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Sunday, July 8, 2001


Love town where time stands still

Staff writer

OSAKA -- Osaka Mayor Takafumi Isomura repeatedly says he wants to turn the city into an international tourist destination. But camera-toting foreigners snapping pictures of Tobita, one of its oldest and most famous neighborhoods, are probably not what either he or the local business community have in mind.

The Hyakuban restaurant began life as a brothel.

Located in the heart of downtown, about a 15-minute walk south of Kintetsu Abeno Station, Tobita -- which covers an area of nearly 12 blocks -- is one of Japan's last remaining traditional brothel districts. Unlike garish, neon-lit soaplands, Tobita's brothels are built of wood and look from afar like rows of traditional Kyoto-style teahouses. But get closer and the difference becomes immediately apparent.

Inside the Hyakuban it's traditional fare.

Light pours from the open door of each establishment. Sitting in the genkan or on a chair by the entrance is an elderly woman who calls out to passersby: "Oniichan [Big brother]! Thirty minutes for 15,000 yen!"

Those who stop to peer in see a brightly lit tatami room with a well-dressed young woman sitting behind a hibachi or on a blanket. The younger prostitutes tend to be found more on the western side of Tobita, while the age goes up as you move east. Throughout the area, though, the price, and the time, remain fixed -- and most places do not allow foreigners.

Though nobody is exactly sure when Tobita was established, various histories of Osaka show that, by the late Meiji Era (1868-1912), it was attracting impoverished farm girls who moved to the city in search of work, as well as wives fleeing abusive husbands.

During the 1930s, Tobita was something of a Bohemian district. In addition to the working women, there were also a number of artists, musicians and their ilk living in the area who opposed the militarization of Japan and, later, the war.

In the immediate postwar period, Tobita became Osaka's largest brothel district, with several thousand prostitutes working there. During a postwar trip to Osaka, former U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt toured the area in an open car, inquiring about the health of the girls.

Situated near the day-laborers' district popularly known as Kamagasaki, Tobita continued to thrive as Japan rebuilt from the war and even after the Anti-Prostitution Law went into effect in 1958. Today, there are an estimated 100 brothels there.

How have they managed to stay in business? Primarily because of a belief that they are necessary. Police figure it is better to leave the brothels open to service the day laborers who might otherwise cause trouble.

Still, customers have to be discreet. Like "head" shops near some American universities that warn customers to ask for a "water lamp" rather than a "bong," customers must request the "company" of a lady and may be refused if they bluntly ask for "sex." Tobita etiquette maintains that they don't find out what they get for their money until they are led upstairs and the bedroom door is closed.

Consenting adults

What happens after that, police say, is the result of a private agreement between two consenting adults and is therefore not police business. Furthermore, the city allows the brothels to be registered as restaurants. Thus, when they need to advertise for women, the brothels use the term nakai-san (waitress). Prices range from 11,000 yen for 15 minutes to 15,000 yen for 30 minutes. Some places, though not all, even tack on the 5 percent consumption tax in order to continue the charade of being a restaurant.

Obviously, Tobita draws a large number of men. But one place is popular with both sexes: the Hyakuban restaurant.

Located in a former brothel on the northeast edge of Tobita, Hyakuban is famous for its nabe. Originally built in 1918 to house prostitutes whose Nanba district brothel burned down, Hyakuban retains the architectural style of the period. On the first floor, there is a porchlike enclave left of the entrance where the women once sat and waited for customers. When the Anti-Prostitution Law went into effect, Hyakuban became a real restaurant but retained the enclave and the adjacent waiting room intact. The upstairs cubicles, most of which are six-mat tatami rooms, are now private dining rooms.

Over the years, Hyakuban has attracted enka singers, gangsters, politicians, sumo wrestlers and a host of ordinary Japanese and foreign visitors. It is one of the few establishments in Osaka where reservations are required, and in 1999 it was even named a registered cultural property. Although this designation may serve to preserve Hyakuban for a long time to come, the rest of Tobita faces an uncertain future, with some officials embarrassed by its presence even keen to tear it down or at least reduce its size.

In fact, no official English maps of Osaka have Tobita marked on them, and several leave the area blank. Even Hyakuban is rarely marked. During both the 1990 Flower Expo and the 1995 APEC conference, many (though not all) of Tobita's brothels "voluntarily" closed so that, in the words of several patrons, "foreigners wouldn't get the wrong impression."

But Tobita remains a major part of Osaka's downtown culture, one that has survived depression, war, legal constraints and, so far, the efforts of uptown politicians and construction companies to tear it down.

Though some would wish it out of sight, it's likely that for the foreseeable future too many people would mind if Tobita ceased to exist.

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