The culture of prostitution has continued in Japan since ancient times. In the Nara period, there was already a group of wandering prostitutes called ukareme. Even in the age of hunters and gatherers before that, it was already understood that that a woman’s body had inherent value and could be sold.
Actually, this type of culture did not exist only in Japan, but also in the history of many countries around the world. In other words, prostitution was a universal culture that existed throughout the globe.
However, along with cultural enlightenment, for some reason there has been a growing perception in Japan that prostitution is a culture indigenous to Japan. Japanese perception is that such cultures do not exist anywhere in the West, and they look down upon themselves, feeling that Japan is culturally barbaric in comparison.
One reason for this was the lofty moralism and lectures of the west. This perception grew and grew, eventually exploding into serious issues such as the María Luz Incident in 1872.
”Modern” Westerners, and the “pre-modern” Japanese
There are multiple definitions to the term “modern era,” but I won’t discuss that here. I believe you should already understand the perceived image of this term to a certain degree.
All you need to understand is that the modern era was the period when science and law began being seen as important, and the pre-modern era, on the other hand, was when superstition and lynchings were prioritized.
When Westerners first visited Japan, they came as “modern people.” The Japanese welcomed these “modern people” while themselves playing the role of “pre-modern people.”
Until the Edo period, Japan was home to yūkaku (red-light districts) and okabasho (brothels). In rural areas, even customs such as yobai (night crawling) and orgies lingered strongly. Westerners, of course, strongly criticized this situation. This criticism stemmed from the practices not being in line with Christian moral principles and the ethics of modern countries.
However, it wasn’t as if the commercial sex industry was ancient history for these Westerners, either. Up until this point, the West had been tolerant of licensed and unlicensed prostitution just like Japan.
Despite this, Westerners lectured the Japanese as if they had never had such a culture, even in their distant past. At the time, however, the Japanese people viewed the West as an extremely advanced region. This resulted in them listening to the lectures of the West at face value.
The María Luz Incident and attacks on Japan
In 1872, the María Luz, a Peruvian cargo ship en route from Macao to Peru with a cargo of coolies (Chinese indentured laborers for Peruvian plantations), made a stop at Yokohama.
At the time, there were international agreements to ban slavery, so Japan put this matter before the courts. The trial ended with the return of the coolies to Macao, but the English attorney representing Peru made a statement that shocked Japan.
He said that involuntary servitude was practiced in Japan in the form of the sale of yūjo (prostitutes) and oiran (courtesans).
Of course, from a Japanese perspective, these women were not considered to be slaves. From a Western perspective, however, there was no difference between them and sex slaves.
From the course of these events, the moral tone of the lectures to Japan about how prostitution was wrong continued to escalate. Since the West hid the fact that the reasoning behind these lectures was that they had once tolerated prostitution, as well, the Japanese were left to think that prostitution was an embarrassing culture that was indigenous to Japan.
The María Luz Incident was nothing more than an opportunity for the West to strengthen their criticisms of Japanese prostitution. That said, these events led Japan down the path of prohibiting such customs in order to modernize the nation, so there was a certain amount of historical significance involved.
The belief that prostitution is a culture indigenous to Japan is false. It is probably also a bit fast to leap to the conclusion that such cultures are something Japan should be ashamed of. In fact, the culture of prostitution has greatly contributed to Japan’s sense of spirituality. Shouldn’t Japan be proud of its tolerance for the sex industry?