Women stand in front of a building with an exotic mixture of Western and Japanese architecture in Fukuhara, Kobe’s renowned red light district.
Although the district never appeared in tourist guides and official histories, Fukuhara was Kobe’s main attraction. When in 1874 (Meiji 7), the local population was asked to vote for Kobe’s eight most popular areas, Fukuhara made the top spot by a landslide. Clearly, the voters were all men.
Fukuhara’s history goes back to the early days of Kobe’s opening as an international port. In 1868 (Meiji 1), the very year that Kobe became an open port, the Japanese population of the villages of Hyogo and Kobe requested the establishment of licensed prostitute quarters in the area. Soon after, a large red light district was built on the spot where now Kobe Station is located. It was called Fukuhara, after the short-lived imperial capital that was located around here in 1180.
Things got off to a bad start. By 1870 (Meiji 3), construction started for the railroad connection between Kobe and Osaka, and Kobe Station was planned at the exact location of the Fukuhara Yukaku (red light district). Fukuhara was therefore moved to an empty wasteland along the river Minatogawa. It was now called Shin-Fukuhara (New Fukuhara), but the Shin didn’t stick very long.
Fukuhara was more than just a collection of brothels. There were countless restaurants, cafés, teahouses, Geiko Okiya (an employer of Geiko who are sent to entertain guests at restaurants.) and Sekikashi (席貸, meeting rooms for rent), making the district extremely lively.1
It must have helped Fukuhara when in 1905 the new entertainment street of Shinkaichi was opened in the former riverbed of the Minatogawa. Its course had been changed in 1901, and many theaters and restaurants were built were once the river flowed. Until the final years of WWII, it was Kobe’s main entertainment district, always crowded with people.
Although licensed prostitution was outlawed in 1958, Fukuhara, like so many other traditional red light districts in Japan, managed to survive. The area is still filled with sex clubs, brothels and bars, but it doesn’t look as inviting anymore as it does on this photo.
I haven’t yet been able to determine the exact location where the photographer took this photograph, so the Google Map shows the current entrance to the Fukuhara red light district.
1 (2003). 湊川新開地ガイドブック. Shinkaichi Art Street.
2 Recommended reading: 人見佐知子（2007）。「神戸・福原遊廓の成立と〈近代公娼制度〉」。『日本史研究』544, 28-56。
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). Kobe 1910s: Fukuhara Brothels, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on May 26, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/311/fukuhara-brothels
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