Prostitution in Manga

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.

Hostesses

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

Prostitutes

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

Male Prostitutes

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

Enjo Kosai

Initial D, Gals!, Great Teacher Onizuka, Bokurano, My-Hime, Peach Girl, Confidential Confessions

Oiran

Sakuran, Rurouni Kenshin, Peacemaker Kurogane, Hell Girl (Hone Onna), Bakumatsu Kikansestus Irohanihoheto (anime), Oedo wa Nemuranai!

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28 Comments

Filed under manga, opinion

28 responses to “Prostitution in Manga

  1. Came through with flying colors with this one. Great work!

  2. miz

    Definitely glad to see this post finally up… I just thought about it as I read about it…. but you know that sometimes for a fetish.. there is the whole fantasy appeal of rape?

    It is the oldest profession for females outside of being a mother. Still.. it is only western culture that totally goes bananas on selling your body for profit. I am not really fond of the prostitution idea, but somehow looking at reality stars- how different is that then?

    • Yeah, the whole fantasy appeal of rape…Why would you want to fantasize about being hurt/hurting someone against their will? But for some people, non-consent is a turn on. Just look at how much boy’s love manga is out there with those themes.

      I wouldn’t call being a mother a profession, but that’s just me. Also, it’s really not just western culture. If you look at how Japan reacted to the enjo kosai business, it certainly proves that at least Japan holds the purity of the body on a pedestal. I’m fairly certain that other Asian cultures also hold such taboos against extramarital sex. (Having taken that class, we discussed these topics.)

      I think reality stars, or any actors, are a bit different. For one, they are playing a role for mass entertainment. They are not selling physical interaction with their bodies, but the chance to view themselves performing. In the same vein, you don’t buy time with a stripper or erotic dancer unless you buy a lap dance. Otherwise, you just pay to see them perform and there is no physical contact.

      • miz

        I always thought that a lot of cultures outside of the whole western religious culture was always polygamous.. just that Western were more conservative on saying monogamy is the key. Even in nature, there are few species that would be monogamous..

        From what I have observed.. men would have more than one wife or if you are wealthy.. then you have a wife and a mistress..

        You’re right about the non-consensual fantasies in BL and for some people.

        I remember as I was researching about geisha culture, there is the being of a artisan, that western cultures warp.

        • It’s not just about polygamy (since even married men sleep with prostitutes), it’s about purity of the body. If you sell yours for sex (or in this day and age, for enjo kosai), it’s frowned upon in many many many cultures and that hasn’t changed for a very long time. You have to think around marriage, because obviously a man with multiple wives would not have been looked upon as taboo, but prostitution was looked on as taboo. It’s two different things.

          Western cultures do warp the idea of a geisha (largely because of geisha girls in WWII), but there is a part of geisha culture that did sell them for sex, even if it was only once.

  3. That one title…it’s “I’ll Give it My All…Tomorrow.”

    As for the purity of body…I hadn’t ever thought about it that way. Male hosts are pretty adamant about not sleeping with their guests, but it’s because they’re upholding a fantasy, and it’s over once sex is involved. IE: the women come for the attention, flirting, etc, but having sex is the ultimate form of what they want, so they won’t come back anymore after that, and they’ve lost a customer.

    • Fixed! Thanks for spotting that. ^_^

      The whole reason why prostitution is taboo is because it’s common almost worldwide to believe that sex is for your husband or at least for someone you love. So selling your body for a time for a stranger is more reprehensible than polygamy in some cases. (At least with polygamy, in the cultures that accept it, the woman is married and isn’t just giving it away to anyone.)

      While hosts (and hostesses) may not sell themselves sexually, they are selling people time with them (and drinks) and a sexual fantasy. The reason they fall under the same taboo is because they’re seen as too flirty, like a player, someone who will be with any woman (or man, really, I’m sure there are gay-oriented host bars out there) who pays. Of course, everyone knows that these men and women don’t usually sleep with clients for money, but in the eyes of society it’s really just a step away from enjo kosai and actual prostitution. Plus, I thought it was an interesting aspect to include. It’s something pretty unique to Japanese culture. It becomes relevant to the topic of prostitution the same way as discussing porn stars, phone sex workers and other such people is relevant to prostitution (even though those industries are legally not considered prostitution in the US.)

      • Have you ever seen The Great Happiness Space? It’s a fantastic documentary about male hosts in Japan.

