Oiran, Ouran and the Happiness Space: A Primer on the Sex Industry in Japan

10 Jun

By: Stephanie Weirich

Hair for days

Hair for days

So, if you happen to be an avid Japan watcher, such as myself, you may be aware of some less than savory comments that were recently made by the mayor of Osaka, one Mr. Toru Hashimoto. What originated as rather misguided and uninformed commentary about Korean comfort women then turned into him encouraging US military men stationed in Japan to turn to Japan’s prostitution services to calm their wild urges as opposed to unleashing those urges upon the unsuspecting and innocent female population (I’m paraphrasing a bit, but really, the context there was “Please, we have prostitutes, could you stop raping and assaulting our local’s? Please?). This, as you may have expected, has caused quite the uproar and plenty of admonishment from the international community, particularly the US.

Now, this got me thinking quite a bit about the historical context of these statements and about Japan’s history of prostitution—both illegal and not—and its impact upon modern Japan. This also happened to coincide with me re-watching the excellent documentary “The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osakan Love Thief” which in turn led me to re-watch many episodes of “Ouran High School Host Club” (there’s the anime connection, in case you were wondering what the hell was going on here). Now, if you have not seen “The Great Happiness Space”, I recommend you watch it RIGHT NOW (it’s on Netflix streaming and I think you can also find the whole thing on Youtube as well). It is an excellent and revealing look at the world of Host/Hostess clubs in Japan, as well as providing a general peak into the world of Mizo Shoubai a.k.a. “the water trade” a.k.a. lawfully nebulous forms of prostitution and risqué entertainment. So yeah guys, in case you were wondering, I’m about to GO DEEP here, so get ready.

Seriously, stop reading and go watch!

Seriously, stop reading and go watch!

First off, let’s talk a bit about the history of prostitution in Japan, which in case you were wondering, is long and at times rather tenuous. It’s important to recognize that Japan, while currently having rather strange and weirdly puritanical issues with sex out in the open, does not have any religious ties to explain it. Shintoism, the most widely practiced religion of Japan, does not view sex as a taboo and thus the trade of prostitution had no real ill consequences. As such, prostitution has existed in Japan as far back as the 15th century. At this time brothels were operating and accepting local visitors as well as foreign traders which were mostly comprised of Chinese, Koreans and East Asians. Japanese girls and women were also sold into sexual slavery and taken overseas to colonies and plantations. It’s during the Shogun era that things start to become a bit more recognizable.

Prostitution has been pretty widely spread and accepted throughout Japan but they were particularly confined to Edo (modern day Tokyo), Kyoto and Osaka, and as such, there were both female and male prostitutes. These prostitutes accepted patrons both from the elite Shogunate as well as the newly rich traders and merchants. Oftentimes, the newly rich townsmen, or in Japanese Chounin were often much more flush with cash than their royal counterparts and therefore posed a threat to the ruling classes. And what better places to participate in some down low political intrigue then brothels? As such, the Tokugawa Shogunate passed a decree that relegated prostitution to red-light districts on the outskirts of Edo, Kyoto and Osaka where these Chounin were kept well away from the political action. These districts had names: Shimabara in Kyoto, Shinmachi in Osaka and the most famous one, Yoshiwara in Edo. If you’ve ever seen Samurai Champloo (which, if you haven’t, you owe yourself that experience), then you’ve seen these walled off red-light districts in action. In a testament to that series’ awesomeness, their representation of prostitution within these districts is rather accurate.

I ship HARD for Jin

I ship HARD for Jin

Now, you may be asking yourself “What kind of women became prostitutes?”. Well, I’m so glad you asked. The answer is, the women that were sold into indentured servitude at brothels by their impoverished or debt addled parents. That’s right, if you were a poor fisherman or farmer with a large family that you were struggling to provide for or if you were a father who liked to gamble away your family’s hard earned dough, you could sell your very young daughter to a brothel in any of these red-light districts. And this wasn’t a small time trade thing, no no no, business was fucking BOOMING. By 1893 there were 9,000 women working as indentured servants in Yoshiwara alone.

And they were all dear visitors

And they were all dear visitors

Now, they were usually sold to one of these houses between the ages of 7 and 12 and if they had the luck and the skills, they could apprentice with a high ranking courtesan. Once they had completed training, they would then begin working for a brothel on their own accord as a full-fledged courtesan. Their contracts typically lasted for 5 to 10 years, but if they or their families had huge amounts of debt, that contract could last their whole lives. They could, if they earned enough money, which was rare, buy out their own contracts and be freed or a male patron could purchase their contract and make them their wife or concubine. Once their contract was completed, they could choose to go into other areas of prostitution or return home. The good news is that there was no ill stigma attached to marrying a former prostitute, so if one’s dream was to eventually get married and pursue a normal life that was still an option. The bad news is that many of these girls died from STDs or botched abortions.

