Caroline Norma, ‘The Geisha-effect: Western Capitalisation on Japanese Commercial Sexual Exploitation’

Caroline Norma

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the idea of the Japanese ‘geisha’ has justified and beautified prostitution in the Western world.[1] The trend continues to the present, with Asian women in local Western sex industries popularly advertised as ‘Japanese’. This ‘geisha-effect’ of Japanese practices of prostitution and pornography, imagined or real, involves capitalising on the sexual exploitation of Japanese women and children to justify domestic abuses, especially against local Asian-background women. In other words, Japanese women and children are twice-over victims of commercial sexual exploitation: first, at the hands of their countrymen, and then at the hands of male populations abroad who ignore their plight to capitalise upon it, through promoting geisha-ised forms of prostitution and pornography in their own countries, especially against local Asian women.

The ongoing popularity of Japan’s sex industry among overseas male populations occurs not accidentally:[2] today, documentaries about the industry produced by Western film-makers are regularly imported into countries like Australia for local television broadcast,[3] and locally produced fictional films about Japan’s sex industry are popularly screened abroad.[4] Japan’s sex industry continues to exert a ‘geisha-effect’ on Western countries that justifies and beautifies local endeavours of commercial sexual exploitation, especially those perpetrated against migrant Asian women.

Japanese women as paradigmatic prostitutes

The nineteenth-century sex trafficking of Japanese women abroad, including into countries like Australia, early on fostered among Western populations views of Japanese women as indistinguishable from ‘prostitutes’. David Sissons estimates over 200 prostituted Japanese women were in Australia by the year 1896,[5] and Raymond Evans writes in even more detail that, 

[i]n 1897, more than a hundred of these [Japanese] women were reported to be acting as prostitutes in Childers, Innisfail and Cairns alone. In 1899, there were nineteen Japanese prostitutes resident in six brothels in ‘Chinatown’, Mackay, six more Japanese brothels, known as ‘Yokohamas’ at Bundaberg and others upon Thursday Island, where in 1902, there were thirty-one Japanese prostitutes operating.[6] 

This so-called ‘karayuki’ overseas sex trafficking, which was a large-scale trade over five decades and a dozen countries involving one hundred thousand Japanese women and girls, led foreign populations to equate Japanese women with prostitution.[7] In countries like Australia, the only Japanese women local populations encountered were those in brothels run by Japanese men, and self-serving ideas therefore developed in late-nineteenth century Australia about prostitution being culturally accepted and socially unremarkable in Japan.[8] These ideas were self-serving because it was Australian men who were buying Japanese trafficking victims for prostitution, and local communities benefited from the economic stimulus that the brothels, which drew men from surrounding areas, generated. 

While this trafficking history is more than one hundred years old, the subsequent allied occupation of Japan after the Pacific War reinforced such views of Japanese women. American military men were by far the most numerous of Japan’s occupiers, but Australian troops nonetheless made up the largest contingent of British Commonwealth Occupation Force personnel for its first two years.[9] Then, as Dean Aszkielowicz writes, ‘[a]fter September 1948, when other countries reduced their commitment and gradually withdrew altogether, Australian soldiers comprised virtually the entire force’. Even further, the force was made up only of Australians between the years 1949 and 1952. Views of Japanese women as paradigmatic prostitutes strengthened among Australian men during these six years as a result of their military prostitution of local women.[10] In some cases this prostitution appears to have enjoyed official sanction: in one incident in Nagasaki in 1947, a group of 36 Japanese women was brought into an onshore naval canteen to drink with sailors who had docked the evening before. Some older naval personnel objected to their facility thereby being turned into a ‘den of debauchery’.[11] After the occupation, Australian military personnel brought home artefacts, stories and ideas about Japanese women that local newspapers relayed to the Australian public via news items, serialised novels and features about ‘geisha’. They arrived back in Australia with their army rucksacks painted with pictures of ‘Japanese geisha’,[12] and showed friends and family photographs taken with Japanese women wearing kimono or yukata, which were items representing ‘geisha’ in the minds of Australians, irrespective of the actual circumstances of the women wearing them.[13]

