Old photos show Japanese sex workers caged like in prison

Dated 100 years ago, prostitutes during the Meiji period were held in cages to attract customers in Yoshiwara, a center of brothels at that time. Girls as young as seven years old were sold to the brothels as sex workers to repay family debts.

The photos were taken between 1890 and 1900. The prostitutes were mainly from the countryside. Some lucky ones would be given training in etiquette such as Tea Art classes. However most had to stay in the brothels until some wealthy men paid off their debts and kept them as concubines, or they had enough money to buy back their own freedom.

The Nobel Prize Nominee Hideyo Noguchi, whose face is on the current 1000 yen banknote, was a big fan of brothels in Yoshiwara. He was reported to have spent a big sum of money for a night of pleasure. Men with different backgrounds were welcomed, while samurais had to remove their swords before getting in.

These brothels were called ‘harimise’, where prostitutes had to sit behind the bars and faced the main streets to let customers choose. Since 1903, sex workers were picked and chosen from their photos. And later in 1916, ‘harimise’ brothels were banned.