by Bob Cutts
(Continued from ‘The City That Sex Built’)
The Yoshiwara was a walled city—though only of a dozen small blocks—surrounded by a moat. Which acted more in the capacity of a sewage ditch, the folks snicker.
The walls weren’t very towering and the moat wasn’t very mighty; it was the chains of the mind that bound the girls to the Yoshiwara. They were forbidden to leave the compound without both a police pass and an escort, and escapees were hunted down relentlessly and punished with . . . well, with being sent back.
It was white slavery, indebtedness; poverty-stricken parents who had sold their “services” to the Yoshiwara that kept most of them, beautiful and plain, aristocratically ensconced or hustling in the gutters, from breaking out. It was The System that they could not beat.
There were 126 brothels when De-Becker wrote his definitive English-language study of “The Nightless City” in 1899. They ranged from veritable palaces where the women were never put on display in the cages, but “introduced” to wealthy patrons through photo albums in the discretion of tea houses, to the dives where coolies and ricksha men bought an hour of play and maybe a lifetime of disease for pennies, and where the women were kept “like cats and dogs.”
There were, remembers the old sobaya-san, two or three “love” suicides a year.
“There is still a lot going on here—though not as much as in the old days—in the nature of what used to take place. It’s just gone underground, that’s all.”
—A police official, delicately describing prostitution in the Yoshiwara today
That is not to say, the law officers must have you believe, that they take any oblique views of “what goes on.” The law is the law, and prostitution is almost—but not quite—outside it. Or as they put it: “We’re not taking it easy on Yoshiwara because of its history—we are just as tough there as anywhere else.”
But with the facade of some 60 Turkos leering out at you shoulder-to-shoulder on the streets of “that” fame, it would be hard to insist the law has triumphed over the Delicious Iniquity in Yoshiwara.
“We enforce the laws, but of course we go no further than just that,” is how police describe their operations. The structure of that law is what causes some difficulty in its execution. It seems open to a lot of interpretation. While prostitution, the plain exchange of money for sexual favors, is by itself not illegal, almost everything else involving the act is: solicitation, pimping, living off the earnings of the ladies, etc.
Ironically, it was the government that brought prostitution back here. When the admittedly imperfect law closed out-and-out red light houses all over Japan, it didn’t take Turko owners long to figure out they had a monopoly on clean sin: an enterprising girl could include most anything under the heading of “Services” without crossing the thin line of the law. Tokyo soon seemed faced with a flash flood of Turkish bathwater, and the ubiquitous “They” passed new laws confining Turkos to rigid geographic zones; generally the nighttime amusement areas like Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku.
Though there were only a few Turkos in Yoshiwara, someone decided that its history earned it a place on the list. And so the many Turkos who had to suddenly relocate, gambling on the magic of the name and on the cheap rents, moved into Yoshiwara. The legally defined limits extend exactly to the line of the old wall, so it is precisely within the ancient Yoshiwara that they all poetically cluster.
(An interesting footnote: In 1656, 38 years after the Yoshiwara opened its gates in the Rush Moor, the Shogunate decided the gay quarter clashed with Yedo’s urban renewal plans. It ordered the proprietors to relocate, offering among others an isolated plot out on the banks of the Nihon Dike along the Sumida River; out back of the Asakusa Temple and decidedly in the sticks. The gentlemen were reluctant to leave the downtown action but the Shogunate assuaged their resentment by promising to close down some 200 illicit bath-houses in Yedo, which competed with the brothels by way of the “Special Services” proffered in their bathrooms by “shampooers” of the fair sex. Even then Tokyo had Turkos—and even now Yoshiwara sits out back of the Asakusa Temple.)
“Right after the anti-prostitution law was enacted, most house owners took off with their money and their girls to their villas in the countryside. We hear rumors that at least some arc still in the business out there in the hot spring areas.” They left in ’58—one assumes the personnel have changed, even if the management hasn’t.
What happened to the girls of post-Occupation Yoshiwara? No one really knows. Old-timers in the area think a few of them drifted back to work the Turkos, but most just moved on. Although righteous promises of government-funded rehabilitation resounded in the Diet when the bill was passed, no one can remember any of the girls getting any assistance.
“Most of the girls here today drift in via the cabaret trade because the money’s better,” say the police, “and are not working in the Turkos through any kind of coercion. If they complain of it, we take action. Occasionally we do make an arrest; usually it’s a Turko manager whom one of the girls claims is trying to force her into prostitution. But basically it’s a quiet area. Since there are so many Turkos in such a small area, and since Yoshiwara is not very close to any of the cabaret districts, the business is slower and profits are smaller—the gangs don’t seem to take much direct interest in them. The Turko-related shakedown and mugging cases arc practically nonexistent here.
