Unlike in the West prostitution has long been seen as sinful and immoral specifically because female promiscuity was itself seen as sinful and immoral, debates in pre-modern and early modern Japan regarding prostitution largely revolved around concerns about its negative impacts on household and community, and on agricultural productivity, as men worried that prostitutes would distract or lure men away from their work, or from their wives and families.
Still, whereas in the West prostitution has long been seen as marginal and undesirable, and as a result has been outlawed in many modern countries, in pre-modern and early modern Japan it was an integral part of the economy in certain important ways (including as a way to pay off debts or taxes), and contributed as well to popular culture and fashion. Many examples of local and regional administration in Edo period Japan show that despite officials expressing serious concern about the negative social impacts of prostitution, they in many cases acted in favor of the positive economic impacts prostitution would have for their communities, as the expansion of prostitution was tied in with ideas of urbanization & economic development.
Courtesans, especially of the Yoshiwara, were highly romanticized in the popular publications (ukiyo-e woodblock prints, illustrated books, etc.) of the Edo period, and had a dramatic impact on popular culture and fashion. Courtesans' fashions were the inspiration for fashions among both commoners and elites, and they were seen as models of cultured elegance and refinement. As a result, much modern scholarship, especially in art history, has similarly emphasized the Yoshiwara as a site of great cultural dynamism and activity, and as a wellspring of popular culture. However, scholars such as Amy Stanley point out how oppressive life in the Yoshiwara was for the women living and working there, the vast majority of whom were indentured servants.
There were also male prostitutes in pre-modern and early modern Japan. However, they operated in very different circles and circumstances; in the early modern period, male prostitutes were closely tied to the theater, operating out of kagema jaya teahouses attached to theaters, and not out of brothels. Male prostitutes do not appear in official economic records the way female prostitutes do, and discussions about their moral impact upon communities centered on rather different concerns.
In the Kamakura period, women could inherit and own property, separately from their fathers or husbands, and exercised authority over their own hereditary servants. Their bodies, however, were still considered the property of the head of household – if a woman was raped, the rapist owed compensation not to the woman, but to her father or husband. Up until the 14th century, there was little differentiation between women who sold sex professionally and those who didn’t. Payment from a client and gifts from a lover were not well differentiated, those who did explicitly sell sex, such as asobi and kugutsu, were seen as skilled entertainers, not as "prostitutes." Further, sexual practices more generally were somewhat loose, with women sleeping with multiple partners, often in rather temporary relationships, and so forth, making the line between "sex for money" and other sexual activities a bit blurrier than in later periods.
By 1500 or so, there was a clearer division, with certain women being properly recognized as “prostitutes.” Whereas previously girls who did sell sex were often seen as formally adopted "daughters" and members of the "families" of their madams, blurring the lines between kinship and ownership/employment, by 1500, much prostitution was organized by male pimps, and took place increasingly in urban and post-station settings. However, the chaotic circumstances of the Sengoku period meant that many women were still being stolen/kidnapped, held as hostages, or kept as wives or concubines when one samurai house raided a town or village or defeated another samurai house. Some women were even bought by Portuguese who took them back to Europe as, essentially, sex slaves. Hideyoshi’s armies also brought both men and women back from Korea.
Concerned about the negative impact on agricultural production (among, perhaps, other negative impacts of the sex trade), Hideyoshi issued proclamations against domestic trading in people (jinshin baibai), though he showed indifference to the hostages/slaves taken in Korea.
All in all, the trade in human beings, especially in women, continued despite injunctions and proclamations, as daimyô and other local authorities hesitated to do anything which would threaten economic productivity/prosperity.
In the early decades of the Edo period, women to a great extent continued to be seen as property, as assets which could be bought, sold, or rented out. In at least some areas, men found it difficult to successfully petition for debt forgiveness if they had not sold off their wives and daughters, along with their other assets, in attempts to make the money to pay off their debts. In many cases, men who refused to sell their family members saw them seized by creditors or authorities. Still, girls sold into prostitution had some recourse against unfair treatment, and could appeal to authorities on the basis of their own filial piety - in other words, representing themselves as virtuous daughters working for the sake of supporting their parents. This was effective to a certain extent in the first half of the Edo period, but by the latter half of the period, the situation reversed. Wives and daughters were now considered subjects with their own autonomy, and could not be bought or sold in such a manner. And girls sold into prostitution, though trapped by their contracts of indentured servitude, were likewise seen to possess enough autonomy, enough personhood, to have chosen that path for themselves - no longer seen as filial daughters & as victims, they were now seen as lascivious and profit-seeking, and so could no longer effectively petition the authorities for protection against unfair treatment.
Historian Amy Stanley argues that this set of attitudes in Edo period Japan represents an ironic reversal from many feminists' attitudes today regarding prostitution. Whereas many feminists today might celebrate a woman's agency, her freedom and power to choose to do what she wishes with her body, it was that self-same agency that made Edo period prostitutes the object of stigma.