When we think of prostitutes and brothels, chances are we’re thinking about withering hookers in fishnets chain smoking on street corners or the Bunny Ranch in Nevada. Maybe you’re even picturing a scene from Deadwood (God, I hope you are).

Swearengen got ALL of the hotties

Swearengen got ALL of the hotties

But that’s not how prostitution functioned in Japan. Mizo Shoubai, or the water trade, covered a lot of ground, which included entertainers, comedians, Kabuki performers and other such entertainers. Because that’s what prostitutes were at the time: entertainers. They were seen as a welcome and necessary part of Japan’s economy, and the distinctions between types of prostitutes were rather rigid and well defined. You typically had Courtesans and Geishas and now I will point out that it’s important to realize that Geisha is not synonymous with prostitute, as a lot of people think. In fact, it was common for Geisha to NOT have sex with patrons as they were and are highly skilled. Courtesans on the other hand were the best of both worlds. These were women that were highly skilled in traditional Japanese arts such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, as well as being well educated and witty. There were also ranks within the realm of Courtesans. The lowest were the Yuujo, or more simply, the women of pleasure. These are closer to what we think of when we think of prostitutes. At the top, you had the Oiran, otherwise known as “Castle-topplers” because these girls could get ALL of the cash from the Daimyo (ruling lords). Somewhere in the middle you had Tayuu who were top ranking Courtesans, but who didn’t quite have the mad skillz of an Oiran.

Like the skills to walk in those shoes

Like the skills to walk in those shoes

Oiran are a fascinating group of women. They are the template for Geisha, and essentially, Geisha replaced the Oiran. The reason for this is because of the rarefied air these women occupied. As I’ve already said, these women were well educated, eloquent, well written and talented. They had very rigid standards of behavior and etiquette. They spoke in the Japanese used by the royal court as opposed to common Japanese and as such, they did not entertain common patrons. They sent out elaborate invitations to their high level patrons and then participated in a highly ritualized parade in order to receive those patrons. There are still women who practice the art of the Oiran today, watch them work that shit in this video:

This highly rarefied behavior worked against them as the march of modernity came to Japan. They became increasingly removed from the changes of modern society and they lost most of their clientele. This is where the Geisha came in, and they were originally the poor man’s Oiran. They were skilled in common entertainments and they welcomed common patrons and their popularity flourished. There are still Geisha practicing traditional Geisha-dom, mostly in a section of Kyoto called Gion. If you happen to make it to Japan, I highly recommend a trip to this area as it is a fascinating and beautiful trip into traditional Japan in a way that you rarely get to experience anymore.

Geisha are slightly less elaborate in their make-up

Geisha are slightly less elaborate in their make-up

So, how does this all relate to modern Japan’s concept of Mizo Shoubai, in particular, how it relates to the world of the Host/Hostess as shown in “The Great Happiness Space”? Technically, prostitution has been illegal in Japan since WWII, but the only thing that’s actually illegal is good ol’ penis in vagina sex. Everything else, and I do mean EVERYTHING, is pretty much aces. As such, you have a wide variety of fuzoku—prostitutes—who can provide you with just about anything your heart desires. Whether that means you want to go to a Soapland and have a lady bathe you and then maybe give you some five digit and palm pleasure, or if you want to go to an underground club that features girls in school uniforms that are waiting for you to grope them in the full scale model of a train car, you can find that. And I’m not kidding about this—these places exist. I recommend the excellent photo book “Pink Box: Inside Japan’s Sex Clubs” by Joan Sinclair if you want a primer on the huge variety of sex clubs that exist in Japan.

Everything you've ever wanted

Everything you’ve ever wanted

But then you have Host/Hostesses. So, if Oiran became Geisha then Geisha became Hosts and Hostesses. Just like Geisha, these men and women are selling an entertainment, a fantasy. They are paid for their time, and what you get when you get their time is them catering to virtually every one of your whims. Do you want them to laugh at your jokes? Done. Do you want them to light your cigarettes and pour your drinks? Sure thing. Do you want them to get drunk with you? Of course. Do you want them to tell you that they love you and think you’re the most kawaii girl to ever come into their club? You’ve got it. They’ll also sing Karaoke with you if that’s your jam (and let’s face it, in Japan, it’s EVERYONE’S jam). And when I say that you’re paying for their time, you are paying huge amounts of money for it. People don’t come cheap in this kind of sexual economy. Yes, while sex between Host/Hostess and patron may be technically illegal, it is not illegal to form a private contract between yourself and one of these modern day Geisha that can include sex. Ah, loopholes, what Japanese business is founded upon—see also gambling/Pachinko parlors.

