Prostitution in Japan

Tokyo's Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, antique postcard
Prostitution at Ahiduoka in Japan, circa 1890. Kusakabe Kimbei.

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," 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) a year.[1]

In Japan, the "sex industry" (fūzoku 風俗, literally "public morals") is not synonymous with prostitution. Since Japanese law defines prostitution as "intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment," most fūzoku offer only non-coital services, such as conversation, dancing or bathing, to remain legal.[2] Nevertheless, polls by MiW and the National Women's Education Center of Japan have found that between 20% and 40% of Japanese men have paid for sex.[3]


From the 15th century, Chinese, Koreans and other East Asian visitors frequented brothels in Japan.[4]

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).[5] 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 (天竺, "Heavenly Abode"), the ancient Chinese name, thus later 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 due to a significant portion of the crew on Portuguese ships being Indian Christians.[6]

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,[5] and India, where they were a community of Japanese slaves and traders in Goa by the early 17th century.[7] Later European East India companies, including those of the Dutch and British, were involved in prostitution while visiting or staying in Japan.[8]

Edo 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 tayū and later oiran at the apex. The districts were walled and guarded for 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 1872, the María Luz Incident led Government of Meiji Japan to make a new legislation, emancipating burakumin outcasts, prostitutes and other forms of bonded labor in Japan.[9] The emancipating law for prostitution was named Geishougi kaihou rei (芸娼妓解放令). In 1900, the Japanese Government promulgated Ordinance No. 44, Shogi torishimari kisoku(娼妓取締規則), restricting the labor conditions of prostitution.

In 1908, the Ministry of Home Affairs' Ordinance No. 16 penalized unregulated prostitution.


Main article: Karayuki-san

Karayuki-san was the name given to Japanese girls and women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were trafficked from poverty stricken agricultural prefectures in Japan to destinations in East Asia, Southeast Asia, Siberia (Russian Far East), Manchuria, and British India to serve as prostitutes and sexually serviced men from a variety of races, including Chinese, Europeans, native Southeast Asians, and others.

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. This prostitution system was similar to the comfort system, because the Japanese police force was responsible for mobilizing the women to serve in these stations similarly to the way that Japanese Military during the Pacific War mobilized women. The police forces mobilized both licensed and unlicensed prostitutes to serve in these camps.[10] 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."[11] 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 and allowed a number of paid sexual services to continue under "sexual entertainment" regulations, e.g., "soaplands" and "fashion health" parlors.

In 2013, Toru Hashimoto, co-leads the Japan Restoration Party proposed “There are places where people can legally release their sexual energy in Japan,” and “Unless they make use of these facilities, it will be difficult to control the sexual energies of the wild Marines.”[12] However, U.S. Department of State criticized remarks of Hashimoto.[13]

Religious connotations


The Shinto faith does not regard sex as a taboo.[14]


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."[15] Buddhism has 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 this includes sex.[15][16]

As for the secular Buddhists, there are no specific rules to be followed about sex; although any kind of abuse is regarded as "misconduct."[17] While Buddhism is an old philosophy, the authors who talk openly about the relation of Buddhism and prostitution are very modern [source needed] .

Prostitution today

Article 3 of the Anti-Prostitution Law (売春防止法 Baishun Bōshi Hō) of 1956[18] 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.[19]

The definition of prostitution is strictly limited to coitus.[20] This means sale of numerous acts such as oral sex, anal sex, mammary intercourse and other non-coital sex acts are legal. The Businesses Affecting Public Morals Regulation Law of 1948 (風俗営業取締法 Fūzoku Eigyō Torishimari Hō),[21] 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; image clubs are themed versions of the same. 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.[22]

Over 150,000 non-Japanese women are involved in prostitution in Japan. According to National Police Agency records, out of 50 non-Japanese people arrested for prostitution offences (売春防止法違反) in 2013, 31 (62%) were mainland Chinese, 13 (26%) were Koreans and 4 (8%) were Thai.[23]