        You mentioned earlier that you didn’t see actors/models/etc. as prostitutes. Only when you’re defining prostitution as strictly are you are, ie: only when you sell yourself for sex.
        When I was majoring in theatre, I gradually came to see it as a form of prostitution, and it’s one of the reasons I failed at it. I had a hard time bringing myself to do that. It’s one thing to go to an office job and sell a skill to someone. It’s another to get up on stage (or in film) and sell your body, mind and soul to an audience. Which is what you’re doing. You are most certainly judged by your looks, and people definitely aren’t paying money to watch ugly people.

        • Nope, I haven’t seen it.

          See, the thing about acting is that there’s not usually physical contact between the buyers and the sellers. Very often the actors, the directors and everyone else behind the scenes call the shots instead of the audience members. The audience can’t pay more to take an actor home for the night or give them a blow job in some back alley, they have to watch what the actors allow them. Being judged by your looks is obviously not the most awesome thing in the world, but it happens in a lot of places, not just in the world of theatre. I made my definition very clear & strict because it sort of needs to be. At some point for enjo kosai and host(esse)s, there might be a tipping point where they allow themselves to bought sexually like prostitutes are. Until that point, they are still selling themselves primarily to fulfill the sexual fantasies of others, even if it doesn’t end in sexual relations. Actors, in their roles, don’t typically sell themselves for sex or even sexual fantasies. Whether or not they are a sexual fantasy is totally up to the minds of the audience. Not everyone is going to see an actor’s performance as something sexual either. Actors definitely sell a fantasy, but the lack of close physical contact with the buyers, the strict separation of the stage and the seats and the fact that it’s up to the audience what they perceive in that fantasy makes it quite different from prostitution.

  4. Happy Mania also has hostesses- portrayed as a seedy dead end profession full of drama and depressed women.

  5. Thinking about it a little, Makoto Tateno’s Yellow has a prostitute in one of the one-off chapters in volume 2. The guy is a former actor-turned-prostitute/gun smuggler for the real bad guy/director. The seme character, Goh, solicits this prostitute in order to get to the guns. It’s not that prostitution in itself is looked down on in the story, but the idea is put across that this guy is a tragic figure in that he failed in his dream of acting and became a whore instead. At the end of the story he presumably runs off into the distance and away from prostitution where he’ll pursue something more “meaningful” with his life.

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  7. Interesting that you should put out an article about Japanese prostitution at the same time that someone reviewed the French comic, Miss Don’t Touch Me, which is about a woman trying to solve her roommate’s murder by joining a brothel. Her gimmick is that she’s a virgin prostitute who assumes a dominatrix maid who punishes her clients for trying to get close. (In actuality, she’s rather naive about the whole experience, but is very good at playing her role) As the old saying goes, this is a fetish for someone.
    http://antickmusings.blogspot.com/2010/09/book-day-2010-233-924-miss-dont-touch.html

    • Totally coincidental. I’ve actually been sitting on this post for a little while and trying to do it justice, so it’s being posted only means that I was finally satisfied with it.

      Unfortunately, I’m not including comics or bande dessinee in my little essay here, but thank you for the link. :3

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  9. I was really looking forward to this post of yours, especially when you twitted about it. It was very informative, especially the tropes and its totally awesome!

    This post is a job well done! Congrats! :D

  10. I just realized that I should’ve given you another series that features hostess/host clubs.

    Gintama (VIZ/Shonen Jump)

    One of the major characters, Tae Shimura, works at a hostess club in fictional Kabukicho (not sure if you’re familiar with the area, it’s the red-light district in Tokyo) . She only does it to pay the rent. Tae’s one of those characters who’s nice on the outside, but inside, her heart is that of a violent lion. Everyone thinks she’s a demon, which leads to hilarious results. I don’t know what you can categorize her as since Gintama characters are generally wacky.

    They also did a storyline on a host club where the main characters helped a mother try to find her son, who actually runs a host club. Her son surgically changed his face to try and make it big in Kabukicho as a host.

    The son even gave a really good quote.

    “You can’t stay clean if you’re going to claw your way up to the top in this town. People call me Kabukicho’s number one host, but I’ve paid a high price for my success. I’m embarrassed to say this, but…no one here can look his parents in the eye.”

    Sorry for not mentioning this earlier! >___<

  11. The layout of the weblog is absolutely messed up when I look at it in Opera. Plz fix it.

  12. Kevin Smith

    I suddenly remembered having read Deep Love – Ayu several years ago, but I couldn’t remember the name and I was completely fuzzy on the story. Googling manga and prostitution brought me to this page. This comment is just thanking you for helping me find the name of a manga that I read early enough in my life that it shaped future manga tastes. It was a dear story to me.

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