This is going to be a little bit of an odd post. See, a few years ago, I took a seminar on the history of prostitution. It was a fascinating class, about the different kinds of prostitution that were created by cultures throughout history and how these societies treated these women and men. Japan is no exception with it’s history of Edo-era oiran to comfort women in Japan-occupied territories to modern day host and hostess clubs.
For the sake of this discussion, we’ll define prostitution as the act of a person selling their physical bodies for a period of time to another person for reasons that involve sexual fantasies, whether they end in sexual relations or not. I’m including this caveat because there is a practice in Japan of enjo kosai, or compensated dating, which doesn’t always result in sexual relationships, but still involve some degree of sexual desire or fantasy from the buyer. Because it technically does fit the conditions, we’ll include the host(ess) clubs. I decided to take phone sex out because there’s not a physical aspect, just a vocal one.
I would like to ask that you put aside your feelings about prostitution for the sake of this discussion. Yes, there are people forced into prostitution and used and abused by pimps and johns around the world. Yes, that is wrong. But there are many people who go into this trade willingly, for their own reasons, and there is clearly a demand for their services. Is prostitution really so bad or are your feelings just a mirror of current society’s views on sex and its taboos? For that matter, why does society view sex as so bad? All these questions are relevant to this discussion and you should take a moment to think about them and why you may also agree with societal taboos about sex and prostitution.
Prostitutes in their many forms are usually depicted as unsavory characters in Japanese manga. In many stereotypical portrayals, prostitution is something that characters are rescued from, a tool to paint the prostitutes in a tragic light or a tool to cause jealousy in their lovers. These tropes have been played out in all sorts of manga, be it shounen, shojo, seinen, josei or BL. Very few have portrayed prostitution as a more than a societal taboo, something that normal, decent people don’t do. Considering the fact that host(ess) clubs are prominent and enjo kosai is considered a societal problem, however, Japan has no lack of people who aren’t able to put aside their feelings about societal taboos and indulge in some form of prostitution.
Here are some of the most common tropes of prostitution in manga:
-Being lured into prostitution (or more commonly, enjo kosai): Characters are pushed into prostitution or compensated dating either by enemies looking to make a character look bad, drunken strangers soliciting people on the street, peer pressure from friends looking to make an easy buck and even the lure of easy money itself. This has been seen in manga such as Gals! (CMX), Confidential Confessions and Initial D (TOKYOPOP.) According to a Twitter response by former Viz Editor-in-Chief William Flanagan, there were many 90’s manga that included this trope after it became a hot topic in Japan.
-The tragic prostitute that must be saved: This trope is a little sneakier than you think. There’s a lot of manga that feature prostitutes leaving the profession for many, many reasons. In Deep Love- Ayu no Monogatari, the main character is able to justify her bleak existence until she meets a “kind-hearted old lady.” While seemingly innocent, this storyline suggests that contact with a decent, upstanding member of society will make the less decent member change their ways, a common, yet unfair depiction to the prostitute that assumes they are not a contributing member of society to the best of their ability.
-The gold-digging host(ess): While host(esse)s are just slightly outside the traditional definition of prostitutes, they are technically selling time with themselves (and lots and lots of alcoholic beverages) in order to entertain a customer who finds them attractive. They are a bit more like geisha, who also do not sell sex to clients regularly, but entertain them with conversation and wit. Unlike these other examples, however, Club 9 (Dark Horse) is a title from the age of the bubble economy in Japan that actually portrays hostesses in a positive light. While one particular girl joins the club at the suggestion of her friends, they all see it as a form of empowerment, using the money to help them succeed in life, being flattered by the compliments of their customers and generally not feeling bad about what they’re doing at the end of the day. Why should they? They aren’t doing anything really illegal or indecent, they are making their own decisions and supporting themselves. It’s a refreshing take on an industry that is always portrayed as super-seedy and full of men and women who are just looking to feed their egos and their wallets. Ouran High School Host Club (Viz) and The Wallflower (Del Rey) are other manga that frequently parody or tease this trope, but in a more positive manner. Many other manga, like 30 Kon Miso-com by Rika Yonezawa, show hosts as willing to take advantage of people.
