Prostitution as depicted in ancient Japanese literature


A culture of prostitution has existed in Japan since ancient times. The idea of prostitution back then was quite different, though. Women didn’t just sell their bodies in exchange for currency; they would engage in prostitution as compensation for a trade of goods.

As the times changed, however, the perception of prostitution became tied to Shinto rituals. This could well be a reason that even now there is a tendency in Japanese people to be tolerant of the sex industry.

Afterwards, the prostitution that was once connected with religious rituals changed its form and transitioned into the occupational prostitution we know today.

Excluding the initial origins of prostitution, all information about prostitution can be inferred from literature of the time.

Representative literature includes: the Kojiki (depicts Japanese mythology and is the oldest existing chronicle in Japan), the Man’yōshū (the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry), and The Tale of Genji (a novel written in the Heian period).

Sexual culture as seen in the Kojiki

The Kojiki is the oldest existing chronical in Japan. The content could be said to depict the origin of Japanese mythology and describes the initial birth of Japan, the age of emperors, etc. One episode, known as the “heavenly rock cave” is thought to depict a sexual ritual of the time. 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. Troubled by the disappearance of the sun, the other gods attempted a number of different tactics in order to get Amaterasu out of the cave.

A dance performed by the goddess Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, which resembled what we now call a strip dance, caught Amaterasu’s interest.

The episode concludes with the strip dance succeeding and Amaterasu safely lured out of the rock cave.

It is thought that this depiction borrows the style of a ritual that was actually performed at the time and turns it into an episode of mythology. In other words, we can infer that this type of strip dance was performed at religious rituals in ancient Japan.

It should be noted that stories of these types of rituals are not told in the Chronicles of Japan, which is thought to be the official account of Japan’s history.

The Man’yōshū and ukareme (wandering prostitutes)

There are a number of waka poems recorded in the Man’yōshū relating to women known as ukareme, or wandering prostitutes. Judging from explanations of the poetry, it can be inferred that these women were “traveling lovers.”

We also know that these women performed for high-level bureaucrats of the time, so they could be considered as high-class prostitutes.

However, the current prevailing theory is that these women were not doing the job of miko and performing religious rituals, they were offering prostitution services as an occupation.

In other words, there seems to be no correlation between prostitution in Shinto and the ukareme.

Prostitutes as depicted in The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji is a novel written by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu. It is not only renowned as a story, but has also received high praise as a historical document recording what aristocratic society was like at that time.

In a chapter of the novel called “Miotsukushi,” Hikaru Genji (the main character) visits the Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine, which is currently located in Osaka. There, a large group of prostitutes is depicted as flocking after him.

In the present day, prostitution within the grounds of a shrine would surely be punished. At that time, though, prostitution thrived at shrines. This originates from the fact that prostitution is a ritual in the Shinto religion, as described above.

We’ve covered some rather ancient literature in Japanese history. It is because of how ancient these works are that we can see new truths within. In order to understand the history of Japanese prostitution, it is important to grasp the fundamentals of the past.