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From Edo onward: The legality of prostitution in Japan

Shukan Post June 7
Shukan Post June 7

Last month, Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto suggested that U.S. troops stationed on Okinawa may wish to utilize Japan’s sex industry in lieu of sexually assaulting the local female population.

In light of such comments, questions have been raised about what is legal within the nation’s elaborate adult-entertainment industry.

Weekly tabloid Shukan Post (June 7) examines how the brothel area of Tobita Shinchi in Osaka can operate a mere 300 meters from the Nishinari Police Station.

Ritsuko Inoue is the author of “Tobita: The Last Red-Light District,” a report from the quarter where women seated in brightly lit first-floor ryotei doorways wait for passing customers. She asks: “Why is it that prostitution” — which is illegal only if intercourse takes place — “is not cracked down upon when it is obviously taking place on the second floor of the buildings in Tobita?”

Each young woman, attired in revealing clothing, sits on a pillow next to an elderly female proprietor who verbally solicits clients.

The magazine asks the station’s Community Safety Division about its position from a legal standpoint. “If there is no report of a victim we cannot do anything,” says a representative of the division. “Of course, we can imagine what is going on upstairs but we cannot intrude upon someone else’s territory.”

The representative says that it is up to the ryotei to report a disturbance before the police can take action: “For example, if there is a report about stimulant drugs or other crime. After the raid, each suspect will be interviewed and their testimony recorded.”

Shukan Post sees this out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality as blatant complicity between the brothel operators and law enforcement. Fumio Iwanaga, who wrote “The New Economics of the Sex Industry,” points out that such a relationship dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868).

With its grip on power slipping, the Tokugawa shogunate, which took power in the early 17th century, collected and enclosed Tokyo’s brothels in the area known as Yoshiwara in 1617. “It was necessary to keep dangerous elements that could counter the existing power structure collected in one place,” says Iwanaga.

Similar initiatives were carried out in later years in Osaka (Shinmachi) and Kyoto (Shinbara).

“In short, it was due to the rule of the authorities,” says Iwanaga.

Source: “Baishun to fuzoku Nihon no ‘joshiki’ ha sekai no ‘hijoshiki,'” Shukan Post (June 7, page 158)