Japan’s magazines get misty-eyed over Showa Era brothels
Enter here: Gates identify the address of an area inside the Yoshiwara brothel district in Asakusa, Tokyo, in 1956, two years before the passage of the Anti-Prostitution Law. | KYODO
Commencing with the death of Emperor Taisho on Christmas Day, 1925, the Showa Era ran for 62 years and two weeks, ending with the death of Emperor Hirohito (posthumously referred to as Emperor Showa) at the age of 87 on Jan. 7, 1989.
Thanks to the latter monarch’s longevity, roughly 3 out of every 4 Japanese living today — more than 90 million people — call themselves Showa-umare (Showa-born). The oldest are now in their 90s; the youngest, approaching 30. It’s a huge demographic, and one that’s been displaying an enormous appetite for reading matter that reflects on the era in which they were born. To cater to that appetite, the media have been serving up a variety of materials that touch upon people, places and events of the Showa years.
One of the most conspicuous forms this nostalgia has taken recently has been a spate of books and articles idolizing the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Although Tanaka was convicted in court of receiving bribes from Lockheed Aircraft Corp., most of the books recall him as a man of the people and a practical, no-nonsense politician who got things done.
Even Showa-era crimes are by no means immune to nostalgia. In mid-February, Shukan Jitsuwa’s publisher came out with a special edition titled “Hanko Seimei” (meaning a letter admitting responsibility for a crime), which cataloged the previous era’s most infamous crimes and criminals.
This surge in interest about the recent past has also extended to the world’s oldest profession, which was openly practiced until outlawed by the Anti- Prostitution Law. Prior to April 1, 1958, contemporary versions of the pre-modern yūkaku (licensed brothel quarters) operated throughout the country. To give some idea of the scale with which the sex industry contributed to the nation’s gross domestic product, a guidebook titled “Zenkoku Yukaku Annai” (“Nationwide Guide to Yukaku”) published in 1930 listed over 500 such comfort zones, or an average of more than 10 in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. The book included those in Japan’s prewar overseas possessions such as Karafuto (Sakhalin), Korea, Manchuria and Taiwan.
In the tabloid press, a series in Shukan Jitsuwa magazine titled “The golden age of the sex trade” features rare old photos.
A reporter for Aera (Feb. 20) visited the city of Iino in Saitama Prefecture, about 50 minutes from central Tokyo via the Seibu Ikebukuro Line express. In pre-modern times, the town was a shukuba (post station) where travelers to and from Edo spent the night. Social critic Atsushi Miura, serving as guide, points out vestiges of the town’s past, including a building that was used as a brothel. How does he know? Because, he explains, the front entrance, rather than being parallel with the street, is set back from the facade and angled diagonally, so as to keep outsiders from peering in. Another dead giveaway is the circular windows on its second floor.
Another aspect of the curiosity toward the past is the fascination with visiting and photographing so-called haikyo, abandoned derelicts of old military bases, factories, hospitals and mines, such as Nagasaki’s Hashima Island, more popularly known as Gunkanjima due to its resemblance to a battleship. Its undersea coal mine was in operation from 1886 to 1974, spanning the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras. Named a World Heritage site in 2015, it even served as a location for scenes from the 2012 James Bond film “Skyfall.”
In a recently published “mook” (magazine-book) from Million Shuppan titled “101 strange things about the Showa Era,” a two-page article introduces the three brothels on Gunkanjima that no doubt kept the island’s miners from going stir crazy.
Two years from now, Tokyo’s famous Yoshiwara Yukaku will observe its 400th anniversary. Located in Senzoku Yon-chome in Taito Ward, the district is today, somewhat remarkably, being utilized for its original purpose. What were formerly brothels are now erotic bathhouses, referred to since 1984 as “soaplands.” The Hanamachi@Yoshiwara website ( www.hanamachi.co/data/index) lists 140 erotic bathhouses in the district playing host to 6,870 sex workers, with an average 30 percent of that number on duty on any given day or 66 percent during any given week.
At least two “respectable” businesses currently cater to the revival of interest in Yoshiwara. One is a mail-order gift shop named Shin-Yoshiwara, which sells tasteful wall decorations and a variety of other “Yoshiwara goods” (shin-yoshiwara.stores.jp).
Since last September, Yoshiwara also became home to a bookstore specializing in its history. Kasutori Shobo (www.kastoribookstore.blogspot.jp), just off a main thoroughfare, is open seven days a week. Proprietor Go Watanabe, 40, has obtained the rights to re-issue an assortment of out-of print books — the aforementioned “Nationwide Guide to Yukaku” being one example — which he sells from a tiny shop close to the Yoshiwara Omon, the former gateway to the district. He’s also keen on publishing new manuscripts on similarly near and dear topics.
Watanabe told me he was delighted by the coverage he’s been receiving since his opening, in Asahi Geino, Nikkan Gendai and other publications. Having established himself as an authority on Yoshiwara history, he also serves as a useful source of local information. When I asked him if any buildings in Yoshiwara still remained from the bad old days prior to 1958, he pointed down the street and said, “That one on the right, just across the street from the massage clinic, used to be one.”
An enthusiastic photographer, Watanabe has also published his own book titled “Yukaku: Koto no Gaiku” (“Yukaku: Red-light Districts”), which contains 386 pages of color photographs of ornate old former brothels from all over Japan. The full-size, limited-edition version is priced at ¥100,000. A smaller version, with pages about the size of postcards, can be purchased for ¥25,000. A great — and legal — gift for the man who has everything.