Episode 234 – The Oldest Profession

Note: Since this week we’re talking about the sex trade, I’ve taken the precaution of giving this episode an explicit tag. However, it does not include any more language than usual; it’s just a precaution because iTunes can get pretty finicky about this stuff.

So with that in mind, let’s get down and dirty into the world of prostitution!

Listen to the episode here.


Stanley, Amy. Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan.

Garon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds

A solid Japan Times article on the subject.


A print of a beautiful courtesan from the mid Tokugawa era (approx 1660-1680). Prostitutes became Japan’s first sex symbols, as women who lacked formal ties to a specific man.
A harimise in the old Yoshiwara. Photo is colorized from the mid Meiji era.
Probably the most harrowing image of imperial era prostitution is the harimise, the caged screen behind which prostitutes were displayed. When campaigners railed against the barbarity of the institution, images like this one (which was later colorized) were their most common touchstones.
Postwar Japan saw a big boom in prostitution as women had many other paths of economic advancement closed to them. Here, a woman solicits clients on the streets of Tokyo.
Even before the anti-prostitution law, relations with the authorities could be contentious. Here, police crack down on an unregistered brothel in 1954.
Kabukicho, Tokyo’s modern red light district (the old one, the Yoshiwara, is now part of the upscale Nihonbashi and Ginza neighborhoods). Prostitution continues semi-openly thanks to loopholes in the anti-prostitution law.

10 thoughts on “Episode 234 – The Oldest Profession”

  1. Hey Isaac,

    I love your show and I’ve been a listener now almost since its inception. I liked this episode a lot. Though I found it quite surprising that you didn’t discuss male prostitution at all. Japanese male prostitution is among the most well documented, complex and interesting examples of the phenomenon in the ancient, medieval and modern world. Will there be a follow up episode or are you leaving the topic at that for now?

    1. Honestly, I thought the episode was just a bit too jam packed for it, particularly considering how much set up the topic would need. One of these days, perhaps.

  2. Well, well, well. What a long strange its been.

    Hello Isaac, recent listener first time poster.

    I listened to your burakimin episode and it did adresss a little more about this group other than they were a pariah caste discriminated by the culture at large.

    However, I got lost down a rabbit hole called Japan This and encountered a post regarding shitamachi vs yamanote. In this said rabbit hole there was a blurb about the burakumin, specifically a specific temple in a said burakumin settlement where dead prostitutes were dropped, en-masse, at a temple nicknamed Nagekomi-dera or the “the dumping temple.”

    To quote the post,

    “Prior to and during the Edo Period the area was made of rural, agricultural communities in 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District (this was never part of Edo). The area was only associated with peasant farmers until 1651, the first year of 4th shōgun Tokugawa Ietsuna’s rule. In this year, the shōgunate built 小塚原死刑場 Kozukappara Shikeijō Kozukappara Execution Ground in the village of Minami Senjū. Around this time, the area of Minami Senjū came to have a heavy association with the 穢多 eta outcastes (literally “abundances of filth”)[vii] in the Edo Period. These were people at the bottom of the social class structure who did “unclean work” such as execution, clean up and disposal of dead bodies, leather work, butchery, etc. Minami Senjū’s reputation as a village of “unclean” people and a place of death and torture has tarnished the area for centuries[viii]. Also, it didn’t help that it was one of the most mismanaged execution grounds of the shōgunate.”

    “Present day Arakawa Ward is also home to 浄閑寺 Jōkan-ji Jōkan Temple, often called 投込寺 Nagekomi-dera the “dumping temple.” I mentioned this briefly in my article on Yoshiwara, but this was where most licensed prostitutes were interred. The name seems to imply that dead prostitutes were just impiously dumped at the temple gates at all hours of the day throughout the Edo Period, but this is probably not the case. In 1855, there was a major earthquake which burned down much of Yoshiwara[ix]. As a result, the corpses of the girls were wrapped in sheets – or whatever facilitated easy transport – and they were dumped in a massive heap in front of the temple. At any rate, the sight of the pile of bodies of young girls (mostly 12-20 years old) made an impact on the local people and the nickname stuck. At any rate, thinking of girls sold off by their families to be sexual slaves and then dumped at a crappy temple in the countryside because no one else would take them is pretty fucking depressing.”

    After spending most of my Sunday evening reading this site, I wake up Monday morning to your podcast “The Oldest Profession.”

    Small world huh?

    Here are the links:



  3. A couple of questions:
    1. Is there any attempt for sex workers in Japan to organize? I know that there are a few of such organizations in the US trying to reduce stigma and improve working conditions. Are there any similar organizations in Japan?
    2. How has Japan dealt with prostitutions in terms of public health? Was part of the regulations that were set up starting in the Tokugawa an attempt at controlling the transmission of sexually transmitted infections?
    3. Speaking of STIs how did Japan deal with the spread of HIV? What do they do to ensure that modern sex workers don’t have or spread the virus?

    1. I know there was an attempt at unionization in Tokyo in the early 1950s that was shut down by the anti-prostitution law. More recently, I don’t know of any cases, but it’s far from my area of expertise.
      My understanding is that the better classes of brothel did check in the Tokugawa period, particularly for syphillis, which was a constant issue in the region. How specifically that worked, I do not know.
      More recently, to my knowledge, HIV screening altogether is relatively uncommon in Japan — the Ministry of Health only committed to making the screenings free last year.

  4. What a great episode this was. And, for the record, unless one considers the topic inherently problematic, I don’t think any of its content was “unclean”. It was well-written as always and tasteful. And very interesting – love the intersection of social history and insight into Japanese intellectual history (prostitutes as merchants etc.).

  5. I was a little disappointed with this episode. I was hoping that you’d talk about the history of oiran, geisha, karayukisan, and yuujo. I was more interested in these things than the modern legal status of prostitution and its status in feminist theory.

    1. I can certainly understand that. My thinking here was more along the lines of dealing with the aspects of prostitution Westerner are less immediately familiar with — and with the ongoing issues related to it. I’d love to do something on the other aspects of the sex trade at some point, though.

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