The Australian War Memorial archival caption accompanying this photograph taken by an Australian serviceman reads: ‘Chuzenji, Japan. C. 1946-09-27. Troops from the lakeside hotel, BCOF rest centre, at Udaki Falls with two geisha girls.’[14]
The ‘geisha-effect’ and Asian prostitution victims in the West

The continued sexual access to Japanese women that Western men, including Australians, enjoyed before and after the Pacific War, which is today facilitated through mass tourism and online pornography,[15] generated cultural scripts and products about ‘Japanese geisha’, including early popular theatre and opera productions like The Geisha, The Mikado, and Madame Butterfly.[16] These scripts, which beautified prostitution through equating it with exotic and little-understood Japanese women, thereafter caused Westerners to fuse their ideas of Asian women with sexual exploitation.[17] In Australia today, this historical ‘geisha-effect’ has consequences for female Asian migrants. It produces a situation where, as one 2016 study describes, the local sex industry advertises Asian women for prostitution at rates of around 40 per cent.[18] As mentioned, this advertising often refers to victims as ‘Japanese’ or as ‘geisha’. This is despite Asian-background residents of Australia making up less than ten per cent of the country’s total population. As described next, this commercial sexual exploitation of Asian women in Australian society attracts little social concern or public-policy action as a result of its historical naturalisation and the continuing operation of contemporary forms of geisha-isation.

Asian women on sale for prostitution in Australia today are commonly sold as ‘Japanese’ or as ‘geisha’, even though trafficking victims in contemporary Australia are almost never from Japan but, rather, countries like China, Thailand and South Korea. These Asian internees of Australia’s sex industry are disproportionately numerous: a 2012 research report identifies more than 50 per cent of survey respondents in approved brothels in metropolitan Sydney as of either ‘Asian’ or ‘other non-English speaking background’, and nearly 45 per cent of these respondents as speaking only ‘poor’ or ‘fair’ English.[19] Similarly, a 2010 study found over 54 per cent of women in prostitution in Western Sydney as born overseas.[20] The men who buy these women for prostitution are not necessarily their compatriots: a 2015 Australian study notes that ‘[n]early all [migrant sex worker] respondents reported their customers to be primarily Anglo (92 per cent)’.[21] In other words, a sex industry operates in contemporary Australia to sell Asian women to local men, with these women sharing neither a common nationality nor language with their buyers. This situation arises both because of the ‘geisha-effect’, which has historically caused Western populations to associate Asian women with prostitution, as well as more recently because of online pornography.‘Pornhub’ reported in 2019 that its most searched term by male site users in 2018 was ‘Japanese’, with the word ‘hentai’ the third-most searched term, and ‘Korean’ the fourth.[22] Even in the second decade of the twenty-first century, therefore, Japan’s sex industry continues to influence the West, with men enthusiastically seeking out its pornographic products. In turn, these men live in countries where large numbers of trafficked Asian women are available for prostitution through local sex industries.

In Australia, this widespread sexual selling of Asian women attracts little public concern and almost no official action; on the contrary, it is widely justified as Asian female ‘migration for sex work’.[23] This view of Asian women as invariably, and enthusiastically, entering the Australian prostitution market, and their presence being an expected, if not predictable, feature of Australian society, reflects beliefs in Asian women as naturally prostituted stretching back to systems of pre-war and post-war sexual trading of Japanese women. These ideas have subsequently strengthened through pornography, prostitution perpetrated against Asian women in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and through later sex tourism in Thailand and the Philippines.[24] Asian women thereafter, from the late-1990s, became prominent victims of Australia’s sex industry, but their widespread trafficking never became an issue of Australian public concern in the twenty-first century in the way migrant offshore detention or refugee rights did. On the contrary, Australia’s federal Anti-People Trafficking Interdepartmental Committee still today not only restricts its focus to trafficking taking place ‘outside the sex industry’, but openly admits to excluding the sex industry from view: ‘During the next year there will be a continued focus on issues related to trafficking of people for exploitation outside the commercial sex industry’.[25] This lack of official concern about sex trafficking in Australia stems from the fact of victims being overwhelmingly Asian and female. These victims are civilly demeaned and made invisible by contemporary influences of geisha-isation, as described next. These influences continue to naturalise and legitimise their commercial sexual exploitation in the current day on the basis of exotic Japanese cultural trends, either imagined or real.