In the 17th century, prostitution was concentrated chiefly in urban centers, as those cities emerged and grew into some of the largest in the world. As merchants and others moved to the cities for work, and as the cities also became centers of samurai activity, severe gender imbalances emerged. In the 1730s, Edo may have had as many as 175 men for each 100 women, among the commoner class alone; other cities may have had similar ratios, and in Edo in particular the ratio among the samurai class would have been even more imbalanced. Demand among this disproportionately male population, combined with the widespread belief that sexual release was required for good health, led to the flourishing of prostitution in many of the big cities.
The shogunate established licensed quarters in several of the major cities, restricting licensed, legal prostitution to designated areas including the Yoshiwara in Edo, the Shimabara in Kyoto, and the Maruyama district in Nagasaki. All other prostitution in those cities was considered illegal, and was occasionally powerfully suppressed, but continued nevertheless. Unlicensed prostitutes in Edo were known as kakushi baijo ("hidden prostitutes") or simply as baita (whores), and included women who solicited clients along the riverbanks, or met them out on riverboats. Many of these women were of the most marginal sections of society, and led this life because they had no other choice; they included the daughters of outcastes, prostitutes who had fallen out of more stable brothel work because of their age, illness, or for other reasons, and women who worked for gangsters, gamblers, and the like, often paying a very considerable portion of their proceeds to their pimps.
Many others operated out of unlicensed districts known in Edo as okabasho ("hill places"), and in Osaka as shima ("islands"). In Edo, such places numbered around twenty-seven at the end of the Edo period, and included brothels near the approaches to Ekô-in in the Honjô neighborhood and to Nezu Shrine, and areas surrounding Eitai-ji in Fukagawa and Kannô-ji in Yanaka, among others. Four additional neighborhoods in Edo were home to male prostitution, and female prostitution was actively at four post-stations on highways leading out of the city (Naitô Shinjuku, Itabashi, Senju, and Shinagawa). Temple and shrine magistrates (jisha bugyô) generally looked the other way when prostitution took place within their jurisdictions, as it helped attract pilgrims, and therefore donations. Dôchû bugyô who oversaw the post-stations allowed brothels to operate in their jurisdictions as well, for similar reasons of economic benefit. Further, girls operating out of post-stations, and at teahouses near temples and shrines, though somewhat ambiguous in their status, could at least (unlike streetwalkers, who could not be pinned down) be identified with a set place of residence, and hierarchical authorities (i.e. under the innkeeper, post-station officials or the temple or shrine itself, and the requisite bugyô magistrates).
In the 1770s, Shinagawa was home to around 500 "serving girls," and Senju and Itabashi home to 150 girls each. While the authorities in the city of Edo did not officially condone these okabasho, and occasionally launched raids to shut them down, authorities in Osaka were more forthright about supporting and encouraging these shima districts, even going so far as to encourage brothels and teahouses to set up shop when riparian projects created new landfill. Edo authorities tried this with a neighborhood called Nakasu in the 1770s-1790, but after the fall of Tanuma Okitsugu and his replacement by Matsudaira Sadanobu, an end was put to that particular district. Geisha, meanwhile, were similarly tolerated or overlooked by the authorities; though the line could be quite blurry between those who sold sex as their primary occupation, and those who only did so on occasion, in personal/private arrangements with individual clients, the primary occupation of geisha was to entertain (through song, dance, and lively company), and so they fell into a different status category.
The Kabuki theater, as it emerged in the early 17th century, was originally closely connected to prostitution, with most if not all of the performers available for sexual services, and with the dances and skits serving, essentially, as advertisement of their bodies. After women were banned from the kabuki stage in 1629 (along with young men in 1642, though they were later allowed to return), the theater became more distanced from brothel prostitution, though male-male prostitution continued to be available chiefly through the theater world.
In the 18th-19th centuries, with the licensed quarters of Edo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagasaki well-established, the expansion of prostitution was seen mainly in other areas, including post stations, port towns, mining towns, regional villages, and so forth, fueled by the growth of travel culture and the expansion of commercial/trading networks. In many of these more rural areas, prostitutes operating independent of any brothel or master but only for their own individual livelihoods or profit came to be known as goke (後家), or "widows," after the idea of a fisherman's wife, or villager's wife otherwise, who sells sex as a way to support herself after the death of her husband; not all goke were actually widows, however.
