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This early 20th century postcard shows brothels in the Tobita Yukaku (prostitution district) of Osaka.
The caption says: “The charming samisen (sic) sounding constantly day and night at Tobita prostitute quarter, Osaka.” It wasn’t very charming for the women who worked here.
Tobita was founded as a licensed brothel district in 1916 (Taisho 5) after the Namba Shinchi Yukaku burned down. It immediately started to attract impoverished farm girls and wives fleeing abusive husbands and by 1918 (Taisho 7), it already counted 100 brothels. That number had risen to 200 by the early Showa Period (1925-1989).1
When Japan militarized during the 1930s, the area became a refuge for artists, musicians and people opposing war and militarization.
After the end of WWII, Tobita became Osaka’s largest brothel district employing thousands of prostitutes. Reputedly former U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt toured the area in an open car and inquired about the health of the girls during this period.2
Tobita is where the infamous Sada Abe (1905-?) started her career as a prostitute in the early 1930s. She left Osaka for Tokyo in 1933. By that time, she was already known as a troublemaker.
On May 18, 1936 Abe erotically asphyxiated her lover, Kichizo Ishida in Ogu, Tokyo. She then cut off his penis and testicles and carried them around with her in her handbag.
Dubbed the “Go Ichi-Hachi Incident,” the murder started a panic in Japan. Ever since, the story has been repeatedly told in books and movies as well as interpreted by psychiatrists and philosophers.3
Tobita managed to survive the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1958 and exists to this very day. The 80-90 remaining brothels recall the atmosphere of this photograph a little. Located near Imaike Station on the Hankai Electric Railway line, Tobita is one of Japan’s last remaining traditional brothel districts. It is one of nine Kansai districts where prostitution is practiced openly.
1 Architectural Map, 鯛よし百番と飛田新地. Retrieved on 2008-01-02.
2 Johnston, Eric, Appetite for seduction: Love town where time stands still. Retrieved on 2008-01-02.
3 Wikipedia, Sada Abe. Retrieved on 2008-01-02.