A typical example of mainstream newspaper advertising of prostitution in (Western) Australia containing frequent reference to ‘Japan’.
Japanese justifications for Western commercial sexual exploitation 

Practices of sexual exploitation exercised by sex industry businesses in the West are recently marketed on the basis of Japanese cultural practices, either imagined or real. The trend of the last two decades for Western pornographers to film women being ejaculated upon by multiple men: on their faces, bodies, and into their eyes, for example, is advertised as a Japanese historical practice called ‘bukkake’. The practice has ancient origins in pre-modern Japanese history, two Australia-based researchers allege: 

Bukkake is a Japanese term that refers to showering a receiver male or female with semen from one, several or many men…Theory has it that in ancient Japan, women who were found to be unfaithful were publicly humiliated in the town center by being tied up while every man in town ejaculated all over her to show his distaste.[26]

Such historical justifications for abuses perpetrated by contemporary pornographers, described in flowery terms by researchers at international conferences held in Western countries, reflect contemporary trends of geisha-isation. In the case of ‘bukkake’, Western pornographers manufacture stories about ancient Japanese history to promote sales of particular types of filmed abuses.[27] Japan-based pornographers perpetrate similar abuses, but they are not marketed on the basis of any similar cultural justification or celebration.[28]

A second Western sex industry practice justified on the basis of ancient Japanese culture is ‘shibari’, or ‘kinbaku’, translated as ‘Japanese rope bondage’. This practice of tightly binding women in ropes and hanging them from ceilings over periods of hours is described in English-language how-to manuals as a ‘Japanese-inspired art of tying a subject to not only immobilize them, but to do so elegantly and beautifully – creating an intimate and erotic experience for both the subject and the person tying’.[29] This marketing underpins commercial events held in countries including Australia where male ‘shibari’ masters tie up women (often traded in the sex industry) who are strung from ropes hanging from nightclub ceilings in full view of patrons. Japanese entrepreneurs, too, cash-in on this ‘shibari’ form of business enterprise, but its origins are traceable to cities like San Francisco where Western sex industries are large and diverse. The business is culturally supported, moreover, by mainstream Japanese artists like Nobuyoshi Araki who publish books celebrating this form of commercial abuse. The following book review praises Araki’s recent volume of photographs while articulating popularly circulating historical justifications for the perpetration of ‘shibari’:

Araki is at his most controversial in the ‘Bondage’ chapter, where kimono-clad women are elegantly tied up and suspended. Though the photographs are provocative, erotic and often viewed as pornographic, the esthetic practice of sexual bondage known as shibari is rooted in Japanese culture, and was derived from a non-sexual practice called hojojitsu, which Samurai warriors used to restrain their captives without harming them, as a show of respect.[30]

The ‘shibari’ example shows Japanese and Western businessmen acting to promote mutual economic and sexual benefit against the interests of Japanese women who are naturalised as subjects of bondage, and against the interests of women in Western countries who become victims of ‘shibari’ business ventures in places like San Francisco.

A third way in which Western proponents draw upon Japanese popular culture to justify local ventures of sexual exploitation is to promote the virtues of Japanese graphically animated child pornography. In Australia, as in other Western countries, pornographic representations of children are banned alongside pornography manufactured using live children. There are, though, opponents of this legislation, one of whom was a professor at an Australian university who cited the existence of online forms of Japanese graphically animated child pornography as reason to overturn the Australian ban. His argument is that young people, and especially students, are denied enjoyment of the unique qualities of Japanese popular culture when they are legally restricted access to graphically animated child pornography. Those who would uphold the ban on animated forms of child pornography are, therefore, cultural philistines, and, regardless, their legislative efforts are ill-conceived and futile:

If the existing Australian legislation concerning fictional child pornography were to be taken seriously by the authorities, it would require a blitz of an unimaginable scale. Tens of thousands of young Australians who pursue their interests in ACG [Japanese anime, cartoons, and games] and slash fandom in school and university clubs, as well as online, would be caught in this net.[31]

In this example, the failure of the Japanese government to ban graphically generated representations of child pornography is drawn upon to advocate similarly lax media regulation in countries like Australia. In this case, Western proponents of sexually exploitative products are aided in their advocacy by lax regulation in Japan, which is an environment underpinned by a strong sex industry and a weak base of women’s human rights. Transmission of this environment to countries like Australia remains always an unfortunate possibility because proponents are able to capitalise on the long tradition of geisha-isation in the West, and create similar influences in contemporary times through drawing on Japanese popular and ancient culture, either imagined or real.