Coincidentally, Hostesses also have hair for days.  And your sister's prom dress.

Coincidentally, Hostesses also have hair for days. And your sister’s prom dress.

One of the most remarkable things about “The Great Happiness Space” is how quickly it shows you that this line of work takes a terrible toll. On the outside, one might think that this line of work would be pretty awesome. You get to hang out with girls, smoke and drink, basically get paid to party. But that all goes out the window when you see how poorly they are treated by their clientele, how much they have to drink and puke through the night just to stay standing and cognizant and when you realize that they have patrons that expect an emotional love connection that these men no longer have the ability to feel let alone provide. Issei, the man at the center of this documentary, seemingly has no life outside of Rakkyo, the club he owns. He laments that this job has caused him to think that real love, real intimate relationships with a woman he might actually care for, is now impossible for him. Women have become interchangeable, and they all want something from him that he isn’t capable of giving. He might have more money than he can possibly spend, but he has no real joy associated with that gain. This is all simply business and he has become a hollow man through plying this very distinct trade.

It most certainly is buddy

It most certainly is buddy

There is a very blurry moral line that all of these Hosts have to walk: the line between giving their customers what they want and taking advantage of them. While their customers might want a love fantasy and might be willing to spend thousands of dollars in a night to achieve that, is it wise to encourage that to boost your night’s earnings as a Host? What if this is a return customer that you’re fond of? What if you don’t want to see them waste their savings but have no real choice because they are your patron and source of income? These are the gray areas of this love for sale economy that we rarely consider, let alone get to see.

The other fascinating element is how this industry is fed by prostitution as a whole. Due to the high asking prices of Hosts, the majority of their clientele are women that also work in the industry. You have Hostesses doing the exact same job as these Hosts (though making considerably less because women are the second class gender in Japan), who sell the illusion of love to their clients, who then turn around and pour that money into the illusion of love with Hosts. You even have women that get so deep into this world that they became prostitutes in order to fund their expensive desires. It’s like a huge, sexual Ouroboros , the snake forever eating its own tail. And that tail is made of prostitutes.

Just like this, but with more prostitutes

Just like this, but with more prostitutes

All kidding aside, the world of prostitution in modern Japan is a necessary evil. While historically it’s been an accepted practice, it now skates a line of ill repute. Sex workers have a stigma attached to them now, and if you worked as a Hostess (because again, women are not on the same status level as men in Japan), it’s less likely that you’re going to find a husband if you’re open about you past. Additionally, if you decide you want to try normal employment, like that of an office job, that’s highly unlikely if you have Host Boy on your resume. While Hosts and Hostesses are no longer indentured servants per se, they are forever tied to and defined by this employment in a way that will ultimately do them no favors.

And yet, these clubs are wildly popular. Normal Japanese society thrives off of this and other similar shady industries in a way that should be deeply shameful and yet is not, due to the very rigid compartmentalization the Japanese are capable of doing when it comes to their desires and their public facades. It is not uncommon for salarymen to visit sex clubs or Hostess clubs with clients and co-workers. In fact, oftentimes these visits are encouraged because it forms an unbreakable bond between co-workers and patron/servant relationships because to rat on your co-worker or break a contract with a client can then lead to that person spilling the beans about what may have happened on a certain night out. It’s essentially a form of pre-extortion and it’s an accepted economic trade. In a sense, the public façade of companies is usually covering up the background of shady deals that happen in very shady places in a way that legitimizes those not so legitimate dealings. It has become an essential aspect of doing business in Japan, and it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. Like so many other unsavory aspects of life, the people at the top retain their positions off the backs and labor of those at the bottom. It should go without saying that the need for and desire to have large amounts of money figures prominently into a person’s decision to work in the sex industry, which makes it that much easier for people higher up on the social totem pole (i.e. those with money) to take advantage of or procure the services of those that desperately want a piece of the pie.

Not as dark as you might imagine

Not as dark as you might imagine

Which in turn leads to the irony of Ouran High School Host Club. Straight up, this is one of my favorite anime series. It’s a Shoujo series that started out as a wildly popular reverse harem manga that then became an anime, that then became a live action show, and now I think they even have a stage version. It tells the story of Haruhi, a poor yet brilliant girl who has been accepted into a school for the very rich elite who happens to break a very expensive vase that belongs to the school’s Host Club. That’s right, a school for the wealthy elite has a Host Club full of beautiful men who will drink tea and eat cakes with you while also telling you how lovely you are. In order to pay for this vase, Haruhi is forced to work for the Host Club, who originally believe her to be a boy due to some wacky misunderstandings. Throughout the show she dresses in drag and plays the role of host while developing complex relationships with her fellow Hosts and helping troubled clientele with their problems, thus freeing them from returning to the Host Club so that they might pursue their true dreams and desires. While this might sound dark, and the implications are, it’s actually a light hearted—though satirical—comedy.

