Weird History When Prostitution Became Illegal In Japan, People Began Visiting 'Erotic Health Clubs' Instead  

Colleen Conroy
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While prostitution was outlawed in 1958, the Japanese sex industry as a whole continues to thrive, through the creation of erotic health clubs. Japan is known as a country where tradition and innovation are woven together efficiently. Of course, it is also known as a country where you can buy used panties in vending machines or have intimate relations with a robot. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that prostitution never really left the land of the rising sun. 

Tokyo soap houses, or "soaplands," in Japan, are basically brothels in disguise, where women are paid to lather men up with soap and, granted that the two "get along," will provide additional services. Soaplands are only one of many erotic options in the world of Japanese prostitution, and many Tokyo red light district guides will even help steer curious visitors in the "right" direction. 

Japan's history of selling and buying women dates back centuries, and it's a slippery slope trying to differentiate sex work from sex trafficking in the country. So, how does a burgeoning sex industry thrive in a country where prostitution is supposedly illegal? And, more importantly, what does it mean for the women and men involved?

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Photo: Nesnad/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Tokyo's Red Light District Has Nearly 4,000 Sex-Related Businesses Spanning Just A Few Blocks


Tokyo not only has a thriving red light district, it has one of the densest sex industries in the world. One of the most popular is Kabukicho, located in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo's busiest quarters. 

Measuring only 0.34 square kilometers, Kabukicho packs in an estimated 3,500 soaplands, sex parlors, peep shows, strip theaters, porn shops, lovers' banks, and sex telephone clubs. In the more recent years, cheaper options have become popular with younger generations, while soaplands remain the standard among older, even elderly clientele.

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Photo:  Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Japan Created A State-Run Brothel System Under The Recreation And Amusement Association


In the mid-20th century, Japan received negative attention from the outside world for openly promoting and organizing prostitution as a national industry. A new, low-profile version was also adopted under the Recreation and Amusement Act, or the RAA, in order to entertain and satisfy the American G.I.s stationed in the occupation following World War II.

Japanese officials believed, or at least hoped, this specially-designed system of brothels would help prevent American soldiers from raping Japanese women. Rape and assault were a huge problem during the war, and the RAA was a last-ditch effort to make it slightly better, if possible. 

The topic of women's rights and their place in Japanese society is plain to see here, in the sense that it was nearly non-existent. The RAA was short-lived, lasting only 4 months before it was shut down, but that didn't stop the Japanese government from recruiting (AKA forcing) some 55,000 women into prostitution.

The real question is, was it even successful in protecting women? In his book, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII, John Dower wrote, 

"The number of rapes and assaults on Japanese women were around 40 per day while US/Japanese sponsored brothels were in operation, and then rose to an average of 330 a day after they were terminated in early 1946.”

Clearly, the problem wasn't prostitution; it was men.

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Photo:  Kitagawa Utamaro/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Prostitution Is Illegal In Japan, But There's A Massive Loophole


For a long time in Japan, prostitution was a regulated, controlled industry. In 1958, however, the government passed the Prostitution Prevention Law, and it was intended to crack down on all "morally questionable" businesses.

However, the law itself has a ridiculously narrow definition of prostitution: “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment.” And that's it: intercourse. The law in no way acknowledges any other form of sexual activity as prostitution, meaning any other sexual acts are still fair game. Therefore, erotic health services are entirely legal in Japan.

Furthermore, there is the issue of the term,"unspecified person." Sex with a "specified," i.e. acquainted, consenting partner for money is legal. Authorities admit it's quite difficult to determine what qualifies as proof two people have been "acquainted" or not prior to engaging in intercourse. 

Lastly, most of Japan's sex industry, including sex trafficking, has ties to the Yakuza. Ultra-powerful and highly influential, agreements between the Yakuza and the authorities can further muddy the waters of legal sex work. 

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Photo:  Kakidai/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Soaplands Are Special Public Bathhouses Where Clients Can Discreetly Pay For Sex


Soaplands, or soap houses, were initially called toruko-buro (which meant Turkish bath), and emerged in response to the 1958 ban on prostitution in Japan. Although on paper prostitution is illegal, soaplands successfully skirt around the issue.

Catering primarily to men, soap houses are licensed as "special public bathhouses," where clients pay an entrance fee and are then shown to a room where a "masseuse" undresses and scrubs them down in a tub. There is an exchange of money between the client and masseuse directly, which is the loophole that makes soaplands legal.

Soap house owners claim this is a personal transaction between two, consenting adults, implying that they have somehow hit it off, and the soap house was simply where they happened to meet. Once they know each other, any sexual acts between them are considered private behavior between two parties.