The Soapland Brothels In Japan Uncovered


In Tokyo’s red-light districts, you’ll find advertisements that list prices and services like the menus outside restaurants. But a kyakuhiki, or the man who encourages people to come into the shop, carries cards with prices and other available services on them. There is binta, which is slapping someone in the face, but also hizamakura which is a service where you lie across the worker’s lap. As well as fellatio and hand jobs. Even though vaginal intercourse isn’t exactly offered at most places, male customers are aware that they can go to soaplands if they’re looking for it.

Brothels disguised as bathhouses in Japan are referred to as “soaplands.” There, services are never listed outright; only the customer and “soap girl” determine what happens while in private rooms. Miyabi, one of the night shift construction workers in Tokyo’s soapland district, explains that customers pay for an initial bath with a soap girl and then purchase the service they desire. In most cases, any form of sex is off limits.

Soaplands carry a significant amount of prestige in Japan’s sex industry. They are also some of the most expensive establishments. A bath is required beforehand, which demands a lot of effort and care. According to Miyabi, customers who come to soaplands “range from middle-aged businessmen who want to relax after work to young men who have money but perhaps not the nerve to approach a woman.” The fees for these establishments go directly the owners of the soaplands. Things that happen afterwards depend on what you paid for, which could be 2 or 3 times higher than the base bath price (which goes straight to the owner).

These bathhouses offer private bathing services, but you also have the opportunity to get a “special massage” from a soap girl, and these numbers can often be bought. There is a very important no-touching rule during bathtime and the act is performed in full view of everyone else in the room. To some people, it’s an absence of love rather than free love.

This work, with its potential criminality, requires great skill. As soap-jyō Aya illustrates, a soap-woman would master the standard erotic bath service. For example, lotion play consists of the soap girl rubbing lotion diluted with hot water over a client. During mat play, customers lie on mats and get bathed. Incorporation of the “dirty chair,” a concave bathing chair with access to the man’s entire nether regions, is also standard.

Getting a job at a soapland isn’t easy. Newcomers and non-soapland sex workers must go through a training period before they’re ready to work there. The instruction varies depending on the establishment, but typically it will be given through either manuals or DVDs. It can also include demonstrations on customers of the establishment. Since not many people want to work in soaplands, the interview process is usually competitive and only gets more intense as you rise up in rank.

Depending on the type of establishment, the various job responsibilities will vary. Girls who work at kōkyu-ten, or luxury “stores”, are expected to allot 2-3 hours per customer. Sometimes they’re asked to offer no condom services, which is less common in lower ranking businesses. Aya explains that for sex workers, the higher the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases is rewarded with stistant pay. The base rate for sexual services starts at 60,000 yen and can go up to 120,000 depending on demand. Some of these sōpu-jyō work in soaplands for a few years then begin careers posing in magazines geared towards men – called gravure modeling – or adult video entertainment: According to the locals, that’s how high the quality of girl can be.

Though the annual profits of the billion-dollar industry remain a strong argument for leaving soaplands untouched, this industry is also still in existence because of its history. They’re known as the oldest form of prostitution in Japan, as they evoke images and memories from the Edo period which lasted from 1603 to 1868. But sōpu-jyō should not be confused with geisha culture. Around this time when the trade started, geishas were seen a talented entertainers with music or dance skills.

Originally there were only three soapland areas in the nation, and this was sanctioned by the Tokugawa Shogunate. One of the best-known and most historic is Yoshiwara, located in Tokyo. You won’t find this area on a map but its name still summons thousands of customers and workers from all over Japan. And because it’s so synonymous with making money, other than landlords who offer dorms for workers, most workers live in civil apartments rented out near the area. They are expected to make as much profit as possible here because this is where they can make the most money.

After the Great Kanto Earthquake and fire of 1926, there is no samurai district in Japan. But several blocks from the spacious Ginza area, one can find the red lights on Kawasaki road.

The disparity between the physical structure of Yoshiwara and its actual existence is a metaphor for how this location remains relatively unknown and concealed. To those who don’t care to look, Yoshiwara appears on city maps as nonexistent, erased even. For those with mildly-interested intentions, all they might see are rows of bathhouses with passionate, hygienic care. But there is a hidden reality behind the cloudy, dim light which becomes sharper in focus when one stays longer.