Currently, there are a few brothel locations in and near Osaka left(actual names ending with the same word), which are known to be owned and patrolled by Yakuzas and disguised as eateries offering tea and candies for a very expensive fee to circumvent laws; unlike other places like most soaplands, they accept non-Japanese ,such as Korean men who visit there due to Korea's tough and actually enforced anti-prostitution laws. A few dozen Koreans are known to be have been caught after returning home for visiting an Osaka brothel, through activities of intelligence agencies which are in charge of prosecuting overseas prostitution there,or by tracking reviews posted online. Chinese(for whom prostitution is not a criminal offence) and other foreign nationals also visit these places.Photography is strictly prohibited there and prohibition enforced by Yakuzas who patrol the area in vans.

Tokyo prostitution

In Tokyo, prostitution dates back several hundred years. In the early 17th century, the first attempts were made to regulate prostitution in the Yoshiwara district of Edo (present-day Tokyo). A law was passed that required prostitutes to register and work in secured facilities, its main purpose being for tax collection.

Because of Tokyo's position as a top five global business and trade city, prostitution continues to thrive in Tokyo.


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

Human trafficking

According to a 2006 report produced by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Japan was at that time one of the top nine destination countries for victims of human trafficking.[24] A United States Department of State report in 2009 said that women and children from East Asia, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Latin America were being trafficked to Japan for commercial sexual exploitation.[25]

See also


  1. "Japanese Xenophobic Sex Industry Stereotyping Foreigners". Tokyo Night Style. March 19, 2016. Retrieved July 23, 2016.
  2. "Law bends over backward to allow 'fuzoku'", Japan Times, May 27, 2008.
  3. Thompson, Nevin. "Is Japan Having Sex?". GlobalVoices. Retrieved 28 February 2016.
  4. Leupp 2003, p. 48.
  5. 1 2 Leupp 2003, p. 49.
  6. Leupp 2003, p. 35.
  7. Leupp 2003, p. 52.
  8. Leupp 2003, p. 50.
  9. Downer, Leslie, Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha, Broadway,ISBN 0-7679-0490-7, page 97
  10. Yuki Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation, Asia's Transformations (NEW York: Routhledge, 2002)133-135.
  11. 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.
  12. Slavin, Erik (May 14, 2013). "Osaka mayor: 'Wild Marines' should consider using prostitutes". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved 2013-05-19.
  13. "Hashimoto remarks 'outrageous and offensive': U.S. State Department". Kyodo. Japan Times. 17 May 2013. Retrieved 2013-05-19.
  14. Velgus, Justin (9 November 2012). "Why Japanese People Are Comfortable With Nakedness". Gaijin Pot. Retrieved 10 December 2015. While sexuality is not encouraged in most Western religions, Japan’s native Shinto religion is more open-minded… Shinto and Buddhism, both practiced and often blended in Japanese beliefs, do not consider most forms of sexuality to be sacrilegious.
  15. 1 2 "Buddhism and Sex". 2011-06-16. Retrieved 2012-08-03.
  16. "The Rules for Buddhist Monks and Nuns" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-10-24.
  17. "Sex and Buddhism - What Buddhism Teaches About Sex". Retrieved 2012-08-03.
  18. For the name, see WWWJDIC (link).
  19. Hongo, Jun, "Law bends over backward to allow 'fuzoku'", Japan Times, 27 May 2011, p. 3.
  20. 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.
  21. AKA "Law to Regulate Adult Entertainment Businesses". Sanders, "Indentured Servitude and the Abolition of Prostitution in Postwar Japan", p. 34.
  22. "Kabukicho Adult Entertainment List".
  23. "来日外国人犯罪の検挙状況(平成25年)【訂正版】" (PDF). National Police Agency. 24 October 2014. p. 44.
  24. "Special Reports | UN highlights human trafficking". BBC News. 2007-03-26. Retrieved 2013-10-24.
  25. "Refworld | Trafficking in Persons Report 2009 - Japan". 2009-06-16. Archived from the original on 2012-11-20. Retrieved 2013-10-24.

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.
  • Leupp, Gary P. (2003). Interracial Intimacy in Japan. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0-8264-6074-7. 
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