Why Japan Needed Prostitution

Why Japan Needed Prostitution

In the early 1930s, the prostitution abolition movement — led by women’s, Christian, and socialist groups — strongly petitioned the Home Ministry to abandon the “license system” that essentially legalized the world’s oldest profession in Japan. After mounting domestic and international pressure to stop condoning the practice, the Home Ministry announced in 1934 an intention to abolish Japan’s system of licensed prostitution.

Prostitution, however, stayed legal in Japan until 1958. What got in the way of bureaucratic action?

The pimps.

Their official lobby — National Federation of the Brothel Trade — sponsored and mobilized a large group of Diet members to fight against any government moves to outlaw licensed prostitution. In his excellent book on “moral suasion” campaigns in early 20th century Japan Molding Japanese Minds, Sheldon Garon recalls the following anecdote related to the pimp-politician pushback (bold mine):

Brothel owners made large contributions to the political parties, and they were not shy about offering free favors to the many politicians who frequented the quarters.

Nor were the friends of the brothels within the Diet shy about defending one of Japan’s “beautiful customs.” Their unabashed support of the license system sharply contrasts with the relucatance of late nineteenth-century French parliamentarians to discuss the question of prostitution openly. When Purity Society (純潔会) members in 1931 introduced a bill in the Lower House that would abolish licensed prostitution, Yamazaki Dennosuke responded with a speech laced with obscenities and graphic language. Since lust was absolute, he argued, to try to repress it would only bring on masturbation, the chief cause of respiratory problems. (105)

Faced with this tripartite argument on the grounds of business, culture, and public health, the government had no choice but to back down, and johns everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief with their healthy, healthy lungs.

W. David MARX
November 17, 2008

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

10 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    Very good film about this issue as it played out in the mid 1950s –

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048933/

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    Your comment gives this post too much credit. The part before the quote is just set-up for the punchline.

  3. Jim O\'Connell Says:

    Incomprehensible that they would mention respiratory problems when tuberculosis was rampant in the licensed areas such as Yoshiwara throughout much of its history.

    Along with syphilis, TB brought the life expectancy of a common brothel prostitute to less than thirty years old.

    The pressure to change the laws was largely felt to be a foreign pressure. The girls themselves were seen as disposable and less than human, their spent bodies literally tossed away when they were used up, as I wrote about in my recent piece about the nearby temple that holds 20,000 of their souls:
    http://mmdc.net/blog/2008/10/28/the-throw-away-temple/

    Though it was made illegal in 1958, prostitution continues in exactly the same area as the old licensed district of Yoshiwara. The brothels are now “Soap Lands” that provide the same function as their predecessors. In research ing the quarter, I’ve walked not only through the area, but along its perimeter, confirming my suspicion that it had not spread outside the long gone wall and moat.

    There are, of course, ways around the laws, just as gambling goes on, via the TUC shops near the pachinko parlors.

    Probably the most significant difference between now and then is that now we have penicillin and condoms.

    While I was photographing the front of the grave at Jokanji, an old man came to pay his respects and said to me “Japanese people sure were terrible back then, weren’t they?”
    I held my tongue and just nodded…

  4. xee Says:

    oh, Mr O’Connell, i meant to ask: was the comment about exotic dancers at the the end of that post an unintentional ironic juxtaposition, or an intentional one?

  5. youngjames Says:

    “Since lust was absolute, he argued, to try to repress it would only bring on masturbation, the chief cause of respiratory problems. (105)”

    finally someone explains how i have sleep apnea.

  6. Jim O'Connell Says:

    @xee – Neither, actually.

  7. xee Says:

    @Jim O’Connell-oh! sorry. It seemed a funny jump to make in the same paragraph, is all.

    it’s good to see that as early as 1931 the profound scientific link between wanking and heavy breathing was so clearly recognised! …er.

  8. Connor Says:

    Probably the most significant difference between now and then is that now we have penicillin and condoms.

    Am I correct in assuming that your thesis is, more or less, that Yoshiwara-style prostitution constituted a human rights violation chiefly because it facilitated the spread of disease?

    In such a case, doesn’t the fact that the particular diseases which befell the Yoshiwara prostitutes are more or less nonfactors in Japan today characterize a pretty large difference?

    Personally, I would contend that the biggest difference between Yoshiwara prostitution and 2008 Tokyo prostitution is that all the prostitutes are trucked in from the Philippines, but then you’d have to take a look at the various quirks of macroeconomics which have made such a thing possible. Not only is that hard work, it’s also tough to sort of slur an old man on a blog with. so I see why you chose to go with what you went with.

  9. youngjames Says:

    “Personally, I would contend that the biggest difference between Yoshiwara prostitution and 2008 Tokyo prostitution is that all the prostitutes are trucked in from the Philippines”

    but wait, marxy told me they were all from Tottori-ken.

  10. Via néojapanisme comes the somewhat amusing … [Prostitution In Japan] Says:

    […] Via néojapanisme comes the somewhat amusing history of prostitution in Japan where, in the early 1930s, anti-prostitution advocates pressured the government to outlaw its brothel licensing system in the hopes of eliminating prostitution. One member of the Diet, Yamazaki Dennosuke, spoke out vociferously against eliminating prostitution arguing that, since a man needed to get his rocks off no matter what, prostitution was safer than jerking off, because masturbation causes upper respiratory infections. That, obviously, was a bigger danger than STIs or getting caught by your wife. Cough. [néojapanisme, image via OSU Archives] […]