OSAKA — When Tadafumi Yoshizato was in junior high school, his friends hocked his watch so they could go to Osaka’s Tobita Shinchi district to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. Now, Yoshizato, a 61-year-old illustrator, goes to enjoy pleasures of a more nostalgic nature.
Although “yukaku” (brothels) theoretically were banned by the Antiprostitution Law in 1958, some are officially registered as restaurants, and the red light side of Tobita is still flickering.
As a young man, Yoshizato said, he was attracted by the pink lights illuminating the yukaku, which set them apart from the surrounding neighborhoods.
Nowadays, Yoshizato particularly adores Taiyoshi Hyakuban, an establishment on the northeast corner of Tobita. Built as a brothel in 1918, Hyakuban has been operating as a restaurant since 1970.
Yoshizato loves it so much he formed a fan club. “A building becomes obsolete unless people use it. So what I can do is hold parties several times a year and speak well of Hyakuban,” Yoshizato said, explaining his reasons for starting the club.
Hyakuban looks like a cross between an “izakaya” (drinking establishment) and a country inn, but with garish decorations.
Many of its 21 rooms have changed little since its days as a brothel. “You go inside of Hyakuban and it’s another world. You see models of famous landmarks such as Nikko Toshogu Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture and Kyoto’s Sanjo Ohashi Bridge,” Yoshizato said. “Some of the rooms are reminiscent of boarding a boat on the river, and there is also a room with bell-shaped shoji that generates the atmosphere of a temple.”
Since the fan club was formed last October by Yoshizato and Shinya Hashizume, director of the Research Institute of Culture and Art at Kyoto Seika University, it has grown more rapidly than expected and Yoshizato has had to cancel plans to invite the public to its next meeting in April.
A specialist in architectural history, Hashizume said Hyakuban is a rare yukaku in its size and design. “The architectural quality of the building is not so special, as it was designed for ordinary people. What is special is that it is from the prewar period, and this kind of building has become quite rare,” Hashizume said.
The Tobita Shinchi district is also exceptional for retaining the air of the Taisho Era (1912-1925), he said, noting that many buildings were designed in a modern style.
Because Tobita is outside the central commercial district, the traditional buildings in the area were not replaced by more up-to-date structures, he said.
After a big fire in 1912 forced more than 2,000 prostitutes and 100 brothels out of Namba Shinchi, a cemetery was cleared away to make room to build Tobita Shinchi, one of the last licensed yukaku quarters.
Tobita Shinchi’s opening caused much controversy, as antiprostitution campaigns were in full force at the time, Hashizume said.
With the fan club members ranging from officials at big companies to artists and scholars, Yoshizato counts on them to come up with ideas to keep Hyakuban alive. “No matter who they are, once they arrive at Hyakuban, they are just middle-aged men,” he said.
Two meetings he has so far organized did not bring any profit, but Yoshizato doesn’t care, because “one should not make money enjoying culture.”
Masako Kinoshita, current owner of Hyakuban, does not see the building as anything of cultural interest, but she is grateful for its patrons. “I do not intend to preserve it for a long time. It is a good building, but it keeps going thanks only to the customers,” she said.
Yoshizato and Hashizume say they will patronize Hyakuban as long as it’s there. “Even if nobody else comes, Yoshizato and I will be here drinking, talking and enjoying the atmosphere till the place is gone,” Hashizume said.