Japan’s Sex Industry | Behind the Dark Side of the Sun

A solar eclipse as a metaphor for Japan's ubiquitous sex industry.

Warning: This post is NOT safe for work!

— Donny Kimball

“What the HELL am I doing?!?!” I asked myself, looking around at my bizarre surroundings. To my immediate right, a Japanese gentleman was enjoying the sight of his wife or girlfriend pleasuring another man. Deeper into the establishment, a different patron was having her first taste of traditional Japanese rope bondage. Thinking back to how I found myself in one of Tokyo’s underground swingers clubs, it all suddenly came back to me. One night, after having far too many craft beers, a close friend of mine challenged me to do an article about the seedy underbelly of Japan. Seeing as I am adamantly committed to the notion of authenticity, I agreed to take up this call to adventure. Little did I know how far down this rabbit hole would go.

Before getting too deep (heh, no pun intended…) into the many lewd things that I uncovered on my quest to discover Japan’s shadier side, allow me to first get a few disclaimers out of the way. To begin with, know that this post is certainly not safe for work. While I’ll try to keep the imagery on the PG side, the text definitely won’t be something that you’d want to be caught reading on a company computer. Additionally, I also have to note that I am in no way, shape or form endorsing what I’ll cover in this piece. Instead, I merely hope to bring attention to a rarely covered aspect of Japan and explain why it exits. Though I am certainly not suggesting anyone partake, I do think having the supplementary context helps one better understand Japan’s eccentric side.

Japan’s Infamous Floating World

A piece of ukiyo-e art depicts an Edo period (1603–1868) couple kisses in Yoshiwara

With the aforementioned disclaimers now out of the way, hopefully I won’t get entirely raked over the coals for what follows in this article. To begin with, I’m going to take you back to the Edo period (1603–1868) for a quick history lesson. This will help to set the stage for what’s to come when we get to the modern era. Though an entire book could be written just about the topic of sexuality and prostitution during Japan’s medieval period, all you, the reader, really need to know here is that it was extremely rampant. You see, rather than outlaw paid services, the Tokugawa shogunate realized that it was better to simply control it. Rather than drive harlotry underground, they simply relegated it to certain areas that were out of sight and out of mind.

Now, chief among the zones where prostitution was allowed was the infamous area of Yoshiwara. Situated on the outskirts of Edo (modern day Tokyo), this small slice of the city was home to literally thousands of courtesans. Whenever a samurai lord or rich merchant felt like getting his rocks off, he would get his servants to cart his lazy ass over to Yoshiwara. One interesting thing about this sinful section of Edo was that classes were not strictly divided. A commoner with enough money would be served as an equal to a samurai in Yoshiwara. To ensure that this practice of impartiality was maintained within the walls of the pleasure quarters, warriors actually were required to leave all of their armaments at the gate.

One other intriguing thing about Yoshiwara is that is set much of the fashion trends for both the Tokugawa shogunate’s capital and the rest of Japan. By law, prostitutes were supposed to wear only simple blue robes but, like with most things in Yoshiwara, this was rarely if ever enforced. Starkly contrasting what they were supposed to wear, the top ranking ladies often garbed themselves only in the most ostentatiously designed silk kimonos they could find. As can be seen by perusing any of the ukiyo-e art that depicts Yoshiwara, most top end courtesans dressed themselves in what can only be described as the highest fashion of the time. I mean, just check out some of those super expensive and elaborate hair decorations that appear frequently!

By the way, in addition to Yoshiwara, many of the post towns along the trade routes that connected Japan’s major cities also had a small collection of professionals on hand too. There’s a very good reason for this too. During the Edo period (1603–1868), all samurai lords were required to alternate their place of residence between their home domain and the capital. With all of that traveling back and forth, someone had to entertain the men while on the road. Moreover, it was almost assuredly easier to placate exhausted and likely irritable travelers with a couple girls than with alternatives like alcohol. After all, post-coital men are rarely very rambunctious.

In case you’re curious, I’ve read on some less savory internet forums that the price per rumble hasn’t really changed that much since back then, at least insomuch as the lower end at these post towns is concerned. Using the price of soba noodles as a point of comparison, we see a consistent fee both then and now of twenty five times what you’d pay for a bowl. Still, the top girls in areas like Yoshiwara could command many, many times that. In fact, the creme of the crop, the oirans, wouldn’t even take new customers unless they first went through the rigamarole of wooing her. Imagine having to court a girl for days just to have the privilege to pay her for time in the sack!