While not necessarily overt in its commentary about the tenuous relationship between those on top and those on the very bottom in the sex industry, the commentary is still there. The very fact that Haruhi is poor and is essentially forced into indentured servitude in order to pay for a valuable item is directly speaking to the origins of prostitution in Japan. Each male member of the Host Club, particularly the power behind the throne—Kyouya-kun—participates to some degree because of the business and familial connections they can gain from doing so. The act of playing Host ensures a successful future here, the direct opposite of what being a Host in Japan actually does for those who are stuck in the industry. Though never stated in the series, it is also preparing them for eventual business deals that will be struck and sealed in the back rooms of clubs and Hostess establishments. Each patron they have benefits directly from their contact with the Host club as well, mirroring the benefits the elite can claim from the sex industry. It’s a highly self-aware series that manages to be funny and touching as well, and if you can’t tell, I am most definitely telling you that you should watch it.

Come for the social commentary, stay for the twincest

Come for the social commentary, stay for the twincest

I have not covered all of the ins and outs of the sex industry in Japan, obviously, and I encourage each of you to learn more about it if you’re interested in anything you’ve read here. I also encourage you to take this knowledge and reconsider Toru Hashimoto’s remarks about the American Military using Japanese prostitutes to slake their sexual urges. Though I wanted to, I wasn’t able to really cover the use of brothels by American GI’s during WWII (because that definitely happened and was encouraged by the Japanese government to keep the racial purity of Japan intact and to stop the American military from raping local women. Seriously. It’s a dark time in both ours and Japan’s history and here’s a link to the Wikipedia article about it. I very much suggest learning more about it).

And if you have any interest in some other Japanese pop cultural properties that deal with this stuff, I can also recommend both the manga and movie “Sakuran” which details the rise of an Oiran in Yoshiwara. It also has a soundtrack by my homegirl Shiina Ringo and it is beautifully shot. I’ve already mentioned “Samurai Champloo”, and teenage prostitution known as compensated dating is dealt with, at least tangentially, in several anime series, including a guilty pleasure of mine Mai-Hime. This blog post here also gives a more varied list of shows and manga you can check out. And if you’re into Japanese authors then I cannot recommend the work of Natsuo Kirino enough. Her books “Out” and “Grotesque” deal with people stuck at the bottom of Japanese society and the lengths they go to in order to make it out or to keep surviving. “Grotesque” in particular deals with prostitution and it’s a brutal read that will stay with you long after you finish it.

That’s about all folks, let me know your thoughts or questions in the comments! I’ll see Tuesday for your regularly scheduled Aku no Hana recap!

Also, this post was powered by Shiina Ringo.  Have this.  It’s because I love you.

4 Responses to “Oiran, Ouran and the Happiness Space: A Primer on the Sex Industry in Japan”

  1. Artemis June 10, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    Fantastic article, thanks! The history of prostitution in Japan is a topic I’ve found extremely fascinating ever since I became interested in Japanese culture as a whole. In particular, as you pointed out, The Great Happiness Space is a really excellent documentary, both in its own right as well as in regards specifically to host clubs. I was wondering if you’ve also seen the older Shinjuku Boys documentary, and what your thoughts on it are if you have? I haven’t yet seen it myself and am curious as to how it compares.

    • entropypieplate June 12, 2013 at 3:39 am #

      Thanks! I haven’t seen Shinjuku Boys, but now I think I have to take a trip to our most excellent video store and hunt it down. Prostitution in Japan was one of those things that was endlessly fascinating while living there because of how, I guess normal it was. Nobody seemed to bat an eye at it, which is especially strange in a country that has so much weirdness in regards to sex and sexuality. I imagine I’ll write more pieces about it, because there’s just so much to touch on overall.

  2. A Portlander October 5, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    Re: captioned illustration above,

    “You mean it’s a whoreoboros?”

    – my girlfriend’s over-the-shoulder contribution to this discussion, relayed with apologies.


  1. Oiran, Ouran and the Happiness Space: A Primer on the Sex Industry in Japan | Fromfukuoka's Blog - June 19, 2013

    […] Oiran, Ouran and the Happiness Space: A Primer on the Sex Industry in Japan. […]

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