Generally speaking, what image would you say the public thinks of when they hear the term “sex culture?” Of course there will be a few individuals who have a favorable image such as “amusement” or “male etiquette.” Sadly, though, the majority of people seem to hold on to negative images such as “unhealthy,” “not good for education,” or “a shameful culture.”
However, Japanese sex culture has such a long, rich history that it would be an absolute waste to sum it up as an unhealthy practice. It is not unreasonable to say that sex culture is a tradition that has always been a part of Japanese culture.
In fact, professions such as prostitution were actually occupations that women aspired to for much of history.
The sex industry from ancient times to the middle ages
The origins of sex culture in Japan can be found within Japanese mythology. Amaterasu, the goddess of the Sun, was alarmed by the rampage of her brother Susanoo, the Japanese God of Storms, and hid inside a cave made from rock. In order to get Amaterasu out of the cave, the other gods attempted a number of different tactics. This cave is referred to as the “heavenly rock cave.” A dance performed by the goddess Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto was among the measures taken to lure Amaterasu out of the cave. Not only is Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto a goddess of Japanese mythology, but she is also considered a deification of miko, or shrine maidens, and the first Japanese dancing girl of all time. Her reasoning behind the dance was to cause enough excitement outside of the cave so that Amaterasu would be curious and step out.
It should be pointed out here that the goddess Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto danced in a nearly naked state, with only hanging strings covering her genitals. Mythological stories are often allegorical expressions of reality. It is said that this particular episode is modeled after festival rituals of ancient times.
In other words, miko actually performed strip dances at festivals in ancient times.
In the Nara period, these kinds of miko were called ukareme, or wandering prostitutes, and began making an occupation out of touring various regions of Japan. They would be invited to banquets, where their main duty was to perform sexual acts. Pay for such contractual obligations was the equivalent of around 100,000 JPY in present-day currency.
It is said that being an ukareme was already a dream job for women living in this period. Later, in the Heian and Kamakura periods, they began being called yūjo, or prostitutes. In the war epic The Tale of the Heike, even Taira no Kiyomori is depicted as yearning after a prostitute. From this, we can infer that prostitutes were regarded as exalted figures.
Prostitution from the middle ages to the modern era
In the Muromachi period, the shogunate went so far as to establish a courtesan house to manage prostitutes.
During the Azuchi-Momoyama period, the courtesan house was surrounded by castle walls and allotted only one district (way in or out) to restrict access. This is how the term “red-light district” was born in Japan.
Japanese sex culture entered a golden age during the Genroku period. At this time, the Shinmachi red-light district to the west and the Yoshiwara red-light district to the east became prominent amusement centers for nightlife. The women who worked at these districts were extremely well cultured and became known as oiran, or courtesans, out of envy and respect.
In modern terms, Japanese red-light districts were granted even better treatment than upscale sex clubs. It is said that, in order to interact with a courtesan, one could expect to pay the equivalent of millions of Japanese yen. Because of this, commoners could not easily utilize red-light districts.
However, in the Edo period, a new type of sex club was born – okabasho (brothels). These establishments were available at prices that even commoners could afford, and became immensely popular. The women who worked here were known as jorō, or whores, and had a rivalry with the oiran.
As outlined above, since ancient times, Japan has been extremely tolerant and sensible with respect to sex culture. It is said that one reason the Japanese people have begun to distain this sex culture lies within the shift from Asian morals to Western morals since the Meiji era.
However, only a little over 150 years have passed since the Meiji era. If we compare that to the number of years between ancient times and the Meiji era, we can feel just how short that history is.
For Japan, a country built on nationalism, the belief that chastity and virtue are good is actually based on a very shallow history.
The fact that over 1,000 years of passed-down Japanese history has become such an insignificant existence is absolutely deplorable. In order to truly love Japanese culture, we must not avert our eyes from Japan’s history of sex culture. We must proudly embrace it.