Yoshiwara & the Floating Word Today

Getting back to Yoshiwara, did you know that the area’s legacy continues on to this day? If you’re interested in checking it out, you should head to Minowa Station on the Hibiya line. As always, refer to Jorudan or a similar service to help calculate the best connections for you. Once you arrive at Minowa Station, it’s only about a ten minute walk or so to the old site of Yoshiwara. Seeing as there are few actual markings, just refer to the Google Map that I’ve embedded above. Note that if you look closely at the map above, you can still somewhat make out the old Yoshiwara street grid. For example, the curved lane on the right used to be the eastern approach.

As might be expected given Yoshiwara’s rather licentious history, this portion of Tokyo contains the highest concentration of soaplands and other thinly veiled facades for paid sexual services. Because of this, I actually opted not to snap any shots while exploring the area. Suffice to say, you should probably do the same unless you’re also in the mood to meet some unsavory types. Just don’t blame me if you go missing or anything. Still, if you’re only going to stroll through and pursue what’s on offer, you should have nothing to worry about. Just don’t do anything stupid that disrupts what is often hailed as “the world’s oldest profession.”

What follows are some of the spots that I suggest anyone visiting Yoshiwara today check out. I’ve also included links to Google Maps to make it easier for you to find these hidden gems.

  • Jokan-ji
    This nondescript temple is easy to write off on first glance but it actually is the final resting place of over 20,000 anonymous Yoshiwara courtesans who weren’t able to afford a proper funeral. Tragically, their corpses were simply ditched at the back entrance to Jokan-ji. Apparently, even back in Japan’s medieval period, proper burial rites weren’t exactly cheap.
  • Yoshiwara Shrine
    Technically composed of a shrine and another separate nearby hall, these dual attractions are worth checking out if you’re in Yoshiwara. Both pay homage to the syncretic Buddhist and Shinto goddess of art and music, Benzaiten. In the days of yesteryear, the girls of Yoshiwara would often pray here to avoid dying at an early age of sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Ichiyo Memorial Museum
    This facility curates a number of things related to Higuchi Ichiyo, a Japanese author whose likeness is on the 5,000 yen bill. Sadly for foreign tourists, there’s little to no English but the museum does offer some additional information on Yoshiwara if you have someone in your group who can speak the local tongue. Entry will run you a few hundred yen.

Before moving on, allow me to close this section by saying that if you do plan to visit Yoshiwara, the best time to do so is during the area’s annual festival. This celebration takes place on the second Saturday of April and is the perfect opportunity to see what the girls of Yoshiwara would have looked like. If you do check it out, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a fully dolled up oiran!

Japan’s Smorgasbord of Sex

Thousands of people cross Shibuya’s infamous Scramble Cross and some are on their way to experience Japan’s ubiqutous sex industry

OK, on to the part of this article that you’ve all been waiting for. Of everything I’ll cover in this piece on Japan’s sex trade, what follows is likely what I’ll get in trouble for. One by one, I’m going to disclose all of the various forms of kinky play hiding behind Tokyo’s neon glow. In the off chance that there’s anyone out there with prudish tendencies, I’ll start with the least offensive and work my way up to the truly wacky stuff. Note that in Japan, the selling of sexual services (which is defined only as vaginal penetration by the way) is technically against the law but, as you’ll see, there’s workarounds.

