(497) Buying and Selling of Sex
By Andrei Lankov
Traditionally, most East Asian countries have had few scruples with regard to extramarital sex as far as males were concerned, but before 1900, Japan was remarkable in the development of commercial prostitution on a grand scale.
In this regard it was different from Korea, where in old times only the rich and famous could afford to buy expensive sexual services from gisaeng girls, while the ``low orders'' usually had no access to commercial sex whatsoever.
The Korean nationalists love to stress this fact, explaining it as another indication of the alleged ``spiritual purity'' of Koreans. Well, less lofty explanations are more likely, but it is difficult to deny that the large-scale prostitution industry was created by the Japanese presence.
In the 1850s, Japan was ``opened'' to the world, but for decades afterward it remained a very poor place, so ``export-oriented'' prostitution became a major industry there.
The Japanese working girls, known as ``karayuki-san'' (``those going overseas''), plied their trade across Asia, from Sydney to Vladivostok, from Shanghai to Singapore, usually supervised by Japanese brothel owners.
A Japanese prostitute and brothel remained ubiquitous components of urban life in the Asia-Pacific for the decades between 1870 and 1920, and remittances from these girls, who duly sent their earnings back home, were said to be the third biggest foreign currency earner for Japan at the turn of the 20th century.
Of course, neighboring Korea became one of the areas where Japanese prostitution flourished. Contrary to the now common misperception, typical commercial sexual encounters in Korea before 1900 did not involve a poor Korean girl serving some lusty Japanese male.
If anything, the situation in which a Korean male purchased sex from a Japanese female was probably more common. Until the 1910s, the vast majority of prostitutes operating in the country were Japanese.
When a Japanese man in the southeastern port of Busan opened a brothel around 1880 where he employed four Korean women, his establishment was immediately closed down, and both he and his female employees were punished.
In the early stage of the Japanese presence in Korea, until the 1890s, the consular authorities did not want mixed establishments, lest it would produce unnecessary complications.
The brothel keepers and their female employees were among the first to arrive in Korea once it was open for foreign trade and exchange in 1876. As is clear from a dispatch by a Japanese consul, in 1881-82, there were a hundred Japanese working girls in Busan.
A few dozen prostitutes plied their trade in the northeastern port of Wonsan, another important port city. From the beginning, the Japanese consular authorities in Busan were pressing Tokyo for permission to legalize prostitution and establish some supervision over the ``vice.''
Initial suggestions were rejected, but then the government gave up, and in late 1881 prostitution was legalized.
The Japanese consulates in Busan and Wonsan issued the brothels with sets of instructions, more or less similar to those used in Japan (in those days foreign consuls wielded administrative power and could issue and enforce laws in regard to ``their'' communities).
The prostitutes had to be registered, checked for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) on a regular basis, and brothel keepers were expected to pay taxes. By 1883, there were 94 registered prostitutes in Busan, working in nine brothels and serving a population of 997 males.
However, in Incheon, Korea's third major open port, things did not move as smoothly. The Japanese foreign ministry rejected the demands to license brothels there. It was believed that the attempt to legalize prostitution in Incheon would lead to some political problems.
Unlike Busan and Wonsan where the foreign community was almost exclusively Japanese, Incheon had a sizable number of Western residents, and Japanese diplomats were afraid that an open endorsement of prostitution would damage the country's image. These were Victorian times, after all, and Japan was very sensitive to what the West thought of it.
The Japanese consuls in Incheon were keeping pressure on their supervisors, citing the frequency of STDs and other dangers associated with the clandestine sexual industry which flourished in the port city, but Tokyo stressed that such activities should not be officially endorsed in the presence of Westerners with their Victorian ideas about sexuality.
Being disciplined officials, the Japanese consuls tried hard to impose regulations they likely considered unnecessary.
The regulations did not help: The presence of young migrant males, being used to commercial sex back home, was bound to produce a huge demand for prostitution ― legal or not.
In the 1880s the Japanese consular authorities in Incheon, in an attempt to curb the problem, even briefly prohibited the immigration to Korea of Japanese women aged between 13 and 30 if these women were neither wives of Japanese migrants nor employees of some officially recognized business.
Once again, the regulations remind us that in the prostitution industry at that time both the sellers and buyers of sexual services were Japanese.
However, the situation did not last. The arrival of Japanese troops during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 made official recognition of brothels unavoidable.
Around this time, a small but growing number of Korean women also began to be lured or forced into prostitution by Japanese pimps. Prostitution ceased to be a strictly Japanese business and soon spread through Korean society as well.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.