-The noble whore: Unlike the tragic prostitute who must be saved, these prostitutes are not saved, but are on the side of good none the less. If it weren’t for the fact that they were prostitutes, they’d probably be saints. Kouchou of Saiunkoku Monogatari (Viz) is one such noble whore. She runs the pleasure house that she works in, is the most sought-after courtesan in the capital and is a strong leader in the local underground, but obviously the stain of prostitution affects her status as shown by scenes where she persuades Shuurei (the main character) to stop working as an accountant for her, lest Shuurei’s reputation be tainted. Karen from X/1999 is also a noble whore as she’s on the side of good in the series. While it’s a nicer portrayal than most, there’s still an aspect of “tsk tsk” when dealing with these characters.
-Prostitute, badass: There are a number of prostitutes in manga that are prostitutes/assassins or some other form of “badass.” Considering that some think kunoichi used their feminine wiles to get closer to their targets, this idea isn’t such a surprise. Makie and Makoto from Blade of the Immortal (Dark Horse) are such characters, being a geisha and a male prostitute who engage in fighting or espionage. Respect for these characters is mixed. Often they’re the bad guys, but at the same time their skills are usually respected. How their status as prostitutes is treated varies from “it’s just how things are” to “that just makes them even worse baddies.”
-Bitch don’t care: Probably one of the saddest portrayals out there is the prostitute that thinks so lowly of themself or is so intent on money, drugs or a need for attention that they don’t mind engaging in prostitution. Either they are hiding some sad past or are just out to spite someone close, but either way they’ve thrown any virtue to the wind. Arima’s mother Ryoko in Kare Kano is one such person, as is number of characters (usually in shoujo or BL) who are using prostitution to make themselves feel better or make someone else feel jealous. Unlike the character who is lured into prostitution, who is usually nervous about it, these characters are using prostitution for their own means. At the same time, they aren’t quite the same as the gold-digger because of possible emotional issues and because they don’t mind doing anything unsavory to get what they want. (Usually the gold-digging host(esse)s draw the line at trying to kill someone.)
If I had more time and a more comprehensive collection of manga to read through and study, I could probably find more tropes to share with you. In the mean time, here’s a few manga listed on mangaupdates.com that feature prostitutes and brothels. I’d also like to include a list, which I will post below, of manga that readers and Twitter followers gave to me. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed! I hope all of you have given a thought to how much prostitution we see in manga and how these people are portrayed.
Hana no Asuka-gumi, Papaya Gundan, Sweet Guilty Love Bites, Club 9, Ouran High School Host Club, Nodame Cantabile, The Wallflower, 30 Kon Miso-com, Kare Kano, Happy Mania, B.O.D.Y., Gintama
Astral Project, Gunsmith Cats, Sundome, Ghost Talker’s Daydream, X/1999 , Delivery, Monster, 20th Century Boys, Oldboy, Eden: It’s an Endless World, Ciguatera, The Other Side of the Mirror, Fushigi Yuugi: Genbu Kaiden, Kaze Hikaru, Oyayubihime Infinity, Samurai Champloo, House of Five Leaves, I’ll Give it My All…Tomorrow, Sarasah, Peach Girl Change of Heart, The Push Man & Other Stories
Lovers and Souls , RULES, Not Simple, Gerard and Jacques, Games with Me, Nana, Banana Fish, Blue Sheep Reverie, Ooku, Love Mode, Alone in My King’s Harem, Blade of the Immortal, Yellow
Initial D, Gals!, Great Teacher Onizuka, Bokurano, My-Hime, Peach Girl, Confidential Confessions
Sakuran, Rurouni Kenshin, Peacemaker Kurogane, Hell Girl (Hone Onna), Bakumatsu Kikansestus Irohanihoheto (anime), Oedo wa Nemuranai!