Sex along the Tōkaidō: The Nationalization of the Japanese Sex Industry

During the late 17th through the 18th century, the phrase “the way of love” (shikidō) typically brought to mind The Great Mirror of the Way of Love (Shikidō Ōkagami, c. 1678), written by Fujimoto Kizan (1624–1704), an etiquette manual for visitors to the Yoshiwara brothel district. By the 19th century, however, the Yoshiwara began to lose its popularity, and while similarly legalized bordello districts existed in Osaka and Kyoto, as domestic travel increased, “the ways of love” developed ironically literal associations with the Tōkaidō and Kisokaidō highways.

Red-light districts (yūkaku or kuruwa), with their assortment of teahouses (chaya), bathhouses (sentō), inns (hatagoya), and brothels, and further supplemented by independent street prostitutes (yotaka; literally, “nighthawks”) and itinerant nuns (uta bikuni), had long existed in small towns throughout the archipelago, but they now came to be identified as part of a transnational sex industry. Just as each city advertised local culinary delicacies to visitors, the sexual services of women who had been sold into indentured servitude by their families became “famous products” (meibutsu) of these rural communities.

Travel along the Tōkaidō highway first became popular through A Guide to Famous Places Along the Tōkaidō (Tōkaidō meishoki, c. 1660) by Asai Ryōi (1612–1691) and the novel Shank’s Mare (Tōkaidōchū hizakurige, 1802–1822) by Jippensha Ikku (1765–1831). The latter story contains a fairly obvious erotic subtext: the protagonists, Yajirobei and his wakashū sidekick Kitahachi, choose their lodgings along the way according to whether the inns offer sexual services by attractive “serving-girls” (meshimori onna). Ironically, however, the story focuses far more attention on the male-love (nanshoku) relationship between these two characters than upon the burgeoning prostitution industry along their route.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) published his famous series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (Tōkaidō Gojūsan-tsugi) in 1833–1834. Several of the artist’s scenes include depictions of prostitutes. In order to emphasize the sexual opportunities available for travelers, around the mid-1830s, Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865) published an additional series in which he reproduced each of Hiroshige’s landscapes and inserted the full-length figure of a beautiful woman (bijin) wearing distinctive regional attire. Though sales of Hiroshige’s Tōkaidō series undoubtedly improved thanks to Kunisada’s clever promotional scheme, one could easily argue that the greatest beneficiary of Kunisada’s Tōkaidō Beauties were the proprietors of the brothels along the route.

Around the same time as Kunisada’s series, several other artists, such as Keisai Eisen (1790–1848) and Koikawa Shōzan (1821–1907), published works of shunga that explicitly described the sexual opportunities available at these tourist destinations. Much like depictions of erotic encounters with foreigners, these images of rural Japan, imbued with an aura of exoticism, discussed sexuality in terms of geographic conquest that are reminiscent of the imperialist campaigns upon which Japan would embark in the early 20th century.