5 Tales Of The Most WTF Neighborhood In Japan
In the 17th century, Japan's government suddenly decided to be a cool parent and went: "Okay, fine, if all of you want to have sex with call girls that much instead of studying for med school, at least do it someplace safe." Following this, three red-light districts were established around the country, with Yoshiwara -- located in Edo (old-timey Tokyo) -- being the absolutely wildest of them all …
It Was Like a Separate, Wild Country Where None of the Traditional Rules Applied
Yoshiwara, originally established in 1617, was not only walled off from the rest of Edo, but it was also surrounded by a moat. So that … all the sex inside it wouldn't spill out? There definitely was a lot of it going on there, as Yoshiwara was home to over 100 brothels, but also teahouses, shops, and drinking establishments.
Combined with the fact that a lot of the said brothels put the girls on display in latticed verandas for the passersby to peruse at their leisure, some people have tried to make comparisons between Yoshiwara and Amsterdam's De Wallen red-light district with its window sex workers. But Yoshiwara was so much more. For one, the girls working there, wanting to hide traces of their often-provincial background, invented their own dialect called kuruwa kotoba, or to call it by its proper name that we just made up: Thotanese.
Besides its own language, Yoshiwara also had its own ideas about social hierarchy. It didn't believe in it. Once you were within the red-light district's walls, everyone was more or less equal. In the eyes of the working people of Yoshiwara, it didn't matter whether a person was low or high born. They were all refried dogshit if they didn't have any money and were only there to window shop. If they DID have money, though, they were god, even if they literally came in from a shift at the refried dogshit factory.
This attitude that a peasant could receive the same treatment as a samurai if they just had a big enough wad was downright revolutionary for a country that has social hierarchy literally built into its language. (But don't get all high and mighty because English has its own weird-ass rules, too, like how putting a period at the end of a text somehow makes the text feel more aggressive.) However, it turns out that social ranks are a zero-sum game in Japan, and once the entire class system stopped applying to the customers, it immediately spilled on over to the girls (fortunately, they were mostly used to … stuff spilling on them.)
There Was a Strict Hierarchy in Yoshiwara
In Yoshiwara, the "moat girls" were the cheapest, lowest-rank, most no-frill sex workers around, usually offering quickies on a pile of stinging nettle or something by the moat. For a few pennies more, you probably got a blanket to put on the nettles, then for even more money, you got to have sex slightly away from the moat where let's be frank, people shat and pissed in.
The point is, there was an entire spectrum of sex workers in Yoshiwara, from what we'd consider tunnel bunnies all the way to luxury escorts. That's to be expected, seeing that, at its height, there were up to 9,000 working girls in the district. You're bound to have some variety with numbers like that.
The ones on the display verandas were the yujo, and they were the most common Yoshiwara sex workers. Even the most popular ones were a pretty straightforward deal: you come in, you go in, you go out, and then you leave. It wasn't that simple with the oiran girls.
Now, oiran only made up 2% of all the Yoshiwara workers, and they were like the human version of the hottest club in town: beautiful, exclusive, and a hassle to get into. First of all, you couldn't just go up to one and offer to pay her for sex. The entire process started with you going to a mediator teahouse and just spending money like crazy. Once you ordered half the menu and bought a round for everyone while talking loudly about not being afraid of typhoons because all the gold in your pockets would weigh you down, you were allowed to ASK about a particular oiran. She would come down and sit far away from you, and if you tried to talk to her, you'd be asked politely but firmly to go fuck yourself, you uncultured swine.
The first night was for the oiran to observe you and decide whether you were good enough for her. On the second night, you repeated the entire process, and if you pimped hard enough the night before, the oiran would come down and sit a little closer to you. On the third night, she would join you for a meal, and you were officially her client. The oiran would delight you with poetry, dancing, songs, calligraphy, etc. if you wished. But, no worries, in the end, you'd totally bone. It's hard to put an exact figure on the service in modern money, but some sources say that counting all the parties, a night with a single oiran could cost you up to $13,000. And that doesn't include the cost of the rotator cuff surgery you'd need from all the resulting high-fives from your buddies.
The Yoshiwara Women Were Fashion Icons
The oiran did not live at the teahouse, so when one got word that someone with a gold pouch the size of a tanuki's nutsack was asking for her, she'd have to shlep on over to see him up close. But she'd always take care to make the journey there a fashion-show catwalk.
