National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Anniversaries loom for gum producer Lotte and the Yoshiwara red-light district

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

In 1941, a 19-year-old Korean chemistry student named Shin Kyuk-ho traveled to Tokyo to study at a technical college. He remained in Japan following the war and, under the name Takeo Shigemitsu, founded Lotte Co. in 1948. The brand’s name was inspired by Charlotte, the heroine of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s autobiographical novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”

This year, Lotte — now the world’s third largest producer of chewing gum — celebrates its 70th anniversary. A major international conglomerate with confections and other food products, hotels, recreational businesses and more, Lotte struggled in its early days and was anything but an overnight success.

“In 1948, the year of Lotte’s founding, Japan had between 200 to 300 gum makers, so we were something of a latecomer,” Tetsuya Seki, vice-director of the company’s central laboratory, tells Weekly Playboy (Feb. 26). He went on to explain that the company’s first major success was fūsen (bubble) gum.

Growth of its stick gum products then took off after Lotte procured large supplies of natural chicle — the same ingredient used in U.S. gum brands such as Wrigley — from Central and South America.

The long-selling Lotte Green Gum, first introduced in 1957, was marketed as a breath freshener. Black Black, which claimed to ward off drowsiness, took the nation by storm in 1983.

The Weekly Playboy article did manage to add one interesting aspect of the company not widely known to the general public: It employs an in-house “bubble gum master,” Mitsuteru Yamashita, who claims to have succeeded in producing simultaneous “quintuple bubbles.” When asked by the magazine’s reporter — who managed to generate two bubbles — the secret of producing extra-large ones, Yamashita replied, “You need twice as much gum.” It’s hardly rocket science.

Among his many literary achievements, British journalist, poet and author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) is credited with having coined the phrase “the world’s oldest profession” in reference to prostitution. It was in “On the City Wall,” an 1889 short story set in the Punjabi city of Lahore, that he introduced a courtesan named Lalun as “a member of the most ancient profession in the world.”

Later that same year, Kipling was to pay his first visit to Japan, and no doubt was able to add to his stock of data regarding the venerable profession. In 1889, Tokyo’s largest red-light district, the Yoshiwara Yukaku, was 271 years old; sometime this coming autumn — the precise date has proved hard to pin down — it will observe its 400th anniversary.

When it first opened in the 11th lunar month of 1618, the quarters were situated in Fukiya-machi (modern-day Nihonbashi Ningyocho). Having proved a commercial success after 40 years, the Yoshiwara’s operators were granted approval to expand at a new location. Edo’s administrators were already planning to relocate the red-light district northwest of Asakusa, with about 50 percent additional land allocated for the construction, when, on March 2, 1657, a conflagration known as the Great Fire of Meireki broke out in Tokyo’s Hongo district, leaving some 70 percent of the city in ruins over the next three days.

The rebuilt Yoshiwara district was soon back in business. It has since risen from the ashes after other major disasters, including the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1923 and the March 1945 firebombing by American B-29s.

Despite promulgation of the Anti-Prostitution Law, which took effect from April 1, 1958, Yoshiwara — whose map location is Senzoku 4-chome in Taito Ward — is still very much being utilized for its original purpose. What were formerly brothels are now erotic bathhouses, referred to since 1984 as “soaplands.”

Shukan Post (March 9) feted Yoshiwara’s upcoming anniversary with five tittilating articles and a sidebar in which Yoshihiko Sakai, operator of a website named “Girl’s Collection,” remarks: “Some elderly men enjoy visiting a soapland just to talk to the babes. It’s enough for them to be able to luxuriate in treatment that upholds a 400-year tradition and still pursues the esthetics of wabi-sabi (a world view centered on acceptance of transience and imperfection).”

Meanwhile, the Hanamachi@Yoshiwara website leaves little to guesswork concerning the scale of activities that go on therein. As of Feb. 28, it listed that 140 erotic bathhouses in the district play host to 7,568 sex workers, with an average of 28 percent of the total reporting for duty on any given day (or 63 percent during any given week).

During the year-end bonus season, scant news emanated from the Yoshiwara, but tragedy struck a bathhouse in the neon district close to JR Omiya Station in Saitama, when a fire at Kawaii Omiya on the afternoon of Dec. 17 resulted in four fatalities — two customers and two employees.

The Public Affairs Department of the Saitama Prefectural Police was to issue a total of nine separate press statements.

The March issue of Tsukuru, a monthly magazine that covers the mass media, considered whether, in such cases, victims’ privacy should be accorded precedence over the public’s right to know.

In its dispatch on the evening of Dec. 19, Kyodo news agency reported that the three victims initially reported had been increased to four, of which three had been identified by the police. They included a female employee of the business in the building, resident of Shiki, Saitama Prefecture, age 29; another employee of Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, age 25; and a customer, a company worker residing in the city of Saitama’s Nishi Ward, age 42.

Many other broadcast and print media outlets appear to have followed policies adopted by NHK and Kyodo in holding back victims’ names and other details, even when the data were provided by the police. These included the Super J-channel news broadcast on the TV Asahi network and affiliates, as well as the Asahi, Mainichi and Yomiuri newspapers.

Noticing that the media also struggled with how to report the dismemberment murders of nine young people in Sagamihara a few months earlier, the author of the article, Kenichi Asano, considers how the media examines its own conscience before proceeding to name names.