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Look for Yoshiwara on the map and you won’t find it. Officially, the name does not exist anymore, the Taito Ward district having been renamed Senzoku 4 Chome. The area itself, though located in central Tokyo (not very far from Asakusa’s tourist attractions), is cut off from the rest of the city as it is relatively far from any train or subway station, and nobody ends up there by chance.
To put it simply, Yoshiwara is one of those districts that both the authorities and most Tokyo residents try not to think about.
But official topography aside, everybody knows Yoshiwara; even those people – the great majority – who have never set foot there. After all, this land of carnal pleasures has been there for more than 400 years.
Yoshiwara is, together with Kabukicho, one of Tokyo’s and Japan’s most famous red-light districts. But while in Kabukicho the naughty places share space with eateries, cafes and even a multiplex, Yoshiwara’s quiet streets are row upon row of soaplands and brothels occasionally interrupted by a convenience store, cheap hotel or odd shop catering to the local working population. There are so many, in fact, that they occupy four full city blocks.
Each entrance is patrolled by at least one dark-suited tout man. In the past, they may have tried to lure passersby inside, but with the advent of the internet, most guests now make reservations in advance, so the guys in the street’s main job is to welcome customers and keep unwanted people away. This includes foreigners. Indeed, Japan may be trying to lure as many Asian and Western tourists as possible, but so far, and with few exceptions, the sex industry has been immune to the lure of foreign currency.
Another thing that distinguishes Yoshiwara from Kabukicho and other similar districts is its drabness and undistinguished character. Seen from the outside, all those gray, anonymous-looking exteriors are hardly picture-worthy. So if you plan to add some salacious photos to your Instagram page, save yourself a trip to Senzoku and look elsewhere. Even inside, things don’t improve much. Gone is the elegance and pageantry of the good old days, when high-ranking oiran welcomed their customers wearing gorgeous kimonos. Today’s soaplands, differently from hostess clubs (at least the high-end Ginza bars), are gaudy, often tacky places. After all, their customers couldn’t care less about their interiors and atmosphere. They are not interested in chandeliers, an air of sophistication, or intelligent chit-chat. They only want one thing and one thing only.
The Yoshiwara soapland is the result of the meeting (or the mating, if you prefer) of two different strands of social history: public bathing and mercenary sex. Let’s have a look at the former one first. The original models for the Japanese public baths were born in India and arrived in Japan through China in the Nara period (710-784). At first, they could only be found in Buddhist temples and were exclusively used by the priests and sick people. In fact, we have to wait until the Kamakura period (1185-1333) to find the first mentioning of a commercial bathhouse. Like their religious predecessors, these mixed-sex establishments were closer to steam baths as there were no faucets on the premises and each customer only received a small ration of water.
Things became “interesting” between the 16th and 17th centuries, when bathhouses added a second floor where guests could relax and enjoy a cup of tea after their bath. They even began to hire female attendants who first washed the guests’ backs, then joined them on the second floor after hours and entertained them by playing the shamisen and doing naughtier tricks. The government tried to ban this practice more than once during the Edo period (1603-1867) and finally succeeded in 1841, when the baths attendants were forcibly moved to Yoshiwara, by then the city’s official red-light district. Finally, the banning of mixed bathing in 1890 put an end to the selling of sex in public baths.
However, laws and rules can hardly stop people’s desire to have a good time. Fast forward to 1951, when a massage parlor called Tokyo Hot Springs started offering Turkish baths (i.e. little sauna boxes). Similar establishments popped up all over the country, and in no time, the so-called Miss Turkeys who staffed the private rooms began to offer a variety of more titillating services.
The so-called shasei sangyo (ejaculation industry) has thrived in Tokyo since future shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu made the place (then called Edo) his capital. Planning to turn the small village into a city, Ieyasu ordered large-scale construction work that included land reclamation of Edo Bay, river improvement, the digging of new canals and moats, and a system to supply the city with water. The construction rush attracted tens of thousands of men, so much so that by 1733, according to government records, out of a population of 540,000, only 200,000 were women. These figures, moreover, did not include the 500,000-man strong samurai contingent.
By this time, the Yoshiwara red-light district had been open for more than a century. First established in 1617 near Nihonbashi, in 1656 it was moved to its present location north of Asakusa (then the city edge) and promptly burned down – together with the rest of Edo – one year later. It was damaged again by fire in 1913 and nearly destroyed by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, but it was rebuilt every time and remained in business until prostitution was finally outlawed in 1958.
This, of course, is not the end of our story. Indeed, it’s just the beginning. Common brothels may have disappeared – or just went deep underground – but the officially innocuous Turkish baths were still around. Many of them moved into Yoshiwara and by 1960 were offering sex again. About ten years later, there were more than 200 in Tokyo and more than 1000 across Japan.
As a humorous aside, the name soapland was born in 1985 after the Turkish Embassy in Tokyo started complaining about their country being associated with prostitution. Always careful not to run afoul of the authorities, the 110-member trade association of Turkish bathhouse owners was quick to respond to the diplomatic crisis: with a brilliant stroke of genius, they held a nationwide contest to find a new name. Eventually, they got 2,200 suggestions, and the name “soapland” (the brainchild of a Tokyo office worker) came up on top.
Today, soaplands must fight the competition of a variety of often cheaper sexual services (from “fashion health” massage parlors to pink salons) but their unique mix of bathing and sex still attracts a satisfying number of loyal customers. Though prostitution is still officially verboten in Japan, these places remain in business because they are registered with the authorities under the classification of “private room bathhouse.” In other words, the customers officially pay only to have an assisted bath. What happens during or after the bathing is another story.
Technically, the girls are self-employed and rent their rooms from the soapland. They are either responsible for buying their own work equipment (lotions, condoms, towels, etc.) or the soapland provide them for a fee.
The police, of course, know why guys keep flocking to Yoshiwara, but they usually let them be as long as they keep a low profile. Only once in a while, they come up with a reason to crack down on them, especially after some incident appears in the news. The other notable time when they made their presence felt was during the buildup to the 1964 Olympic Games. Aiming at showcasing a clean, wholesome country to the foreign visitors, the government decided to put the squeeze on those establishments that threatened to blemish Japan’s international image. At that point, the bath association came up with its own set of regulations in a show of “voluntary” self-restraint (never mind the new rules were never carried out). Since then, the whole industry has kept moving with the tides, adapting to circumstances while striving to offer their clientele an impeccably “clean” service.
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