Sexuality Under Japanese Imperialism

Rika Tsuji, Department of Philosophy and Religion, University of North Texas [About | Email]

Volume 17, Issue 3 (Book review 2 in 2017). First published in ejcjs on 17 December 2017.

Hayashi, Yōko (2017) Sei o Kanri suru Teikoku: Kōshōseidōka no “Eisei” Mondai to Haishō Undō [Controlling Sex in Empire: “Hygiene” Issues and the Abolition Movement Under the Licensed Prostitution System], Suita: Osaka University Press, ISBN 9784872595604, 536 pages.

Keywords: Japanese empire, prostitution, sexual health, sexuality.

Hayashi Yōko’s Sei o Kanri Suru Teikoku [Controlling Sex in Empire], which examines the licensed prostitution system in Japan, is a very useful secondary resource for those who want to understand the overall discourse about sexuality under Japanese imperialism, especially between 1860 and 1930. The book’s central question is: “why was Japan unable to abolish the violence against women under the licensed prostitution system?” (Hayashi, 2017, p. 20, all translations are by the reviewer). Hayashi offers three main arguments in response to this question. First, modern Japanese licensed prostitution needs to be examined as an “imperial issue” since the growth of the licensed prostitution system was tightly connected with Japanese imperialism (p. 20). Second, the licensed prostitution system cannot be separated from hygiene issues, which were shared concerns of ordinary people. Third, the idealisation of manhood, which allowed women to be exploited for military hygiene, was supported by both the abolitionists and those who were pro-prostitution (p. 20).

Hayashi chiefly uses historical-primary resources, such as medical books, newspapers, advertisements, photography, and journals published in both Japanese and English, to address these points over eleven chapters. She indicates that the abolition movement should not be framed either solely as the history of women or simply as the rise of feminism. Such characterisations tend to ignore the roles that men played as both buyers of prostitutes and activists in the abolition movement. Thus, she insists on the importance of gender analysis of the historical material, which she conducts successfully in the book.

The abolition movement, according to the book, failed to criticise imperialism and its essential androcentrism. In fact, many abolitionists did not necessarily advocate for the liberation or rights of all women and girls. Not only men but also women directed social and cultural discrimination toward both licensed and non-licensed prostitutes, as well as female political activists, mistresses, and wives who did not conform to feminine roles in the patriarchal system. That is, the abolition movement could not form one unified political body to advocate for human rights for all women, but struggled against constructed gender roles for women that blocked them from debating sex and politics.

Hayashi suggests that the arguments between the abolitionists and those who were pro-prostitution were not fundamentally different. They were mostly rooted in the same ideology of hygiene, especially military hygiene, which she argues was used to justify the violence and exploitation of women by the Japanese empire and its people (p. 483). Some of the main discussions organised by those two groups focused on: 1) whether prostitution, also encompassing the buying and selling women (including by their parents), disturbed public morality; 2) whether men could or should control women’s sexuality; and 3) whether licensed brothels, in which prostitutes were forced to take kenbai (the syphilis inspection) for the military, were an effective means to control soldiers’ sexuality in order to prevent the spread of sexual disease in the military.

Regarding public morality, foreign intellectuals, such as the activists of the World Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU) and Christian missionaries, played a role in increasing social awareness of what it meant to be a member of a “civilised country” among Japanese people. For example, kaigai shūgyōfu (Japanese prostitutes in foreign countries) were perceived as a source of national shame, and the rescue of prostitutes from brothels (both domestic and international) conducted by foreigners from civilised countries stimulated the Japanese government to become more involved in diplomatic affairs. The government was concerned with Japan being viewed as an uncivilised nation through gaining a reputation as a prostitution country and due to the spread of sexual disease.

In terms of the control of women’s sexuality, in Chapter 1, Hayashi provides rich historical background on the inspection of prostitutes in Japan for syphilis: how the inspections were introduced, who conducted them and why, how prostitutes and ordinary people reacted to the inspections, and how they were used in conjunction with the expansion of colonialism. Sexual disease was a serious threat for a strong military; consequently, to maintain hygiene, the military sought to restrict soldiers’ sexual activities to within brothels. As a result, the government justified getting women into prostitution and forcing them to undertake kenbai.

So far as controlling soldiers’ sexuality was concerned, a new idea of “manhood” was created and idealised as the symbol of civilisation. Some abolitionists claimed that civilised men, as opposed to savage men, should control their sexuality. By contrast, some abolitionists and those who were pro-prostitution asserted, and yet struggled with the idea, that men, as opposed to women, naturally have “unlimited sexual desire.” Therefore, men would need prostitutes to manage this sexual desire just as they would need toilets for excretion (p. 447). As discussed in Chapter 9, such a narrative of manhood reinforced androcentrism, which was inseparable from military hygiene as seen in the widely prevailing propaganda of fukoku kyōhei (rich country, strong army).  Thus, Hayashi argues that, “even though ‘hygiene’ appears to be a gender-neutral matter, in practice, the experience of women significantly differs from that of men” (p. 30).

It should be noted that Hayashi wrote the book in Japanese, and currently there is no translation available. However, while most of the original resources used in the book are in Japanese, and high Japanese literacy is required for readers to examine most of the direct quotes, the book is well deserving of translation. This would invite much greater discussion regarding the social conditions of sexuality underlying the system of licensed prostitution and “comfort women” in the Japanese imperial experience. Even though it does not include substantial discussions of the “comfort women” issue, Sei o Kanri suru Teikoku does a strong job in showing how such social conditions allowed the Japanese empire, and its people, to carry out violence and exploitation against women and girls, not only in Japan but also through the countries under Japanese occupation.

About the Author

Rika Tsuji is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at University of North Texas, and a Fulbright recipient. Her research interests are environmental philosophy, feminism, and philosophy of education. She is currently working on a philosophy for children program, wherein children are encouraged to engage in philosophical dialogues about the environment through communities of inquiry.

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