to escape to an English vessel while their boat was being repaired. The trial that followed was one of international interest that featured lawyers not only from Japan, but from England as well.

The trial took a rather interesting turn when the issue of how apprenticeships and prostitutes were classed in terms of indentured servants versus all out slavery. Ōe Taku, representing the interests of Japan insisted that all the Chinese were indeed slaves and should be set free. However, he also referenced the classification of prostitutes as the damning example of his country's own questionable practices.


To be concluded...


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


Written by Miyuki Nakagawara


(Translator's note: Just how the Japanese sex industry features a wide classification of the types of individuals taking part, the Edo period paved the way. From street walkers to Sauna Ladies to full-fledged entertainers charging serious money, there was something for everyone.)

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