Sex workers in Osaka
March 6, 2012 4:04 PM   Subscribe

Sex workers in Osaka. 5,6 years ago, a friend took me thru a small, singular neighborhood in Osaka, Japan. Rumored to be controlled by Yakuza, it was an area for sex. The ground floor of the buildings were open to the street, and the 'girl' was sitting, almost enthroned, on a chair or platform surrounded by flowers and cushions. I guess the protocol was to 'shop' the street, and enter the one that appealed to you. We did not tarry, despite my fascination, because my Japanese friend was female, w/ her hair tucked up, and she felt a need to keep moving. She had explained that the city wanted to raze the area as some kind of urban renewal. I wanted to get some Japanese friends to talk to some locals, and find a way to document this unique place, but that never happened. Does anyone know of this? And what eventually happened?
posted by ebesan to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
there are two such places in osaka that remain today. One is near the Tenoji area and is called Tobita. This is probably the one you visited. The other is near Kujyo station and is called Matsushima.

These areas are in fact very heavily documented. I have read several books about the areas and there are some good coffee table books as well.

What exactly is your question?

Here is the Japanese article on wikipedia translated: Osaka's red light districts

google image search for matsushima: 松島遊廓
google image search for Tobita: 飛田遊廓
posted by Infernarl at 4:29 PM on March 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

For whatever it's worth, this kind of thing is not unique. There's an area of Amsterdam just like that which I walked through when visiting there. (We were trying to reach a cathedral where there was going to be a music performance on a hundreds-year-old pipe organ. I think it was the Nieuwe Kerk, but since that was 25 years ago I might be remembering wrong. Anyway, some of these ladies were right next to the church.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:10 PM on March 6, 2012

Here's a blog post about it
posted by KokuRyu at 5:26 PM on March 6, 2012

Tobita Shinchi, most likely. It is in Nishinaru-ku, south of Shin sekai. It is controlled by the yakuza. Matsushima is much smaller.

There is at least one area in Kyoto controlled by yakuza called Gojo-rakuen, but the women there do not sit outside. The brothels there are called chon-no-ma.

This is very different from Amsterdam in that it is illegal but tolerated due to the yakuza's protection.

Memail me if you have questions. I'm a historian who works on this stuff. I don't know about the last few years though.
posted by vincele at 5:29 PM on March 6, 2012

Yes, it's true that what we saw in Amsterdam was legal. I was referring to the "window shopping for a girl" aspect of it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:42 PM on March 6, 2012

What the hell does "controlled by the yakuza" mean? Generally speaking, organized crime controls the sex trade in Japan.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:55 PM on March 6, 2012

You're probably talking about Tobita. It was still around as of May 2008 and I would be shocked if it isn't still there now.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:18 PM on March 6, 2012

The red light districts in nearby Korea have been tolerated, and sound quite similar to what you described. These aren't exactly well-lit streets, but they were generally across the street from train stations, bus terminals, etc... In Seoul, the main ones have been demolished to hopefully make some urban projects happen, but the 'girls in a window' can be found in other areas of the country.
posted by chrisinseoul at 8:12 AM on March 7, 2012

OT question: You wrote,
We did not tarry, despite my fascination, because my Japanese friend was female, w/ her hair tucked up, and she felt a need to keep moving.

What does this snippet indicate? I get why a woman wouldn't want to tarry in a prostitute district... but what does her hair style have to do with it?
posted by IAmBroom at 6:04 PM on March 7, 2012

Because she did not want to be recognized as female; was more comfortable walking thru there incognito, had a cap on.
My first question (and thanks for the links) is this the standard arrangement, the open street-level w/ a raised dais, for brothels in Japan? I thought there were possibilities for some beautiful photographs, but would need more time, and probably cooperation from the participants. I have walked thru and explored many Japanese neighborhoods, but I was struck by the order and cleanliness (even for Japan) and that this very small area was surrounded by new urban renewal projects, thus leaving it adrift and singular; and threatened, so I was told. So the designer in me wanted to catch this moment.
posted by ebesan at 4:51 AM on March 9, 2012

