If you start walking from the former execution ground behind Minami Senju station in the east of Tokyo, along the “Street of Bones,” then across Namidabashi (“Bridge of Tears”), and down through Nihonzutsumi toward Asakusa, ending up in Imado, you will pick up some of the more pungent smells of Japanese social history.

Nihonzutsumi is better known as San’ya, Tokyo’s skid row, the place where you might end up if you drop out of (or get dropped by) corporate Japan. You can’t drop much lower than San’ya, unless you live in a cardboard box somewhere in the Tokyo subway system. Apart from providing flophouse accommodations, San’ya is a so-called yoseba, a place where men down on their luck gather in the very early mornings to get day jobs on construction sites, handed out by gang-affiliated brokers. The ones who are too old, or weak, or ill, or drunk to get work slink off, to cheap little bars, scrubby public parks, or into the side streets, where you find men snoring in the gutters, surrounded by menageries of broken glass and “One Cup” sake bottles.

You know you’re in San’ya by the mixed odor of alcohol, barbecued pig’s offal, and urine. When you walk farther toward Asakusa for about ten minutes, you pick up a different cocktail of smells: cheap perfume and strong detergent. Now you know you are in the “soapland” district of Yoshiwara: a grid of narrow streets lined with gaudy massage parlors, which are effectively brothels, and used to be called Toruko buro (Turkish baths), but were renamed “soaplands” after a protest from the Turkish embassy in 1985. They cater to a variety of tastes. A chrome façade shaped like the nose of a Boeing 747 denotes girls dressed up as air hostesses; a mock European château means a touch of class; the plasterboard outline of a Japanese castle promises kimonos and girls kneeling on the floor; and so on. This is the same Yoshiwara in whose brothels and teahouses many classical Kabuki plays are set.

Finally, you realize you are entering the district of Imado, near the Sumida River, by the smell of leather. Imado consists of drab streets filled with small manufacturers of leather goods: shoes, handbags, belts, etc. Leather is associated with butchery. Death, in the Shintoist tradition, brings pollution. Occupations involving death, such as butchery, tanning, grave digging, executing criminals, or making anything out of leather, are ritually unclean, and thus have been left for more than a thousand years to people who can be called “outcastes,” and who usually live in congested places along river banks. The traditional outcaste areas, known as buraku, literally hamlets, are well-known, and people born in them, the burakumin, still have a hard time getting jobs in mainstream companies or marrying outside their caste.1

From the old execution ground to the brothels and the leather shops is but a short walk. It is not by chance that drop-outs, outcastes, and prostitutes live and work in such close proximity. There is considerable overlap: many outcastes become prostitutes or gangsters, as do members of other discriminated-against groups, such as Koreans, who also live nearby. These eastern districts of Tokyo are the poorest, and the farthest removed from the hilly suburbs in the more affluent west.

Every society has its bums, social scapegoats (though not necessarily outcastes), and prostitutes. One of their functions is to take the pressure off the mainstream by existing in an underworld where normal conventions don’t apply and taboos are routinely broken. They do what we will not or are not permitted to do: the dirty work, in every sense. Japanese officialdom always recognized this, but sought to isolate that underworld as much as possible. Creating enclaves of social undesirables (including in earlier days actors and entertainers, the borderlines between stage and brothel being fuzzy), managed by gangsters, was the official way of keeping society in order. Most people in Tokyo would never go near San’ya, and regard it as a dangerous place. As far as the outcastes are concerned, many deny that they even exist. Yoshiwara, on the other hand, continues to attract customers from all classes, even though business is slow in these days of economic crisis, and the soaplands are tawdry remains of an erotic culture that once had considerable refinement.

The margins reveal a great deal about the mainstream, about its politics, economics, and social conventions. In some ways margins and mainstream mirror each other; in others they are opposites. Like Victorian Britons, Japanese have long regarded their underworld with a mixture of horror and endless fascination. This is especially true of the sexual underworld, idealized and romanticized by generations of novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers. It is less true of the outcastes, whose existence most Japanese prefer to ignore. But the yoseba, such as Kamagasaki in Osaka, Kotobuki-cho in Yokohama, and Tokyo’s San’ya, have taken on an almost symbolic significance for many Japanese as an alternative world of hardship and failure, but also of a peculiar kind of freedom.


