Male Sexuality in Japan’s Prostitution Debate


A review of From the Brothel, to the Body: The Relocation of Male Sexuality in Japan’s Prostitution Debate, 1870-1920, by Craig Colbeck.

Craig Colbeck’s dissertation is an historical investigation of how discourses of male sexuality and sexual desire have been construed. Closely following Japan’s prostitution debates from 1870 to 1920, Colbeck examines the ways in which discourses of male sexuality and sexual desire were enabled and disenabled. Employing Foucauldian historiography, the author focuses on what was said and discussed regarding the sexualities of men who frequented licensed brothels, rather than detailing their actual sexual activities. Some of the vocal participants in the debates were protestant abolitionists, regulationists of the prostitution industry, and secular feminists.

Colbeck’s thesis is demonstrated with evidence and careful insight. Colbeck argues, in a nutshell, that what he terms as “male sexual-instinct theory” – the assumption that male sexual desire is always already innately residing within their bodies and minds – came to the fore in Japan only at the turn of the twentieth century. Before this sea change, at least within the prostitution debates, male sexuality was perceived as non-primordial – that is, something that comes into being by external stimulus, such as visiting pleasure industries.

What makes Colbeck’s thesis of interest to a relatively wide readership is his way of contextualizing his analysis within a larger historiography of prostitution regulation. Tracing this genealogy back to the early nineteenth century, when the regulation of prostitution was first introduced in France (and subsequently practiced in other parts of Europe), Colbeck details the developments of regulation discourse before it was introduced into Japan in the late nineteenth century. In contradistinction to European counterparts, whose regulationist discourses and policies quickly proved to be incongruent with public opinion and thus mostly repealed, Japan has provided, according to Colbeck, an alternative platform upon which the prolonged discussions on prostitution regulation could take place in the following decades. What separated Japan from their Euro-American counterparts derived from the fact that it was a much more difficult endeavor for abolitionists to repeal such regulations in Japan, where legally sanctioned brothel industries had already been in business and tightly linked with the government and economic structures for centuries.

Since the onset of debates over prostitution regulation in the late 1800s, both abolitionist and regulationist constituents shared – despite differences of ultimate objectives – the idea that male erotic desire was anything but innate. To many critics, male passions or physical urges were results of external stimulation. Colbeck consults and analyzes in detail a wide range of texts in order to support this observation, including The Complete Elimination of the Brothel, published in 1889 by a prominent protestant abolitionist Iwamoto Yoshiharu, and the regulationist counterpart text, On the Realities of Regulation and Abolition, published in 1890.

The second half of the dissertation delves into the core of Colbeck’s thesis. The turn of the century saw a sea change in the discourse of male sexuality in social policies, in that male erotic desire started to be understood as congenital – an essential quality that was always already within the male body. Colbeck attributes this shift to changes that occurred in the larger historical framework within which sexuality itself was understood in Japan. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Japanese intellectuals willingly adopted knowledge of western sexology. During the first decades of the twentieth century, those who aligned themselves with western sexology, including cultural figures such as Mori Ōgai, made frequent uses of the neologism seiyoku (sexual instinct) in order to transplant western knowledge of sexuality in Japanese soil. According to Colbeck, the birth of the concept seiyoku, coupled with rhetorical reasoning about the passion to mate – which was based on evolutional biology discourses, most notably that of Darwinist arrangements of sexual selection – turned male sexual desire into something natural and instinctive.

As a consequence, regulationist camps smoothly adopted this new instinctual narrative to advance their political agenda, linking sexual drive to natural appetite, and thereby legitimating the need for licensed brothels to deal with such “natural” male demands. In response, a somewhat desperate measure taken by abolitionists was – while overthrowing their previous contention that erotic desire was vice and addiction – to incorporate this theory of natural male sexual drive into the notion of romantic love. According to this viewpoint, male sexual desire was one of the positive elements required for cultivating healthy conjugal relationship between men and women. In this rhetoric, the custom of visiting brothels would intervene in normal pathways of romantic courtship. Although these diametrically parted goals were suggested by the two parties, Colbeck argues that the idea that innate male sexual desire came to be perceived as common sense in the early twentieth century.