Infernarl-please pass on any books on the area, or Japanese sex workers. I am esp. interested in the design/set-ups and arrangements/architecture used in these areas and for this purpose.
posted by ebesan at 6:03 AM on March 9, 2012

I am interested in the the immediate, street-level presentation, 'message', aside from the lure of sex, packaged with a formality and order. I have been to many baths, and learned the importance of etiquette and rules behavior. In fact, one of my first baths was in a small town with the usual 'no tattoos' sign outside. While I was squatting on the stool, washing ( I always made an extra effort to lather/scrub to show that I understood and respected the rules) I couldn't help glancing at the guy inches from me, with extraordinary designs all up his arm. He caught my quick glance, so I signaled thumbs-up, and mumbled 'great tattoo', he smiled. Maybe he was known locally and permitted in? I am fascinated with this kind of social interaction, with the accompanying behavior, esp. the progression, that is, the initial perception to entry to engagement and specifically the physical layout, room arrangement, architecture, design that reinforces (or fails to) specific commerce, interaction, from Tobita sex/window shopping to Onsen rituals.
posted by ebesan at 7:16 AM on March 9, 2012

Because she did not want to be recognized as female; was more comfortable walking thru there incognito, had a cap on.

Thanks, ebesan. And I totally get your desire to capture this era.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:41 AM on March 9, 2012

The women who work in Tobita work off debts they racked up to their legally-recognized shops, usually hostess bars. The women in Tobita are young and Japanese. Jobs in Tobita are not advertised on Yukai Life or other prostitute-job search sites. I am persuaded by the explanation that Tobita is punishment for errant hostesses or a way for hostesses to pay back debts.

The system in place today is 15 minute sessions of "full service sex" in exchange for about $200. You are led by the yarte basan (older woman on the stool out front) to an upstairs room furnished with a futon and a small table. You have no access to a restroom. You are not given a condom.

None of the shops in Tobita has a license under the Fuzoku Eigyo Torishimari Ho, since the customers engage in vaginal intercourse with the prostitute. Nor are the shops covered by the soapland exemption under a different law. Soaplands are found in Ogoto on Lake Biwa, Kobe, and maybe a few other places.

The yarite basan openly pander on the streets in Tobita. There's a koban (police box) in the middle of the neighborhood. The police are aware of what's going on.

The only way you can get away with that kind of brazen illegal activity is if you have powerful protection. The other sexual commerce areas in Osaka follow the pretense of licensing, (with the exception of Matsushima, a neighborhood in Higashi Osaka, and a few others). Of course the yakuza play an important role in the sex industry in Japan, but the yakuza is important in the economy and social organization of Tobita in a way that's different from other areas.

Tobita is located in Nishinari-ku, which was outcaste territory until the Meiji Restoration. Outcaste did not mean poverty in all cases. There were well-to-do villages in the sprawling area known as Nishinariku in the Tokugawa period. The outcastes did not do so well after the Restoration. Discrimination continued but privileges like guaranteed access to their trades did not.

Urbanization spread to Nishinariku in the late 19th century. Tobita Shinchi did not become a pleasure quarters even until 1921 (I think) after Umeda's pleasure quarters burned down. Its construction was a victory for the brothel trade lobby, which defeated anti-prostitution groups (primarily women).

Tobita Shinchi lies to the East of Kamagasaki, Japan's most infamous slum. In its center is Nishinariku police station. This is where day laborers and homeless men gather to protest. It became well known in the 1980s for riots during which police violated the rights of citizens.

For Japan, Tobita is in an area with a heightened police presence and a large population of day laborers. The yakuza are important to the massive numbers of day laborers as well, I suspect, as they provide jobs and protection. When I lived in Nishinariku I got the sense that the police and yakuza work hand in hand to keep law and order on the streets.

No one with authority cares about the injustices happening to women behind closed doors. The women are one of the few things that bring outside traffic to this volatile and depressed part of the city.
posted by vincele at 8:23 AM on March 10, 2012 [2 favorites]
posted by Infernarl at 12:18 AM on April 17, 2012

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