“Mostly, it’s just country folk who come here now. They visit the Asakusa Temple, and out of curiosity come to the place with the famous name.”
Shhh! You can hear history reciting. The festivals of the famous Asakusa Sensoji Temple drew country folk to Yedo centuries ago— after which the farmers just happened to drop by “the place with the famous name.” Out of curiosity, no doubt.
“Well, well. I met with a remarkably lovely damsel. I rushed upon her with my javelin and we wrestled together right valiantly. Then I pretended to be in my cups and went ’round annoying everybody…”
—An old drinking song of the Yoshiwara
It was, for the men, a world of laughter, a land of voluptuous fantasies, a place where the party never ended, the sake cups never ran dry, night never fell.
The fabulous merchant prince of Yedo, Kinokuniya Bunzaemon, would buy the entire quarter for a whole night, shutting the Great Gate to all but a handful of his guests, just to play a joke on his collegues.
Samurai and later the generals of Imperial Japan came and brushed elbows with poets and painters—swords had to be checked at the door to prevent drunken brawling from turning to mayhem.
Famous men could be noted, if not recognized, by the special low-brimmed straw hats teahouses provided to cover the faces of the shy as they hurried down the Naka-no-Cho to keep an appointment. Young and wealthy profligates hired white horses with footmen to lead and sing them to the quarter, all the way from Nihonbashi.
Bawdy songs and gauzy legends of the great beauties of the quarter were traded around every table. Male geisha, the stand-up burlesque comics of the Yoshiwara, competed with their fairer colleagues to sing and dance for the parties of the wealthy.
The workers from the pulp mill down the dike strolled, smoked and laughed from cage to gleaming cage, always interested but never buying— merely browsing while the pulp vats cooled enough for them to go back to work. They gave window-shopping its name in Japan: “hiyakashi,” cold pulp.
It was a jumbled, dazzling puzzle-place where a million intoxicated images of light, sound, beauty and sweating lust swirled together, obscured the face of the night and pushed the troubles of the day an arm’s length from memory.
No one was there in the grey dawn, to see the beggars fighting over the banquet scraps in the gutter.
“The oiran couldn’t leave, of course. They had to rely on their regular customers coming back to see them over and over again to make any good money. So they were very kind and generous, the epitome of what gentle Japanese girls should be.”
—Barber Matsumura, age 70, descended of 100 years of barbers who have lived in the Yoshiwara
Its 1974 and the generals have gone on to sleep with their own blood lusts; the poets of the day sit in Shinjuku Station clinging to their polyurethane bags of paint thinner visions.
An ancient stone in the shrine yard mumbles the praises of a beauty long withered; another dusty marker of another era can still be seen over a silent door in a narrow alley: “Off Limits.” The soldiers and the poets have come and gone.
The place where the Sumida tucked in through the dike to feed the moat—where boatmen tied up for quick trysts and where gorgeous rafts took their cargos of silkened aristocrats and the Wives of the Evening to and from cruises on the river— is still there. Or rather, is just leaving. It’s a green-scummed ditch now, and an army armed with jackhammers and cement is busy burying it. Where moat and wall stood now runs a wide sidestreet. Only a few yards of the canal are still visible.
The dike is gone; in its place a broad smoggy boulevard and a thousand scuffling taxis that have replaced the ricksha which parked here, outside the Great Gate.
The river has even been banished from Yoshiwara: too luxuriant in its broad meandering basin, it is now piped more efficiently through concrete through to the brown jelly of Tokyo Bay. It limps through a few blocks to the cast, and well out of sight, of Yoshiwara now.
Oh, yes. Looking-Back Willow is still here, still at the entrance to 50-Teahousc Road, the short street that connected the dike to the Great Gate. Well, it’s here in spirit. . . .
The sad little tree that earned its name by watching weeping country parents bid their daughters a last farewell as they turned them over to the brothels, and the girls that looked back and back again at a world scaling forever behind them, has died. Carbon Monoxide killed it. And its replacement died the same way.
This is the third Looking-Back Willow. It sets off nicely the yellow of the Shell Station on the corner, and one hopes it will last a few years more. But then, the life of the Yoshiwara always was fantasy.
On Matsuo’s shore, our meeting place.
At dusky hour of night I wait
My longed-for loved one to embrace;
Ah, why linger’st thou so late!
My ardent passion, than the fire
That heats the salt-pans, rages higher”
—An old poem, used in a charm by the oiran of the Yoshiwara
“The old Yoshiwara is dead and gone,” says the police officer with finality. So be it, echoes history.