[1] See Frederic Roustan, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. (2012). ‘Mousmes and French colonial culture,’ Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 7(1), 52-105. 

[2] This effect is most strong in countries like Taiwan with strong historical ties to imperial Japan, and few barriers to trade and migration today. See Wong, H., & Yau, H. (2012). ‘The “real core”: the taste of Taiwanese men for Japanese adult videos,’ Sexualities, 15(3-4), 411-436.

[3] Among many examples, see Lassaigne, A., Java Films (2018). Love & sex in Japan. San Francisco, California; Petirro, Daniele, & Vernoli, Andrea. (2012). Fuzoku: the world of sex entertainment in Japan. Italy.

[4] Koreeda, Hirokazu, Doona, Bae, Itao, Itsuji, & Iura, Arata. (2009). Air Doll (2009); Masaharu Take, The Naked Director, Netflix, 2019.

[5] Stockwin, Arthur and Keiko Tamura (eds), ‘Karayuki-san: Japanese prostitutes in Australia, 1887–1916 (I & II),’ pp. 171–208 in Bridging Australia and Japan: volume 1: the writings of David Sissons, historian and political scientist, vol. 8, ANU Press, Australia, 2016. See also Yuriko Nagata, ‘Gendering Australia–Japan relations: prostitutes and the Japanese diaspora in Australia,’ Ritsumeikan Journal of Asia Pacific Studies, 11 (March 2003), 71–84.

[6] Raymond Evans, ‘Soiled doves: prostitution in colonial Queensland,’ p. 139 (total pages: 127-161) in Kay Daniels (ed), So much hard work: women and prostitution in Australian history, Sydney: Fontana/Collins, 1984.

[7] See Sachiko Sone, ‘The karayuki-san of Asia, 1868-1938: the role of prostitutes overseas in Japanese economic and social development,’ Murdoch University, MA thesis, 1990; Harriet Blankevoort, ‘An analysis of Japanese prostitution in Australia 1877-1916,’ Macquarie University, MA thesis, 1990.

[8] Many newspaper articles at the time spread such views, searchable at https://trove.nla.gov.au/. See, for example, ‘Queenslands queer ways. Curious cantrips. Japanese joys. A long-felt want.,’ Truth, 30 May 1897, p. 2.

[9] Aszkielowicz, Dean. (2018). The Australian pursuit of Japanese war criminals, 1943-1957: From foe to friend. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2018.

[10] See McMahon, J. P. (2016). Monica’s war: an Australian army matron in Australia, New Guinea and Japan. Salisbury, Qld.: Boolarong Press, 2016.

[11] ‘Sailors and geishas canteen orgies alleged report from Nagasaki,’ Cairns Post, 6 October 1947, p. 5.

[12] ‘Pin-ups on kitbags,’ Sunday Times, 17 November 1946, p. 17.

[13] See Kathleen Cusack, ‘Beyond silence: giving voice to Kure mothers of Japanese-Australian children,’ New Voices, Volume 2, 2008, https://newvoices.org.au/volume-2/beyond-silence-giving-voice-to-kure-mothers-of-japanese-australian-children/; Tamura, K., & Australian National University. (2011). Michi’s memories: the story of a Japanese war bride. Canberra, ACT: ANU E Press.

[14] https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C251772

[15] Julia Baird, ‘Australian tourists risk turning Japan into another Bali,’ 19 October 2018, The Sydney Morning Herald, https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/australian-tourists-risk-turning-japan-into-another-bali-20181019-p50aph.html

[16] Yoko Kawaguchi. Butterfly’s sisters: the geisha in Western culture. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2010; Meyer, Susan Jennifer. (2006). From madame to memoirs: texts, travel and the reiterated geisha: a literary analysis of Western images of Japanese women. MA thesis, The University of Melbourne.