Unlike skid rows in most American cities, San’ya today does not look derelict, or even particularly poor. There are coffee shops, a shopping arcade, restaurants, and pinball parlors. There are no banks, however; cash is earned and spent on a daily basis. What is unusual about the place, apart from the sight of people lying about in the streets, is the almost total absence of women. San’ya is not a place for families, even dysfunctional or broken families. The family is left behind; that is part of dropping out. San’ya dwellers are solitary men who live in an isolated pocket of squalor and loneliness, relieved only by the transitory camaraderie of the shared bonfire or drinking place. But even drinking is often a lonely pursuit. Solace is mostly found in the “One Cup” sake bottles dispensed by vending machines. The absence of family or corporate duties has produced an oddity (for Japan, that is): a community of extreme individualists.

Like the rest of Tokyo, San’ya is in fact quite safe, for a visitor at least, and it has always attracted a certain amount of voyeurism—though nothing like as much as Yoshiwara used to do. You can walk around, peer into the abyss, and go home to your warm bed, feeling you have been in touch with “life.” San’ya has been a fertile ground for student radicals, novelists, “concerned” photographers, and various nostalgics de la boue. I have never been anything but a tourist there myself. But Edward Fowler, the author of San’ya Blues, went further than that: he lived there for several months, doing what the other men did, trying to get work for the day, drinking at night, and sleeping in the flophouses, one of which is rather incongruously called the House Palace. Of course, he knew he was going home eventually, so he too was a tourist of a kind, but his fascinating book is not the work of a voyeur. His approach, as he himself observes—at rather too much length perhaps—is “novelistic.” Fowler has brought San’ya to life by describing the men he met not as titillating images of despair, but as individual human beings, each with a personal story to tell.2

What is not immediately apparent to the casual tourist, who sees nothing but grubby men dressed in Japanese workman’s clothes (woolen waistband, wide-hipped pants, split-toed, rubber-soled boots), becomes clear from Fowler’s account: the sheer diversity of character and background. One man has a university degree and traveled the world for his company, until he was fired for hitting his boss. Another is a former truck driver who writes songs as a hobby. Yet another dropped out of corporate life, because he refused to be transferred to the provinces. Others never joined companies in the first place. Some are barely educated. Some dropped out of a university. Almost all left wives and children behind somewhere; a few dream of rejoining them, once they get back on their feet. What unites these men is some quirk of character or fate which placed them beyond the pale of conventional society.

Japan, perhaps more than any other country, is designed for conformists. If you are not a Korean or a burakumin, and if you obey the rules, flatter your superiors, don’t stick your neck out, and generally do as you are told, you will find a relatively safe track through life. Promotion, in most firms, follows seniority, not merit. Indeed, an abundance of talent can be a drawback: it upsets people, and thus the social order. Problems become serious if you get derailed from your designated track—by hitting your boss, dropping out of school, or refusing to be told where to live and work. Once you screw up in one place, people are reluctant to hire you elsewhere: you become a marked man, whose loyalty, application, and obedience are suspect. “I’m just not a very good organization man” is how one person put it to Fowler. In Japan that is a severe handicap.

It is, however, a romantic fallacy to think that nonconformism necessarily makes San’ya men better people. Fowler comes close to this just once, without quite falling for it: he pointedly compares the dignity of a New Year’s party in San’ya to the disgusting—but by no means rare—sight of two men “in business suits pissing the beer they probably drank at their Year-Forgetting Party” on the platform of the local railway station. But, on the whole, the San’ya he describes is a hard place, ruled by a cruel kind of Darwinism. Only young, able-bodied men get jobs, especially in bad times. Older men, who make up the majority in San’ya, are bullied, robbed, and, when too drunk to defend themselves, tormented with burning cigarettes, sticks, or bits of glass.


One of Fowler’s most important points is that the men in business suits owe their (increasingly shaky) security to the existence of places like San’ya. “For mainstream society,” he writes, “San’ya and the other yoseba…provide a dual safety valve, relieving both economic and social pressures on the majority population…. The yoseba, along with the extensive, multitiered system of subcontractors in manufacturing and construction (of which the yoseba can be viewed as the lowest tier), provide an otherwise rigid social economy with much-needed elasticity; without them, lifetime employment and other corporate benefits of the good life at the top of which we hear so much in the West would be far less secure.”