Colbeck is careful in pointing out that male sexuality was not the only kind of sexuality in the early twentieth century to be defined along these lines of instinctive desire. Female sexuality had also been contemporaneously reconstructed. This reconstruction was undertaken, not by the hands of male critics, however, but by women themselves, most notably secular feminists. Japanese feminist organizations, such as Seitōsha (Bluestocking Society), and the New Women’s Association, were prominent constituents in the movement of redefining the notion of female sexuality. Colbeck identifies Hiratsuka Raichō, a leader of Seitōsha, as a representative of secular feminists who utilized a eugenic rhetoric of women’s health and sexuality. The purpose of this rhetorical deployment was to recognize female sexual desire as a legitimate element required for healthy womanhood, and also to protect women’s agency in deciding when to be sexually active and with whom to get married. Amidst the campaign of salvaging the self-autonomy of women, evolutionary and eugenic discourses, which were shared among both abolitionists and regulationists of prostitution at that time, came in handy, as it were, for secular feminists to advance their political agenda. Some secular feminists went as far as to petition the state to investigate whether men who intended to marry were not infected with venereal diseases. Albeit such a state regulation did not eventuate, the petition demanded compulsory health checks only for men, leaving women un-scrutinized. While Colbeck understood such a move by secular feminists to be largely strategic on their parts, their rhetorical maneuver was, in turn, complicit in constructing the essentialized ideology of male sexuality or desire, which was premised on the logic of instinct that Japanese society subsequently upheld for a long time.

All in all, primary historical texts are not only carefully surveyed and translated, but are also given appropriate contexts. In this approach, those texts under analysis have productive dialogues with relevant secondary material. Towards the end, Colbeck also elucidates how his work could potentially have critical exchange with contemporary polemics surrounding Japan’s involvement with wartime-institutionalized prostitution. When the issues of wartime-institutionalized prostitution are discussed in media, or among politicians and critics alike (the most salient of which is of course about what are called “Comfort Women”), relevant discourses more often than not revolve around moral concerns such as whether it was right or wrong, just or unjust, and even sanctioned by the military or not. At the same time, as Colbeck observes, the questions of how prostitution became necessary, what made it just, and in what ways it was called upon in the first place, are rarely asked. If we are to undo, or not to repeat such wrongdoings, it is imperative for us to learn where the patriarchal discourse of ‘male sexual instinct’ itself came about, which itself came to justify the existence of pleasure industries. Colbeck’s dissertation provides not the entire genealogy of the discourse, but identifies its dawn at the turn of the twentieth century in Japan.

Colbeck’s dissertation begins and ends with personal accounts, which provides a natural flow of logic for readers to follow. The structure also makes his dissertation almost like a well-organized book manuscript rather than an old-fashioned thesis. At the beginning, Colbeck notes that the idea of his thesis occurred to him when he was reading feminist writings in the 1970s and 1980s. Once groundbreaking, and now classic, “male gaze” theory, as Colbeck calls it, put forth by Laura Mulvey in particular, drew his attention (Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6–18.). Colbeck observes that “Mulvey’s particular contribution was to phrase male sexuality in terms of both psychoanalysis in its source and specifically linked to viewing in behavior, and many feminists have continued to do this under the broader rubric of ‘objectification’” (p. 2). While he does not question the validity of Mulvey’s claim in our present contexts, Colbeck as an historian nonetheless ponders where and when this underlying assumption of male sexuality – that men had a primordial drive to objectify or eroticize women – came into being. Colbeck concludes his dissertation with the following remark:

… if we stop accepting the notion that male sexual desire is a transhistorical, natural fact from the primordial age, … we can begin to see male sexual desire as a relatively-new, readily-dispensable institutional fact of social policy-making. Dissolving male sexual desire as a fact of politics from the feminist end could be the beginning of the end for the incumbency of male sexual desire in the politics of sexuality. It would further liberate us to envision a new feminist politics that neither privileges male sexual desire as a fact of life nor encourages others to do so. (Emphasis in original pp. 228–9)

Feminist theorists have already taken a key initiative to destabilize and deconstruct the myth of male sexuality and masculinity. Through his well-researched and skillfully presented thesis that critically analyzes a particular instance which saw the shaping of the discourse on male sexual desire in modern Japan, Colbeck makes an important contribution to the field by further highlighting the importance for “the destabilization of male sexual desire” (p. 228).

Katsuhiko Suganuma
Oita University
Assistant Professor

Primary Sources

Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Hinkō ron [On Morality] Hiratsuka Raichō’s autobiography Genshi josei wa taiyō de atta [In the Beginning, Woman was the Sun] Iwamoto Yoshiharu’s Girō zenpai [Complete Elimination of Brothels] Mori Ōgai’s Wita sekusyuarisu [Vita Sexualis] Prostitution regulationist text Sonpai jissairon [On the Realities of Regulation and Abolition] Articles and essays published by Seitōsha [Bluestocking Society] Numerous publications on prostitution regulation debates from 1870s to 1920s

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 244 pp. Primary Advisor: Andrew Gordon.

Image: 吉原遊廓 (よしわらゆうかく).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like