[17] See Ang, Ien. ‘The curse of the smile: ambivalence and the “Asian” woman in Australian multiculturalism,’ Feminist Review, no. 52, 1996, pp. 36–49; Masako Fukui, ‘Madame Butterfly’s revenge,’ Griffith Review, Vol. 40, 2013, https://griffithreview.com/articles/madame-butterflys-revenge/ Jessie Tu, ‘Because I am small and Asian, I am fetishised by some white men,’ 28 November 2018, The Sydney Morning Herald, https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/because-i-am-small-and-asian-i-am-fetishised-by-some-white-men-20181126-p50ifk.html

[18] Street, T., & Norma, C. (2016). ‘Sex tourists in their own country: digital media advertising of Asian women by the Australian sex industry,’ Gender, Technology and Development, 20(3), 279–305.

[19] Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales, The sex industry in New South Wales: a report to the NSW Ministry of Health, 2012, Sydney, pp. 17-18.

[20] Kakar SR, Biggs K, Chung C, Sawleshwarkar S, Mindel A, Lagios K, Hillman RJ. ‘A retrospective case note review of sex worker attendees at sexual health clinics in the western suburbs of Sydney,’ Sex Health. 2010 Mar;7(1):3-7.

[21] Elena Jeffreys, ‘Anti-trafficking measures and migrant sex workers in Australia,’ Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, Issue 19, February 2009, http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue19/jeffreys.htm

[22] https://www.pornhub.com/insights/2018-year-in-review

[23] For these justifications, see Caroline Norma, ‘The Koreanization of the Australian sex industry: a policy and legislative challenge,’ The Korean Journal of Policy Studies 26 (3), 13-36. For descriptions of Asian trafficking victims as ‘migrant sex workers’, see Jeffreys, E., & Perkins, R. (2011). ‘Sex work, migration, HIV and trafficking: Chinese and other migrant sex workers in Australia,’ Intersections, 26, 2011; Dalton, B., & Jung, K. (2019). ‘Becoming cosmopolitan women while negotiating structurally limited choices: the case of Korean migrant sex workers in Australia,’ Organization, 26(3), 355-370.

[24] Kruhse-MountBurton, S. (1995). ‘Sex tourism and traditional Australian male identity’. In E.M. Bruner, J.B. Allcock & M.F. Lanfant (Eds.), International tourism: identity and change (1st ed., pp. 192-202). London: Sage Publications; Garrick, D. (2008). ‘Excuses, excuses: rationalisations of Western sex tourists in Thailand’. Current Issues in Tourism, 8(6),497-509.

[25] Anti-People Trafficking Interdepartmental Committee, Trafficking in persons: the Australian government’s response, 1 July 2011-30 June 2012, http://www.ag.gov.au/CrimeAndCorruption/HumanTrafficking/Documents/ReportoftheAntiPeopleTraffickingInterdepartmentalCommitteeJuly2012toJune2012.doc

[26] Jeff Hudson and Nicholas Doong, ‘Bake a cake? exposing the sexual practice of bukkake,’ XVII World Congress of Sexology, Montreal, Canada, 2005.

[27] See Brian Hill, Pornography: the musical, Century Films, 2003.

[28] See Yamamoto, Yukino; Norma, Caroline; and Weerasinghe, Ruwan Dep (2018) ‘Consumer involvement in Japanese pornography production,’ Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 3: Iss. 2, Article 9. https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dignity/vol3/iss2/9

[29] Kent, D. (2010). Complete shibari. Ottawa, Canada: Mental Gears Publishing, 2010.

[30] Darren Ching, ‘Araki Gold: review of Araki Gold photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki edited by Filippo Maggia,’ Photo District News, Vol. 28, Iss. 11, 2008, p. 54.

[31] McLelland, MJ, ‘Thought policing or the protection of youth? Debate in Japan over the “non-existent youth bill”,’ International Journal of Comic Art, 13(1), 2011, p. 16 (total pages: 348-367), http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1272&context=artspapers

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