The payoff of corporate conformism, in other words, is a sense of security many Americans might envy. But the price of being footloose in San’ya is extreme insecurity. Efforts to provide the day laborers with adequate union protection have often run into the kind of trouble faced by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. The mobsters who dole out the jobs are well organized. Their headquarters is the largest building in San’ya, and when union activists come to sticky ends after annoying the crime bosses, the police, stationed in a police box named Mammoth because of its unusual size (though much smaller than the gangster HQ), are not zealous about investigating what happened.

Keeping the lower tiers of the labor market insecure, and thus easy to exploit, appears to be a deliberate policy of Japanese officials. The most recent example concerns the status of foreign workers in Japan. During the boom time of the 1980s, men and women arrived from all over Asia and the Middle East. Japanese bars and massage parlors filled up with girls from Thailand, Taiwan, China, and the Philippines, while men from Iran, Iraq, China, Bangladesh, and Pakistan headed for the factories and building sites. Almost all were in Japan as illegal immigrants. The Japanese government knew this, but turned a blind eye. For illegals have no rights. This suited the gangsters who brought them over and found them jobs, as well as the firms that hired them, when the going was good. When the going stopped being good, the foreigners were either deported or had to survive in whatever way they could. You didn’t see many in San’ya. But for a while, Ueno Park, not all that far from there, was filled with Iranian men who had nothing to sell but themselves.

Few Japanese have fallen so low. But the current recession is having a deeply unsettling effect, for the old deal—conformity in return for a safe life—is under threat. This deal was never as widespread as many people think. A large number of Japanese are self-employed, or employed by small firms that could never afford such guarantees. And even inside large corporations not everyone was promised permanent employment. But the bulk of the blue-suited “salarymen” were lifers who believed they were safe as long as they sacrificed their freedom, and even, when sober, their individuality, for the glory of company and nation. And it is they who are now told by foreign experts, as well as by a growing number of Japanese, that deregulation, labor flexibility, individual competition, and so on are the only ways to lift Japan out of its present troubles. The prescription is probably right. But when contemplating these options, many Japanese don’t see a glorious new age of free enterprise. They see awful visions of San’ya.


Before the Americans arrived in 1945, one of the first measures taken by the vanquished Japanese government was to set up “amusement centers” where Allied forces would be serviced by licensed prostitutes. The Japanese feared the GIs would do to them what Japanese soldiers had done to the female populations of China and Southeast Asia. So the amusement centers, like San’ya in its way, were to function as shock absorbers for mainstream Japan. The chastity of Japanese mothers and daughters would thus be protected from rapacious foreigners by official whores, or, as they had been called on the Japanese front lines, “comfort women.”

This was in keeping with traditional justifications for regulated prostitution. Countering Western accusations in the 1920s that prostitution was degrading to the women who practiced it, the Minister for Home Affairs said: “It is not easy for Western savants of individualism to comprehend our distinctive system, which, even as it retains the license system, strictly regulates unlicensed prostitution and succeeds in preserving public morals.”3 Naturally, then, the police did their best to crack down on the freelance women, whose transactions with foreigners would encourage immoral behavior and threaten the purity of the Japanese race.

Licensed prostitution had existed in Japan at least since the fourteenth century. Sheldon Garon mentions in his splendid book, Molding Japanese Minds, that the Ashikaga shogunate (1338-1573) had a special Harlots Bureau to tax the profession. Yoshiwara has been a brothel district since the seventeenth century. Although the daughters of samurai were forbidden to work as prostitutes, it was common practice for poor peasants to sell their daughters to the brothels. Few women succeeded in buying back their freedom. Some received an education in the fine arts of the courtesan, and rose to the transient heights of superstardom. Most died young in unpleasant conditions. And yet, despite the sordid business, the brothel quarters of pre-modern Japan became the centers of a culture, which, at its best, reached an extraordinary degree of sophistication.