  • Hostess Clubs
    When it comes to the so-called mizu shobai (lit. water trade), hostess clubs are about as tame as it gets. Essentially, you pay a lot of money to have an attractive lass flirt with you while she continually pours overpriced drinks. There’s another variant on this concept that are known locally as cabaret clubs but the basic premise remains the same. Happen to be a female reader? Fret not, there are also host clubs for women where hunks pulled right from the worlds of Final Fantasy will pamper you for a price.
  • No Action
    What exists in the massive chasm between hostess clubs and Japan’s far more naughty options? Well, as it turns out, a whole lot. In fact, after giving it some thought for a few days, I can’t really come up with clear categories for this sexual no man’s land. So, for the sake of brevity, I am just going to throw things like girls bars, strip clubs, no panty restaurants and the rest here. Basically, while the form changes from joint to joint, at this level, you get to peep but not touch.
  • Image Clubs
    Moving on to some of the more scandalous options, image clubs are quite possibly the perfect example of something that can only really exist in Japan. Succinctly put, image clubs are rooms where patrons can indulge in whatever type of kinky scenario turns their crank. Want to experience what it’s like to grope a woman on a crowded Tokyo train? Yup, there’s an image club for that! Rather take advantage of underage school girls? Guess what, there’s an image club for that too…
  • Fashion Health
    Sometimes also called by the moniker of pink salons, these establishments stop short of actual sexual intercourse. As such, they narrowly manage to skirt by Japan’s anti-prostitution laws. What’s more, according to a few drunk salaryman I met one night, they are basically thought to be the fast food equivalent for the sex industry in Japan. Oh and if you’re curious, know that the term “health” was first coined to denote that the service was safe from any sexualy transmited diseasessince it didn’t actually include any vaginal penetration. Talk about Japanglish!
  • Massage Girls
    If you’ve spent any time in Asia at all as a man, you likely know that the word “massage” is the universal term for trouble here in the Orient (and Japan is no exception). While there are of course local nuances to the approach depending on the country, the overall premise is largely the same no matter where you go. Out in a part of town that you’d rather not tell your grandmother about, you’re suddenly approached by a shady looking lady who, in comically broken English, promises to soothe your stress for a worryingly low price.
  • Soaplands
    Originally known as Turkish Baths until the Turkish Embassy filed an irate complaint, these establishments are places where men can go to get a thorough wash down. Of course, this is often followed by sexual services from the scantily-clad female workers. To dodge Japan’s anti-prostitution rule, soaplands work on the premise that their clientele are only paying for the bathing. Whatever occurs thereafter is a private matter between two consenting adults. If the provider just happens to conveniently fall madly in love with a customer, well it can’t be helped.
  • Delivery Health
    These days, services like Uber Eats that deliver food to your doorstep are all the rage. So, what could be better than having some good ol’ hanky panky also delivered to wherever you are? Whether you’re at home alone, a love hotel or even an expressway rest area, you’re just a few clicks away from a hot and steamy session with the girl of your choosing. As you might imagine, delivery health is the go to option for horny salarymen on business trips to other cities. By the way, you know those tissues handouts that you often get? Yeah, sometimes those are actually ads for delivery health services. Oh Japan, don’t you ever change…
  • Full Service
    Even today, there are still a few holdouts from the days of yesteryear when Japan was more lenient towards sex workers. Of course, as those in the know are well aware, the most infamous of these zones is none other than Osaka’s Tobita Shinchi. Bearing a striking resemblance to Amsterdam, here you’ll find over a hundred working professionals who are garbed in a cornucopia of costumes. As you’ll see if you dare visit, each of the girl sits at the entrance to a small ryokan and is attended to by an older female who calls out to potential clients. Like with soaplands, you’re paying for your short stay in the ryokan, not whatever happens after.
  • Happening Bars
    Also known as couple kissa (meaning “couple cafes”), these are basically swinger clubs where couples and singles come to mingle. As can be seen in my opening anecdote, happening bars are not for the faint of heart. Inside their hidden halls, just about anything is bound to happen. Though I’ve only ever visited once for the purposes of this article, I’ve read online that most operate on a similar system. Essentially, there’s a hefty one-time sign up fee. Thereafter, how much you pay to enter is contingent on whether you’re a solo male, a couple or a solo female. Note to the single dudes out there, it’s going to be expensive and not turn out the way you want…
  • BDSM Clubs
    Okay folks, I am going to just come clean on this one and honestly state that I did not dare venture into any bondage dungeons for the sole sake of researching this article. I am already masochistic enough as it is with all the stairs I climb for content. My cowardice aside though, know that there are indeed a fair number of BDSM establishments in Japan’s major cities. I am aware of this because every now and then, some moronic politician will get busted for expensing them on the taxpayers’ dime.

Again, I need to say that I in no way endorse any of the above. I am merely doing an expose so that readers can better understand the cultural climate that lets such things exist. While I neither patronize nor support these services, I do see them as interesting contrasts to the black and white attitude you see in western nations. Though establishments like the happening bars are little more than places for people to sexually experiment, others can be much more nefarious. For example, many of the workers offering “massages” are often trafficked from neighboring Asian countries — not OK Japan.

