Soapland (bath house/sex parlor) in the old red light district of Yoshiwara. Japan’s red-light districts have a long and colorful history, and officially date back to the year 1589, when the warlord and effective ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, opened the first one, called Shimabara in the city of Kyoto. The area was hugely popular, and it is said that Hideyoshi himself used to sneak into the area to avail himself of its pleasures. The Tokyo version, Yoshiwara, was built in 1618 and became so famous that it has become synonymous with sex businesses. The phrase “Last night I went to a yoshiwara” can refer to practically any type of sex business in any city. In Osaka, similar licensed quarters were established in Shinmachi.
These areas were seen as somewhat distasteful, and their denizens existed at the outermost fringes of society, but at the same time, pleasure quarters were understood to be fulfilling a necessary role in society. As the gate of Tokyo’s famous ‘nightless city’ of Yoshiwara said, “Lust will not keep…Something must be done about it.” Rather than being perceived as a den of iniquity, the pleasure quarter was seen as providing a place for men to release sexual tension and engage in lustful behavior inside a confined area, so that their harmful desires would not arise in respectable society.
Distasteful as they may have been, however, pleasure quarters were also extremely popular. It is said that at the height of its popularity, there were 3000 women working in the Yoshiwara, and it was just one of several pleasure quarters in Tokyo.
Japan’s red-light districts were strictly controlled, and licenses were issued to both prostitutes and geisha. The areas were walled off, and usually had only a single entrance gate, which was guarded, just as much to prevent indentured prostitutes and geisha from escaping as it was to stop undesirables from getting in.
Soaplands are thinly-disguised sex parlors where men pay for soapy massages performed by naked women using their entire bodies to clean the customer. They get around Japan’s anti-prostitution laws by having the man pay only for the wash. Apparently, though, the man and woman also happen to “fall in love” quite often, deciding to consummate their love at the end of the massage.
If you’re curious to see what left of the district, go to Minowa Station on the subway Hibiya Line and take Exit #3. Walk left (south-east) on Meiji Dori until you come to a big fork in the road. Take the right fork (not Meiji Dori) and continue on for 13 short blocks. That intersection is called Yoshiwara Daimon, and is where the old gate used to be. Turn right and you’ll be in the district. If you need directions, ask for Senzoku 4-chome.
There are some fascinating old photos of the Yoshiwara at http://www.oldtokyo.com/yoshiwara.html.
Editor’s note: this post was originally published in June 2008 and has been updated.