Yoshiwara and similar districts in other cities provided far more than sex. They were the great escape from the constrained lives of merchants and samurai, the bureaucrats and salarymen of old Japan. The pleasure zones were subject to rules of etiquette and a social hierarchy that were every bit as elaborate as those of straight society. But the brothels, like the theaters, offered romance, style, extravagant fashions, and sexual adventure, everything, in short, that the respectable life did not. After all, even the richest merchants were subjected to rigid sumptuary laws which regulated not just what they could wear but what they could eat. In the usual neo-Confucian manner, officials exhorted Japanese to be thrifty, sacrifice personal desires, and avoid displays of luxury. In the brothels these rules no longer applied; indeed they were turned upside down: money flowed, luxury was displayed, emotions were released, and personal desires gratified. Novels and plays, not to mention woodblock prints, dealing with sexual love were almost exclusively set in this “floating world.”

The point is not that Japanese prostitution was unique, but that social and sexual morals, unlike in Christian societies, were not regarded as absolute. In Japan there was a time and place for everything. This is still true to some extent. But the floating world would never be the same after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the ideas which came with it: a Westernized ideal of “Enlightenment and Civilization,” Christian notions of morality, new concepts of individual rights, and an official anxiety to “catch up” with the West, socially, militarily, legally, politically, and economically. The break with the past was never as abrupt as history books sometimes suggest, but to Japanese modernizers the Kabuki and brothel culture that flourished in the licensed zones was a source of embarrassment. It had to be cleaned up, perhaps even forbidden, or at least institutionalized as a museum of Japanese tradition, like the Kabuki theater itself, or the Geisha.

The first change came in 1872, when the government issued an Ordinance Liberating Prostitutes.4 Girls were no longer to be bought and sold like cattle. In fact, licensed prostitution carried on much as before, until the regulated system was finally abolished in 1956. But even if prostitutes continued to ply their trade in many of the same places, the culture of the brothel world coarsened or became obsolete. Many modern writers welcomed the new opportunity to write about sex and love outside the regulated pleasure zones. Others, however, took a melancholy pleasure in lamenting what had been lost.

Nagai Kafu, the novelist who prowled Yoshiwara for more than half a century until his death in 1959, was the most famous chaser of erotic shadows. One of his favorite spots was the Jokanji temple, located between San’ya and Yoshiwara, where a monument remembers the twenty thousand prostitutes whose corpses were dumped at the temple gate. When Edward Fowler paid a visit there, he noticed a small monument that was erected opposite the temple in 1982, dedicated to the men who died in San’ya but had no relatives to collect their ashes. Even though few San’ya men have enough money to buy time with the girls of Yoshiwara, one feels that they belong together in death.

The struggle between abolitionists and defenders of licensed prostitution is usually described as one between reactionaries and progressives. Some regard the passing of the Anti-Prostitution Law in 1956 as a victory for feminism, liberalism, and individual rights. Sheldon Garon’s account shows that reality, as usual, was more complicated. Garon’s main interest is in the official Japanese (and one might add Chinese and Korean) practice of imposing social control by moral exhortation, or kyoka. As he explains: “The more politicized ideology of Confucianism prescribed that the wise ruler instill proper behavior in his people so as to maintain order in human relationships and prosperity within the realm.” Maoist campaigns to rectify bourgeois thinking, or to kill flies, fell within this tradition. So do Japanese campaigns to make people work harder, save money, and sacrifice personal desires for the nation, or Singaporean campaigns to abolish spitting in the street. But so, too, in a curious way, did the campaign to do away with prostitution.

It is a bit out of fashion now, but not long ago we were told that such things as high savings, low public welfare, reliance on family relations, sacrifice for the nation, and so forth, were peculiarly Asian virtues, which accounted for the remarkable success of Asian economies. Without referring directly to Asian values, Garon expertly dismantles this myth. To be sure, Japanese had been told to be thrifty and work hard for hundreds of years, but Garon shows that the Meiji government’s belief that generous welfare made poor people lazy and dependent owed as much to the influence of Adam Smith and Samuel Smiles’s Self Help as to anything traditionally Japanese. The conditions in San’ya, then, owe something to Anglo-Saxon laissez faire. Garon also points out the following: “One of the best-kept secrets in Japanese history is that middle-class Christians played a central role in formulating the government’s programs of social management after 1900.” And this is where prostitution comes in.

