Rape in Japan’s early history


Japan’s sexual morality has changed greatly throughout the years. Acts like infidelity and prostitution, which wouldn’t be recommended in the present day, were performed rather overtly in ancient times.

Surprisingly, rape was also tolerated in ancient times. It goes without saying that rape is a crime that must not ever be committed. However, it is a crime that is based on our present-day set of values, and, the fact of it is, cannot be said to be an absolute sin.

I would like to explore the culture known as tsujitori which took place on streets during the Heian period, and think about what caused perceptions about rape to change.

Picking up girls in the Heian period: tsujitori

Picking up girls feels like a relatively new culture born from young people of modern times. However, picking up girls was also done on the streets during the Heian period.

This method of hitting on girls was called tsujitori at the time. Men would call out to the women and try to win them over, just like we still do in the present day.

What was different, though, was that in the Heian period, rape would frequently occur. There are also cases in the present when hitting on a girl can lead to rape, an obviously atrocious act.

During the Heian period, though, rape was not a particularly reproachable act. Of course, even women of the time surely found the act to be somewhat offensive. However, rape occurred on an everyday basis, and was not an incident worthy of causing trouble over.

Women traveling alone and rape

During and after the Heian period, it was not uncommon for women to travel between regions alone. It would be easy for a modern-day person to hear that and think to themselves, “Wouldn’t it be dangerous for these women to travel by themselves?”

However, women of the time knew there would be rape involved before they left. It was all part of the journey. So, as long as there wasn’t an uproar over something along the lines of a murderer, women didn’t feel threatened.

Similarly, there are a great deal of scenes in The Tale of Genji, which was written in the Heian period, where rape occurs.

Conflicts between rape and prostitution

From a man’s perspective, rape and prostitution both mean about the same thing – sex with a woman. The only difference is whether or not they have to pay money.

From a woman’s perspective, however, there is a huge difference between the two. Rape is an act that a woman has no control over, and prostitution is an act that a woman actively performs.

In other words, from the birth of a society where men can’t rape women even if they want to, prostitution has become the predominant culture over that of rape.

Prostitution flourished at key junctions of traffic

Transit began to develop during the Heian period. Because of this, areas around the mouths of big rivers became key junctions where boats would come and go to travel the seas.

Many of the men who worked at these places had wives and children they left behind. For them, it was easier to find a prostitute rather than rape a woman who was passing by.

This was because the amount of effort it would take to catch an amateur girl and rape her was not worth a one-night affair.

As a result, the number of women working as prostitutes at key junctions began to rise. These women would eventually be called yūjo.

Rape was abolished by prostitution

After prostitution became a common concept, rape gradually disappeared. Conversely, the percentage of women working as prostitutes has risen over the course of time.

Prostitution flourished at key junctions such as post stations. When the Muromachi period arrived, prostitutes even began emerging on the streets of the capital. This is proof that the existence of prostitutes had finally been adopted as a general occurrence.

Present-day perceptions of rape differ greatly with those of the past. Even though the culture of rape had progressively disappeared since the since the Heian period, it was not entirely gone. It took a long time to reach the sexual ethics of the present day.