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A dead prostitute is of no use to anyone

Courtesan Hinamatsu, by Keisai Eisen
A dead prostitute is of no use to anyone: plaything no more, an embarrassment to her family, unwanted and awkward. What's to be done with her? Dump her, with 20 000 others, at a temple that's willing to accept her body.

The temple is Jōkanji (浄閑寺), established in 1665 on the border of the old red-light district Yoshiwara or present-day Senzoku 4-chōme. If you look at a map, you'll find Jōkanji in Minowa, just north of Senzoku.

Yoshiwara was a walled-in community that housed thousands of prostitutes in the Edo era. Girls were often sold by their families, sometimes before they were twelve years old, and once inside, it was impossible to escape. They were allowed to leave Yoshiwara only to attend the funeral of a parent, and to view the cherry blossoms next to the Sumida River.

Top courtesans could demand top prices and had comparatively easy lives, but common whores lived in dire conditions of poverty, disease and near slavery. This was aggravated by the Ansei Edo Earthquake that struck on 11 November 1855 and caused devastating fires to rage across the shitamachi. Yoshiwara had only two exits. Few women escaped.

Superstitions soon spread as quickly as the inferno. Yoshiwara happened to be towards the northeast of the city, in other words, the dreaded Kimon (鬼門) or Demon Gate. This concept is based on Chinese geomancy, which taught that demons enter from the northeast. Trade fell, and brothel keepers fought back by lowering their prices and increasing their inventory: the number of prostitutes rose from 1 500 women in the year 1700 to 9 000 women in the year 1900. Diseases, especially syphilis and tuberculosis, were rife, and hundreds died of botched abortions.

Many deaths, many corpses, but nobody cared enough to give them a decent burial. The one place that accepted them was Jōkanji. Dumping was such a common occurrence that the temple was nicknamed Nagekomi-dera (投込寺) or Throwaway Temple. According to its records, 21 056 prostitutes without family were listed here between 1743 and 1801, and the majority died in their twenties.

The practice was stopped in the Meiji era, but today you can still see a monument to the dead women at Jōkanji. It's a working temple with a modern graveyard, full of well-tended graves of people with no connection whatsoever to mizu-shōbai (水商売, water trade, i.e. prostitution).

The entrance to Jōkanji

The prostitutes' memorial is tucked away towards the back of the temple. It was in many ways more unsettling to me than my visit earlier that same morning to the execution grounds. Noteworthy:

The first thing I saw at the memorial was a cup with the words "Nice Guy Club". It's perhaps safer not to succumb to conjecture.

A hairpin and a fan – symbols of a prostitute – were clumsily stuck on the memorial.

Towards the right (if you face the memorial) is a tree that allegedly guarded the original entrance to the temple. That's were dead bodies were left.

If you peer through metal bars into the memorial, you can see earthenware pots with women's ashes. They've been standing there, gathering dust, for centuries. The doorway to the crypt is locked with a plastic chain and a teddy bear charm. Its incongruous cuteness filled me with sadness.

It's not easy to visit this place without getting sad as well as angry.

Hairpin and fan

1) Jōkanji is also associated with Kafu Nagai (1879-1959), a novelist who lived in the area and whose stories were about the women of Yoshiwara.
2) If you go there yourself, be warned that the temple looks very nondescript from outside. Keep left as you enter; the prostitutes' memorial is in the graveyard at the back of the temple.

Seigle, Cecilia Segawa. Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

The prostitutes' memorial

Buddha on top of the memorial

Entrance to the crypt

Cute lock to protect a very uncute history

Ashes of dead prostitutes

That's allegedly the tree where the bodies were dumped. The memorial is to the left in this photo.

A statue of Benten. It looked as if she was crying.

Modern grave. Click to see a bigger version.

Map of the old Yoshiwara that clearly shows it had only two exits. Image from Wikipedia.

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