Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan

Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan

Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan

Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan


The year was 1945. Hundreds of thousands of Allied troops poured into war-torn Japan and spread throughout the country, altering both the built environment and the country's psychological landscape. The effect of this influx on the local population did not lessen in the years following the war's end. In fact, the presence of foreign servicemen also heightened the visibility of certain others, particularly panpan - streetwalkers- who were objects of their desire.

Occupying Power shows how intimate histories and international relations are interconnected in ways scholars have only begun to explore. Although sex workers became symbols of Japan's diminished status, by earning scarce dollars they helped jump-start economic recovery. But sex workers who catered to servicemen were nonetheless a frequent target. They were blamed for increases in venereal disease. They were charged with diluting the Japanese race by producing mixed-race offspring. In 1956, Japan passed its first national law against prostitution. Though empowered female legislators had joined with conservatives in this effort to reform and rehabilitate, the law produced an unanticipated effect. By ending a centuries-old tradition of sex work regulation, it made sex workers less visible and more vulnerable.

This probing history reveals an important but underexplored aspect of the Japanese occupation and its effect on gender and society. It seeks to shift the terms of debate on a number of controversies, including Japan's history of forced sexual slavery, rape accusations against U. S. servicemen, opposition to U. S. overseas bases, and sexual trafficking.


In 1949, a reporter for the popular weekly Sandee Mainichi visited Kyoto’s famed pleasure quarter of Shimabara and, after some investigation, concluded that geisha had become “living antiques.” For centuries, formally trained and elegantly costumed geisha had embodied the height of fashionable dance, song, and wit. But the reporter believed that something was now missing. “They deal only with ‘drinking,’” he explained, “so they are a kind of showgirl dressed in historical costume, performing historical plays. After that they only entertain clients while they drink or serve them tea. and that’s all the business there is for them—they have nothing to do with the ‘special business.’”

That “special business” is the subject of this study. What made it appear new and special, even while the geisha came to seem quaint? For more than 300 years, Japan had tolerated and regulated the performance of sexual services for remuneration. Other more eclectic accounts have surveyed this earlier era, when authorities demarcated “pleasure districts,” recognized debt contracts, and certified the health of sex workers. Occupying Power seeks to explain how and why the arrival of masses of foreign soldiers shifted the long-established landscape of the sex industry in fundamental ways. Together . . .

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