Yukaku (red-light district) (遊廓)

Yukaku was a block enclosed with walls and moats where licensed prostitute houses were concentrated. Such houses were concentrated in one block so that the official authority could control security and public morals. Yukaku was established in the Azuchi-momoyama period. The other Japanese names for Yukaku include Kuruwa, Yuri, Iromachi and Keiseimachi.

The word '廓' of Yukaku (遊廓) is the same as '城郭' (Jokaku), which means a surrounded block.

In the Edo period, other than Yukaku licensed by the government, there were partly-admitted Meshimori hatago (inn where a woman provide food and service) in an inn town and whorehouses called Okabasho in a temple town.

In addition, rakugo has Kuruwabanashi (Tsuyabanashi), a story featuring Yukaku.


Service provided by women has existed since ancient times. It originated from the service provided by a shrine maiden to government officials (lower or middle ranked). There were port and inn areas, such as Eguchi and Kanzaki, where a lot of prostitutes were packed. In the Muromachi period, the Ashikaga Shogun family collected taxes from Keiseiya (courtesan houses) in Kyoto.

Establishment of Yukaku

Under the control and protection of the official authority, brothels were packed in one place as Yukaku after the early-modern times. During the reign of Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI, Saburozaemon HARA and Mataichiro HAYASHI in Kyoto asked for the construction of Yukaku and obtained his permission. Yukaku was constructed in the present northern bank of the Dotonborigawa River in Osaka. Five years later (1589), Yukaku was also constructed in Nijoyanagi-cho, Kyoto. Yukaku in Osaka and Kyoto moved to Shinmachi (Shinmachi Yukaku) and Suzakuno (Shimabara Yukaku), respectively, in the early 17th century.

Yukaku red-light districts around the country

Yukaku was came into existence in Edo in 1612. Prostitute houses were moved from Nichomachi Yukaku in Sunpu (present-day Shizuoka City) to near Ningyo-cho, Nihonbashi, which was called Yoshiwara Yukaku. Yoshiwara Yukaku was burned down in the Great Fire of Meireki in 1657. After that, the Yukaku was tentatively moved to near Asakusa Sanya and soon moved to near Asakusa Nihonzutsumi. The Yukaku near Ningyo-cho is called former Yoshiwara and the one near Nihonzutsumi is called new Yoshiwara.

Shinmachi Yukaku that had Yugiri tayu (the highest ranked courtesan) in Osaka, Shimabara Yukaku that had Yoshino Tayu in Kyoto and Yoshiwara Yukaku that had Takao tayu in Edo were called three major red-light districts (another opinion includes Maruyama Yukaku in Nagasaki (Nagasaki City). In addition to them, there were 20 or more Yukaku licensed by the government in Japan. The largest Yukaku was Yoshiwara, and it is said that it had nearly 300 prostitute houses when new Yoshiwara was completed.

Maruyama Yukaku was established in Nagasaki City, which flourished as the only one window to the West during the period of national isolation, around 1639.
Saikaku IHARA wrote in Nihon Eitaigura as follows: 'if there isn't Maruyama in Nagasaki, silver will safely arrive at Kamigata (Kyoto and Osaka area), so the business of 爰通ひ, concerns at sea and unpredictable love wind are feared.'
This indicates the pomp of that time where people made money through trades with Spain and Portugal.

25 Yukaku of that time were listed in "Shikido Okagami" (The Great Mirror of the Erotic Way) (1678).

Kyoto Shimabara, Fushimi Ebisu-cho (Shumoku-machi), Fushimiyanagi-cho, Otsu Baba-cho, Suruga Fuchu, Edo Sanya (Yoshiwara), Tsuruga Rokkenmachi, Mikuni Matsushiya, Nara 鴨川木辻, Yamato Seko-mura Shinyashiki, Sakai Kitatakasu-machi, Sakai Minamitsumori, Osaka Hyotan-cho (Shinmachi), Hyogo Iso-cho, Sado Ayukawa, Ishimi Onsen, Harima 室小野町, Bizen 鞆有磯町, Hiroshima 多々海, Miyajima Shinmachi, Shimonoseki Inarimachi, Hakata Yanagimachi, Nagasaki Maruyamamachi and Yoriaimachi, Bizen Kabashima and Satsuma 山鹿野田町 (Yamaganokinzan).

Culture of Yukaku

In the early Edo period, Yukaku was a place of transmission of culture as well as the representative place of amusements. The highest ranked courtesans (Geisho) were called tayu, oiran, etc. and provided service for wealthy townspeople, court nobles, samurai, etc. For this reason, the highest ranked courtesans were required to be a master of Japanese arts and have knowledge on literature, etc.

After the mid- Edo period, Okabasho other than Yukaku flourished despite repeated crackdowns. Yukaku itself got popularized and the common people became its major customers.

Yukaku after the Meiji period

In 1872, the newly inaugurated Meiji government issued the Emancipation Decree for Female Performers and Prostitutes, but it had little effect on the real situation.
With the progress of urbanization, however, the existence of Yukaku was acknowledged as a problem and some red-light districts were forced to move to the suburbs, etc. (e.g. Nezu Yukaku near the University of Tokyo was transferred to Susaki Paradise, Fukagawa)

In 1946 after World War II, the Licensed Prostitution System was abolished under the policy of the General Headquarters (GHQ), but the red-light districts became areas commonly known as 'Akasen' where almost the same service was provided by changing their exterior trade signs to Cafe or fancy Japanese-style restaurant. The Anti-Prostitution Law was enacted in 1956, and with the enforcement of this Law, the history of Yukaku as a red-light district completely ended up on March 31, 1958.

No authorized prostitute streets exist at present, but there are some areas, such as Tobitashinchi in Osaka, where prostitute houses continue to provide the same services as before 1958, under the pretext of free love between a customer and a maid in a private room, by transforming themselves into a Japanese-style hotel outwardly.

Also, like Yoshiwara in Tokyo, some of the former prostitute streets became areas in which brothels where one can bathe with the prostitutes and adult-entertainment business are concentrated and provide prostitution services as if they were officially approved prostitute areas.