Every oiran had a reputation to uphold, and that meant traveling in style (something that was pretty common in Japan back then). They'd wear distinct hairstyles with tons of accessories that made them look like Final Fantasy bosses, giant foot-tall disco sandals, and the most chic, elegant clothing imaginable. Originally, the law mandated all the sex workers in Yoshiwara to wear the same kind of drab blue dress, but for some strange reason, no one ever dropped by a police station to say, "Yes, so, I was in the sex section, you know, to buy gum, and they were all dressed sexy instead of boring so …"
Every time an oiran made her way through Yoshiwara, the fashion-conscious people noticed. For example, did she wear vivid blue colors with intricate, let's say, crane designs on her coat? You could bet your ass that Edo city girls would be wearing something similar in no time to piss off their dads. Initially, the Yoshiwara thotty fashion spread around the city through woodblock prints and portraits created by some famous Japanese artists. But eventually, urbane women apparently started hanging out in Yoshiwara to get a peek at what the oiran are wearing and be the most fashionable ones in their neighborhood. Or maybe that's just what they told their husbands when they caught them there. And then they would ask, "Wait, why are YOU here?" and it would just turn into this whole big thing.
Yoshiwara Was the Site of a Brutal Killing Spree
We don't know much about Sano Jirozaemon. We know that he was born sometime in the late 17th century and that he had a little money. Some sources say he was a wealthy farmer, others that he was a very successful coal wholesaler. He might have also been the headman of a village somewhere. What we can say for sure is that he was one of the first lethal "nice guys" in recorded history.
According to one version of the events, in 1696, Sano apparently fell in love with a worker named Yatsuhashi. She was most likely a yujo, and even if she was high-rank enough to not sit in the street cage and be ogled by passersby, she probably came from a poor family and was bound by debt to a specific brothel. And we can just guess what went through Sano's head when he promised to "save" Yatsuhashi. "She'd be so grateful! I'm like the nicest guy ever! I don't even mind that she's a sex worker! God, I'm so great!" But then Yatsuhashi rejected his offer. Sano did not take it well.
By all accounts, he had a psychotic break and killed the girl with a katana. Then he went on a killing spree all around Yoshiwara, slashing and murdering every sex worker in sight. We don't know the exact number of his victims, but it was probably around a dozen or so, with countless more wounded. Sano Jirozaemon was eventually caught and sentenced to death.
Non-political/religious mass killings are actually very rare in Japan, so the story spread and became immortalized on the stage and in art. Kagotsurube, the katana that Sano used in his murders, even had an entire mythology built around it and is now a famous "cursed sword" in Japan -- which is always the risk you take when you name a blade. Either it's going to make you king of something, or it'll be used in a series of grizzly killings. There is no middle ground there.
Yoshiwara Was a Dark and Depressing Place
Even before the 1696 massacre, behind the glamour of the oiran and the weird equality of the class-less Yoshiwara, life was vicious and miserable for the majority of the girls working the red-light district.
Most of the women in Yoshiwara were sold to brothels by their parents for substantial sums of money. Sums they were supposed to pay back by sex work. But that apparently was nearly impossible because many brothel owners basically hummed the tune of Master of the House while calculating the girls' expenses that had to be deducted from their already meager pay. This essentially bound a single girl to the same brothel for the rest of her life. Some enjoyed the life as it guaranteed them food and a roof over their heads. Many, though, were essentially sex slaves. But, willing or not, there was one thing connecting most of these working girls: their horrible diseases.
Syphilis and tuberculosis ran rampant in Yoshiwara. This was a tiny enclave, after all, and with so many people living in such tight quarters, one cough was all it took for the entire district to become seriously sick. Also, remember that the only two kinds of condoms available at the time in Japan were made from tortoise shell or leather, which means that no condoms were available at the time in Japan. And with limited access to clean drinking water, typhoid outbreaks in Yoshiwara also weren't out of the norm.
As a result, it was a damn miracle for a Yoshiwara girl to live past 30. Most died around 20. Even the oiran weren't safe as the heavy white make-up they used was more packed with lead than Al Capone's enemies. To add insult to the syphilis, tuberculosis, typhoid, and lead poisoning, when a Yoshiwara worker died, in the majority of cases, she was wrapped in a piece of old canvas and just dropped at the back entrance of the nearby Jokan-ji temple. Thousands of women were disposed of this way until Jokan-ji became known as "Nage-komi Dera" or "Throw-in Temple." The "throw-in" part is what really gets us. At the very least, couldn't Jokan-ji had been known as the "gently placed-in temple" or something? Haven't these women suffered enough?
Anyway, Yoshiwara was eventually shut down, but the area where it used to stand still dabbles in the sex trade, which is all the proof we need that poltergeists probably aren't real.
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Top image: Joseph Ernest De Becker/Wikimedia Commons