A Needed Female Opinion

A woman is cheated on by her husband who is enjoying Japan’s ubiqutous sex industry

Especially for readers like myself who come from western backgrounds, the above list of options must seem like some sort of a depraved joke. Still, despite being in blatant violation of the anti-prostitution laws, the debauchery continues to go on right under the public’s nose everyday. While I certainly cannot say that I agree with it, this puzzling contradiction is telling of Japan’s attitude towards sexual services. So long as the whoring is thinly veiled and kept out of the public’s eye, the powers that be are willing to look the other way. Just like with Yoshiwara hundreds of years ago, there seems to be a consensus that it is easier to sideline the selling of sex to the peripheries.

While one can perhaps follow the existing logic, it’s also strange to think that the modern women of Japan would so easily go along with the above line of thinking. Therefore, to understand the country’s darker side, it’s important to look at what the other half of the population thinks. Seeing as I am neither Japanese nor female though, I feel a little bit uncomfortable stating what this demographic collectively thinks. As such, I’ll try to stick merely to personal anecdotes and factual statistics. Hopefully, this way you don’t have as much of a urge to kill the messenger (there’s still so many places I want to visit).

Now, one surprising thing I’ve heard echoed time and time again is the idea that it’s not exactly cheating if a man pays for it. Apparently, many Japanese women hold the idea that “boys will be boys” and so long as there are no emotional attachments, it’s fine if he pays for service every now and then. Over the many years that I’ve lived in Japan, I think that I’ve easily heard this mentioned a few hundred times or so. Here again, I can’t say that I exactly agree with their opinion. That said though, you can likely at least potentially follow the rational even if don’t concur, cultural difference be damned.

At the same time though, one needs to speculate how much of the above reasoning is due to the fact that there are indeed paid sexual services on offer in Japan at scale. After all, in other countries with more stringent controls on the oldest profession in the world, you don’t see the same lax attitude. This makes me wonder. Perhaps the answer lies in the sheer number of women who have experience in the industry. While the vast chasm between things like hostess clubs and some of Japan’s more risque alternatives is impressively wide, I have seen numbers stating that as many as ten percent of Japan’s female population has experience in the collective industry.

Of course, when you also factor in things like underreporting as well as pornography, the number of women selling some sort of service to men becomes a dizzyingly high. According to the tabloid Weekly Spa!, over two-hundred thousand women work in the sex trade alone. When you add in things like hostess clubs (which are basically psychological prostitution) the number grows even larger. While I can’t find the source for it now, I’ve seen a statistic that claims that as much as seven percent of all the women in their early twenties had earned money by selling themselves, be that physically or mentally. Now THAT is cause for concern…

Why are all of these young ladies entering the trade when Japan lacks the underclass of drug addicts that comprise similarly “employed” demographics elsewhere? This is a hard question to answer but it might help to look at who is actually working in Japan’s sex trade. You see, contrary to what you might expect, most of the industry’s many establishments are staffed by housewives or women from otherwise respectable families. In some cases, they are also recently divorced or working to pay off crushing debt. Regardless of their individual reasons though, most sex workers view it only as a mere temporary stint and turnover is expectedly extremely high.

Given that most girls view their time in the industry as only a fast way to make some cash, the motivation for so many young women to sign up can probably be explained by economics. Put simply, when the alternative is being paid a few hundred yen per hour at a part time convenience store job, the alluring prospect of upwards of one million yen per month can be quite hard to refuse. Moreover, when you also add on promises of flexible hours, transportation fees, employee housing, alabi services, and day care for young children, it starts to actually look like a pretty decent deal — at least until the first day on the job comes around that is.

To wrap up this expose on Japan’s seedy underbelly, allow me to end by saying that none of this would exist if there weren’t a demand for it. Though it can be easy to make snap judgements about Japan’s immorality, I’m of the mind that it is also important to remember the country’s history regarding sexuality too. After all, the present out of sight, out of mind attitude that modern Japan has in regards to the purchasing of sexual services has its roots in the culture of Yoshiwara and its ilk. While ultimately you may choose to condemn this aspect of Japan (as I in fact do), it’s important to have a complete grasp of the local context.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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