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Yoshiwara busts send message: ‘Keep it clean’

by Mark Schreiber

On May 24, 1956, the Diet voted Japan’s anti-prostitution statute into law, effective from April 1, 1957; but enforcement was postponed a year to give sex workers time to seek new livelihoods.

“On its last night of business, after the 106 houses — with fewer patrons than usual — saw off their customers at around 11 p.m., the lights finally began flickering out … and the streets of the Yoshiwara, which in the past had been bright enough not to even need lamps, descended into a deep darkness. It had changed so much that, in that one instant, I said to myself, ‘Where in the world is this place?’ “

The above is excerpted from Toshiko Fukuda’s memoir “Yoshiwara wa Konna Tokoro de Gozaimashita” (“The Yoshiwara Was This Kind of Place”). As proprietress of geisha house Matsubaya in Yoshiwara, Fukuda was on hand to observe the demise of Tokyo’s oldest and largest licensed brothel quarters.

“Certainly with the implementation of this new law,” she wrote, “the people in the Yoshiwara found it hard to believe it really spelled the end of their world.”

It was not long, however, before Yoshiwara reverted to its original purpose, with scantily clad masseuses servicing customers in private rooms equipped with steam cabinets — called Toruko-buro (Turkish baths). Except for the male-oriented tabloid press — which ran hands-on reviews by toruko hyōron-ka (bathhouse critics) — the Toruko (renamed “soaplands” by the owners’ association in December 1984) did a good job of staying out of the news and the authorities accorded tacit, if grudging, approval to the goings-on therein.

This arrangement was made possible by exploiting a loophole. Sex was ostensibly not peddled by the bathhouse operator per se, but came about as the result of mutual affection between male customers and the female attendants who toiled as independent contractors.

In any event, the unprecedented mass-arrests last month (Oct. 27) came as a major surprise to both the industry and the public.

“Right before our eyes, eight microbuses and several patrol cars appeared, and investigators began pouring out one by one,” an eyewitness to the bust told Weekly Playboy (Nov. 26). “They spread out to the eight shops. Then they led the male greeters, female bath attendants and customers into the vans and drove away.”

Placed under arrest for violation of the anti-prostitution law was the president of Sun World Holdings, Nobuo Komatsuzaki, and several dozen employees at eight bathhouses in Yoshiwara, employing some 634 female attendants, which belonged to the company’s Orange Group. Over the previous two and a half years, the group had allegedly raked in revenues of over ¥10 billion.

Veteran observers of the “pink” industry immediately recognized the president as the younger brother of entrepreneur Sakae Komatsuzaki, founder of the popular Hawaii hostess-club chain whose menus featured mai-tais, pupu platters and hula-skirted hostesses.

The eight shops under the Orange banner were bargain-basement bathhouses, charging as little as ¥12,000 for a 50-minute session, and providing none of the special amenities offered by the district’s upscale competitors — such as complimentary shuttle bus rides to the nearest rail station or sensual sudsy rubdowns atop air mattresses.

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department justified the raid, saying, “We had information that prostitution between the masseuses and customers was being performed in the private rooms … and the services being provided by those places were illegal.”

But what spurred the police to mount such a large-scale raid? Based on timing, which came two days after Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara announced his resignation, some people speculated that his honor, who had initiated repeated attempts to clean up the metropolis during his tenure, was getting in one last thump.

Others were not so certain.

“Over the past five or six years, the Yoshiwara has been increasingly hit by deflation, as well as the prolonged recession,” Kazuo Kamata, a writer covering the “pink” trade, told Nikkan Gendai (Nov. 1). “There was a clear and growing gap between the winners — shops that could attract customers by making available plenty of young and pretty girls — and losers that struggled to survive.”

Kamata speculates that “the outfit arrested this time may have become too conspicuous, making it the target of resentment by competitors.”

“When shops only collect an admission charge and payment for services rendered goes directly to the girls, then the shop could claim it was not involved directly in prostitution,” writer Yoshiya Fukafue explained to Shukan Shincho (Nov. 15). “But the Orange shops operated under a system that collected a flat fee upon entry. I suppose that gave the police leverage.”

While other bathhouses in the district are gloating they’ve soaked up new clientele from Orange’s establishments, Weekly Playboy notes that police are not above resorting to new ruses to make sure operators toe the line.

“Recently teams of four cops were walking the street wearing funeral suits, feigning drunkenness,” a bathhouse employee told the magazine. “Even our veteran tout couldn’t make them out, right up to the moment they arrested him.”