Superficially, the Japanese battle over licensed prostitution was a clash between Christian and Confucian values, or even, if one can stand such vague terms, tradition and modernity. It is interesting to read in Garon’s book that the defenders of the licensed system, mostly conservative politicians, some no doubt with connections in the brothel industry, described the old ways as “beautiful customs.” And the girls who worked in the brothels were hailed as fine examples of selfless Japanese, who sacrificed personal happiness for the welfare of their families. The idea that some of these girls might actually have enjoyed their work was frowned upon by these same traditionalists. For that would have suggested lewdness, which would set a bad example. That is also why the traditionalists were against the café culture which blossomed in the 1920s: waitresses and other “loose” women were beyond official control.

The abolitionists, on the other hand, led by such organizations as the Japanese Womens’ Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1886, were in favor of abolishing not only licensed prostitution, but extramarital sex altogether, including the custom of keeping mistresses. They were “progressive” in the sense of wanting women to have equal rights, in politics and in the home. Traditionally, husbands could divorce their wives for adultery, but not the other way round. Progressives argued that all forms of adultery, committed by either sex, should be punished by law. In the view of the WCTU, relations with prostitutes, geisha, and concubines counted as adultery.

No doubt Protestant activists, reformist officials, and members of the WCTU thought of themselves as modernizers. And given the fact that their ideas were novel in Japan, so they were. But to be modern is not necessarily to be liberal. In the Roaring Twenties, women of the WCTU were as appalled as the traditionalists by the behavior of bob-cut moga (modern girls) and stylish mobo (modern boys), meeting freely in cafes, smoking cigarettes, discussing Hollywood movies, daring new novels, and Karl Marx—another name for the mobo was “Marx boys.” One of the main abolitionist groups, Garon tells us, was called the Purity Society, founded in 1911 as a brother organization to the WCTU. Among its first leaders was the progressive Social Democratic party leader Abe Isoo. Abe was so worried about the influx of Western decadence (what Deng Xiaoping would much later term “spiritual pollution”) that he welcomed the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 as an opportunity to clean out foreign immorality once and for all.

Garon describes many instances of cooperation between female suffragists and government officials since the nineteenth century. This was partly to secure a place for women in public life. But it also gave governments the chance to mobilize womens’ groups behind national causes, including the Japanese war in Asia. According to Garon, “Most women’s leaders collaborated with the authoritarian regime during Japan’s wars with China and the Western powers.” Abolitionism became politically important. In 1935, the League to Abolish Licensed Prostitution changed its name to the National Purification Federation. Advocating sexual continence was part of the war effort. As Garon explains, the federation’s “nationalistic, eugenic emphasis on ‘purification of blood’ (junketsu) complemented the state’s needs for healthy recruits and mothers who were untouched by venereal diseases.”

After the war, political parties, as well as bureaucrats, were keen to continue their close cooperation with women’s groups. Economic nationalism, which had sustained Japanese warfare, continued to be a main theme in official moral campaigns. Economic bureaucrats set up a council “to revive the beautiful customs of diligence, thrift, and savings.” Women, socialists, and Christians were mobilized to promote “economic morality” and national solidarity in the so-called New Life campaign. But the main cause that tied women’s groups and other moral reformers together was the abolition of prostitution. The WCTU wanted the police to register prostitutes on black lists, and be given the power to raid their homes “at any time of the day.” In 1955, a socialist member of the Diet, named Kamichika Ichiko, sponsored a punitive bill against prostitution. She deemed it necessary for the state to “punish the estimated five hundred thousand prostitutes to protect the life styles of forty million housewives.”

This sounds odd coming from a socialist, who could easily have been subject herself to state oppression before 1945. The conservative vice-minister of justice was being far more liberal in response when he explained that it would surely “infringe on human rights” to go around gathering evidence of people’s sexual acts. In fact, few women were arrested, even though licensed prostitution was eventually abolished. There is, however, an important lesson to be learned from this Japanese story.

Individual Christians, socialists, and feminists have done much in East Asian societies to promote freedom and democracy. One only needs to think of President Kim Dae Jung in South Korea, a Christian, a democrat, and a former radical. But East Asian activists and intellectuals have also been prone to moral zealotry which is every bit as authoritarian as the official “feudal” thinking they opposed. Purifying the nation of immoral practices is a traditional aim of dissident intellectuals and social reformers in China, Korea, and Japan. And it always was a common ambition of East Asian intellectuals to improve society by working for the state. The alliance, then, between Japanese bureaucrats and women’s groups, in the organization of moral campaigns, was a natural one. Social control remained at the center of their respective endeavors.