The shogunate lifted in 1718 a ban on prostitution in post-stations, allowing at that time two serving girls per inn. Inns at many post-stations quickly began to resemble brothels, and those post-stations which engaged in prostitution quickly came to enjoy greater economic prosperity than those which didn't. At some, women went so far as to literally drag travelers into their establishments; some travelers sought out stations with such lively activity, but confraternities (kô) also published travel guides helping travelers avoid such harassment. Most post-stations flaunted a far greater number of prostitutes than the two girls per establishment limit, but as with most such things in Edo period Japan, it was hardly enforced. Urban post-stations, such as at Kanagawa-juku and Kawasaki-juku (not far from Edo), which served a somewhat more urbanite and sophisticated clientele, often recruited from shitamachi (low class) neighborhoods of the city. However, at more rural post stations, such as those along the Nakasendô, many of the girls came from more rural regions, especially Echigo province.
Giving in to pressure from both domestic and international critics, the Meiji government enacted in 1872 a Prostitute Emancipation Act, freeing all geisha and prostitutes from their contracts of indentured servitude. This had the significant impact of introducing the possibility, and the concept, of "liberation" to the national conversation about prostitution. However, while a great many women were in fact freed by this act, for many others it had little meaningful impact, as they were left with no other source of work or income to turn to, and so prostitution resumed, but merely went further underground. In 1875, indentured contracts began to be recognized as legal again.
As in the Edo period, Meiji period discourses surrounding "liberation" of prostitutes brought increased, rather than decreased, stigmatization. Where women were seen to be helpless victims of indentured servitude, they could be pitied, or admired for their filial piety in suffering this work to help their parents. But, if such contracts were void, and prostitutes liberated to choose their life path, those who chose it anyway came to be seen in a particularly negative light. This stigma was compounded by a skewed lens through which people of the Meiji period (and indeed of every period of time since then) viewed the prostitution of their own day as lower, less refined, less cultivated than that of the past. In the Meiji period, nostalgic views of the Edo period romanticized the courtesans of the Yoshiwara as cultured, elegant dancers, musicians, poets, fashionistas and so forth, ignoring entirely the many unlicensed prostitutes who operated elsewhere in the big cities, and in the provinces. By the 1950s-60s, people came to see the prostitutes of the Meiji period as filial and relatively restrained and refined, in contrast to the frivolous and self-interested panpan girls who serviced the American servicemen during the Occupation. Similarly, in the 1990s, there was widespread criticism or concern about the practice of enjo kôsai (compensated dating), in which high school girls went out on dates with older men in exchange for money.
Despite Westernizing processes and the growth of Western-influenced attitudes about prostitution as particularly undesirable, the increased urbanization and industrialization of the Meiji period brought a dramatic increase in prostitution. Even as prominent figures such as Mori Arinori and Fukuzawa Yukichi pushed that marital sex was the only moral sex, railroads, urbanization, and industrialization brought more men to factories, garrisons, naval yards, and so forth, and thus created increased demand for prostitution. Scholar Morisaki Kazue famously described the result as a baishun no ôkoku ("Kingdom of Prostitution"). Between 1884 and 1916, the number of registered brothel prostitutes (娼妓, shôgi) nearly doubled, from over 28,000 to just over 54,000, while the total Japanese population increased by only 50 percent. This number does not include the nearly 80,000 geisha and nearly 50,000 registered barmaids many of whom also provided sexual services. By Sheldon Garon’s estimate, by the Taishô period, about 1 in 31 Japanese women was employed in the sex trade, many of them from poor families, and disproportionately from the northeast.
Regular medical screenings of prostitutes began in the 1880s, spurred initially by the demands of foreigners in Yokohama and other treaty ports, who wished to ensure that they could partake of sexual services without fear of disease.
In Tokugawa shogunate documents pertaining to the shogunal cities of Edo and Nagasaki, the term yûjo (遊女, "fun girl" or "play girl") always refers to a licensed prostitute, and baijo (売女, "sold girl") to one who is not licensed; many of the latter operated underground, and so might be referred to as kakushi baijo (隠売女, "hidden sold girl"). However, in popular usage, and in official usage outside the major cities, yûjo was used quite widely, and less specifically, along with terms such as keisei (傾城, lit. "castle toppler"). The word baita (売女), which Stanley translates as “whore,” meanwhile, is seen relatively frequently in popular/commoner documents. Certain other terms, such as tayû and oiran, were specific ranks within the Yoshiwara hierarchy of courtesans.
In provincial areas, and in the big cities in the early Edo period, prostitutes were often called simply serving girls (meshimori onna), tea-steeping girls (sancha), drink-pouring girls, bathhouse girls (yuna) and the like, reflecting the rather blurred boundary between sexual and non-sexual work.
The activity or industry of prostitution itself is often today called, euphemistically, baishun (売春), lit. "selling spring" (as in the season). More direct terms for the sex trade include jinshin baibai (人身売買, "buying and selling of human bodies").
- Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012).
- Gary Leupp, Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900, A&C Black (2003), 102.
- Stanley, 61-62.
- Segawa Seigle, 162-163.