Yoshiwara: 300 years as Tokyo’s biggest red-light district

Yoshiwara: 300 years as Tokyo’s biggest red-light district

Relive the tragic history of one of the capital’s hidden secrets
Yoshiwara, as it looked in the Taisho period.
Yoshiwara, as it looked in the Taisho period.

In 1956, Japan’s Anti Prostitution Act shut down Yoshiwara, easily Tokyo’s most infamous red light area. For the previous three centuries, this neighborhood northeast of Asakusa had been one of only a handful of licensed vice districts tolerated by the authorities.

Over its long working life, Yoshiwara was home to the courtesans in decadent robes who were depicted in the ukiyoe of Kitagawa Utamaro and the charming, difficult women of Nagai Kafu's novels and diaries.

Birth, death and in between

Poetry of the time often compared the women to cherry blossoms, alluding to both their beauty and their short lives. Inscribed on the wall at Jyokanji, the 350-year-old temple where some 20,000 prostitutes were interred in paupers’ graves, is the saying: “Birth is pain, death is Jyokanji.” The average age at death here was 21.

By all accounts, their short existence was dreadful. J.E. de Becker notes succinctly in “The Nightless City,” his 1899 anthropological account of Yoshiwara: “The best houses do not exhibit women in cages.”

“Without getting into the ethics of it, this is our history and that's important to acknowledge,” says Yoshikazu Chimura, the 63-year-old shrine master at the Yoshiwara Jinja.

Offerings to the memories of Yoshiwara residents past.Offerings to the memories of Yoshiwara's past residents.This small shrine is where generations of Yoshiwara courtesans came to pray for protection and a stroke of luck. While few locals use it now, the number of visitors in the last five years has jumped from just a handful to a few hundred on weekends, says Chimura.

This increase in interest fits in neatly with the ascendance of the reki-jo, or female history buffs, and the current fascination with the supernatural popularized by the TV personality Hiroyuki Ehara. If unsettled spirits do exist, Yoshiwara would certainly have produced a few.

“Visitors are looking for the world depicted in rakugo and kabuki, or what's left of it,” Chimura says, noting that he sees more women than men, including, every once in a while, one of the old courtesans. “The shrine does have a long history of protecting women, so maybe some are coming for that too.”

Hidden secrets

Little physically remains of the former Yoshiwara beyond the shrine, the temple and a peculiar curving street, said to have been designed to hide the quarter from plain view.

The street names have been retained, including Naka-no-cho, the main boulevard that bisects the quarter, and Edo-cho, the lane that housed Yoshiwara's most expensive brothels.

Where the gate once stood, however, there is now a gas station. In front of it is a tree, where the “looking back willow” that marked the entrance and exit (there was only one access point) to Yoshiwara once stood.

It was from here that patrons would look back longingly over their shoulders before departing. The moat that once surrounded the quarter to prevent women from escaping has been filled in.

The side lanes, though altogether modern, bear the strongest resemblance in spirit to the former licensed quarter. In 1966 Yoshiwara changed its name to the more benign Senzoku 4-chome, although the area’s stigma proved harder to shed.

Modern offerings

Today, the neighborhood is known primarily for its large collection of “soaplands,” some 150 in total. A soapland is technically a bathhouse with private rooms staffed by female attendants; in practice, it is about as close to a brothel as one can legally find in Japan.

“I knew that Yoshiwara had a lot of soaplands and that's about it,” says Hiroshi Nishino, author of the website Yoshiwara Walker, a collection of historical information about the neighborhood. “Once I started walking around and doing research, I was really moved by the tragic history of the neighborhood and shocked by how much I didn't know.”

An insurance salesman by day, 47-year-old Nishino began studying the neighborhood in his free time three years ago. He's since been contacted through his site by the media, like-minded history buffs and even women currently working in Senzoku 4-chome keen to learn more about the history of Yoshiwara.

“Putting aside the question of good and evil, there is a history here of women who pushed their bodies to the limit to survive and that is pretty powerful,” says Nishino, who is a Waseda University graduate.

There is something Gothic in this fascination with such a tragic neighborhood -- a regular witness to fire, disease, suicide and betrayal -- as Yoshiwara. The most disturbing reminder of this legacy is the Yoshiwara Benzaiten monument, erected in 1926.

Hellish fate

Where there is now a large stone topped by a statue of Kannon there was once a pond named for the goddess Benzaiten. When the fires raged after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, 490 inhabitants of Yoshiwara, locked inside the quarter, drowned themselves in the water.

“It's hell here beneath our feet really,” says a middle-aged man placing incense at the monument. A devout Buddhist, he visits once a month to pray for the souls of the deceased women.

He is not the only one. Dozens of offerings of cut flowers, bottles of tea, rice cakes and incense testify to a steady stream of sympathetic visitors.

“We don't know what we were in our past lives -- in all likelihood any one of us could have been among these women,” says the man, who declined to give his name. “I could be wrong, but I think some women are drawn here because they sense that on some level.”

To get to Senzoku 4-chome, take the Hibiya Line to Minowa Station. From exit 3, head down Dote Dori for ten minutes; turn right at the Shell gas station, which marks the entrance. Yoshiwara Jinja (3-20-2 Senzoku, Taito-ku; Tel: +81 (0) 3 3872 5966; open daily) is a few hundred meters on the right; the Benzaiten monument just beyond on the left. Jyokanji (2-11-12 Minami-senju, Arakawa-ku; Tel: +81 (0) 3 3801 6870; open daily) is behind Minowa station, a one-minute walk from exit 3. Note that the so-called coffee shops on the main street actually deal in information and introductions to the neighboring soaplands.
Rebecca Milner came to Tokyo in 2002 from California. She reports on culture in its myriad forms (from beauty to bars) and maintains (somewhat irregularly) an online portfolio at legwork.wordpress.com.
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