The clearest example of a modernizer undermining his own stated beliefs in democracy by falling back on authoritarian ways is the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. He began his political life as a socialist opponent of British colonialism. But as soon as he gained political power, he became a tireless moral campaigner against, among many other things, Western decadence. He ruled Singapore, not as a democrat, but as a typical Chinese mandarin imposing “proper behavior” through one coercive campaign after another. It will be fascinating to follow the careers of former dissidents and democratic activists in Taiwan now that many of them, after years in exile or jail, are in positions of authority. The current mayor of Taipei, Chen Shui-bian, was a model of democratic opposition to the authoritarian Kuomintang. Now his admirers praise him for his “tough” leadership and his strict moral views. One of his first measures was to “clean up” Taipei by making prostitution illegal.

My point is not that prostitution is a virtue, but that politics based on moralism encourages intolerance and threatens democracy. The impulse to impose conformity often seems to be as strong among the reformers as among the traditionalists. But at least the old mandarins recognized the need for places where social control could be relaxed. Modern mandarins often don’t even do that. Viewed from our messy Western democracies, the social discipline of East Asian societies—benevolent authoritarianism on top, loyalty and diligence below—may sometimes look enviable. The misnamed “Asian System” has dazzled conservatives in the West, who like the sense of order and hierarchy (not to mention a touch of the Singaporean rod), as well as people on the left, who admire statist interventions for the common moral and economic good. Sidney and Beatrice Webb visited Japan in 1911, and were delighted by the place. Tony Blair visited Singapore in 1996, and was equally impressed. Here, he believed, was a true “stakeholding” society.

Until things began to go wrong, it was a commonplace among many Western observers, and Asian nationalists, that the authoritarian, statist, collectivist nature of the “Asian System” was to a large extent responsible for the economic success of East Asia. The campaigns to save, to defer personal interests, to work harder, and so on, were part of the formula we flabby Westerners might profitably learn from. But I am not convinced that conformity and social discipline were ever the most important ingredients in the Asian Miracle. On the contrary, it was at times of severe insecurity, usually following a catastrophe, when the social system was shaken to its core and the borders between margins and mainstream broke down, when, as it were, everyone lived in a nationwide San’ya, and mavericks had a chance to break free, that economies began to gain speed: Japan after World War II, South Korea after the Korean War, China after Mao.

It is possible that the present Asian crisis will loosen things up again, and unleash individual enterprise. But one thing is sure: the old method of mobilizing people through moral campaigns will not work. It is in fact a hindrance to economic recovery. In 1997, even as the lack of consumption was dragging the Japanese economy to a halt, consumption taxes were raised and Japanese consumers were told to tighten their belts. This reflected the moralistic instincts of conservative bureaucrats. Now that even the Japanese government has realized that this was the wrong thing to do, a new campaign has been launched telling the people to spend more money. But after years of propaganda to the contrary, this message is proving a hard sell. Besides, since the old lifetime employment system is breaking down, more and more people are afraid of losing their jobs, which hardly puts them in a spending mood. And the lack of an adequate welfare system, hailed as a typical example of Asian self-reliance, is making people even more cautious.

And yet there are signs of individualism, even in Japan, and not just among the down-and-outs. An increasing number of Japanese, especially women, are joining foreign firms that reward individual merit rather than seniority. To compete, some Japanese companies are slowly moving in the same direction. There are other, less edifying signs of private enterprise too. You see them, not in San’ya or Yoshiwara, but in the prosperous Western parts of Tokyo. High-school girls, some not older than fifteen, in school uniforms and heavy make-up, cluster around the busiest nightlife districts, making dates through their mobile phones to meet with anonymous men in short-time hotels. They represent the latest fad in freelance prostitution, and they are driven not by poverty but by desire, for clothes, CDs, makeup, ready cash, in short, a kind of economic freedom. Perhaps they are the dark herald angels of rosier times to come.

This Issue

June 25, 1998