Nowadays, soaplands represent the Japanese sex industry, but when you consider Japan’s long history, soaplands haven’t actually been around for that long.
Women working as yūjo (prostitutes) and oiran (courtesans) have been active in Japan since the Edo period. Soaplands, on the other hand, have only been around since the end of World War II in 1945. The existing format of soaplands, however, has an extremely long history. Soaplands were once known as Turkish baths. I would now like to explain how they came to be.
The era of Turkish baths
Since olden times, Western people have gazed upon the Orient (present-day Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Iraq, etc.) and its mystique with longing and wonder.
When Turkey was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, tourists from the West were impressed by the nation’s baths. Despite the baths being divided by gender, it was still shocking to Westerners to be nude in front of other members of the same sex. Rumors regarding these baths in Turkey, along with the mystique of the Orient, began creating increasingly exotic impressions.
These trending thoughts also propagated to Japan in the 1950s, and baths where women scrubbed down men began to be called Turkish baths.
After the war, sex clubs became prohibited in Japan. At the same time, in order to exploit loopholes in these laws and regulations, a new type of sex industry began to evolve. This process resulted in Turkish baths, which were licensed as saunas, becoming the newest form of sex club.
From Turkish baths to soaplands
Over the long period of time from their birth in the 1950s, the name “Turkish bath” became a common term that permeated throughout Japanese society. Occasionally, the term “Turkish bath” was shortened to “Turkey.”
Unfortunately, since this resulted in the image of sex clubs being tied to the country of Turkey, even when the country’s name was being used innocently, the term became problematic.
Of course, the people who were impacted the worst by this terminology were Turkish people living in Japan. In the early 1980s, a Turkish man by the name of Nusret Sancaklı, a student of seismology at Tokyo University, led a movement to change the name of Turkish baths and to rid the term Turkey of its sexual imagery.
Through these twists and turns, the term soapland was finally decided by the public in 1984. This term is still widely used today.
The threat from the Olympics
During the period that soaplands were still known as Turkish baths, their existence was threatened by the holding of the Tokyo Olympics.
The Tokyo Olympics were held in 1964. It was a project that brought athletes and important figures from many different countries to Japan, and put the credibility of the nation into the world spotlight. In preparation, the city of Tokyo was redeveloped in order to live up to its important role.
During this time, sex clubs faced the strictest crackdowns. After the abolishment of the akasen (literally “red line”), a term that refers to districts where sex clubs were not policed prior to the war, soaplands, along with their services accompanying actual intercourse, became particularly popular. For this reason, the policing agencies focused their efforts on the crackdown of soaplands.
As you know, the eradication was unsuccessful as many soaplands still exist even after the Olympics. This does not change the fact, though, that it had been a very trying time for the soapland industry.
If you examine the history of soaplands, you will see that it is intertwined with significant historical events in Japan’s past. We can only pray that the existence of soaplands is not threatened again by regulation and redevelopment.