Hotel and tea house girls of Japan in the early 20th century.

Pre-war Japanese society and social classes were very different to today.  A distinct class of domestics that were filled predominately with women were in the service industry such as hotels, tea-houses, and restaurants.  Here the hours of labour were very long, from four or five in the morning till midnight, or later.  Rarely do these girls get five hours of rest, frequently there are not more than three hours.  They must open all the amado (sliding wooden shutters which protect the paper “windows”), and get the general cleaning done before the first guest rise, and must continue their service until late into the night, answering the calls of the guests, till the last one has retired.  In addition to the usual cleaning of the rooms, which is really not much of an undertaking, these girls carry all the meals of all the guests from the kitchen on the ground floor to their rooms on the second or third floors, serve them while they eat, and carry away the trays when the meal is completed.  In preparation for the night the girls bring out the heavy futon (quilts) and make the “beds” on the floor and in the morning remove, fold, and lay them all away in closets. The workload in a traditional Japanese hotel is relatively heavy due to the number of guests, but that which is most taxing are the long hours of service and the insufficient time for rest.  As in the poorer homes of Japan reflect the same conditions of the poorer and smaller hotels, the girls have no private rooms, but sleep in entryways and reception-rooms.  Of course they have neither time nor opportunity for personal culture, nor even for recreation and from the nature of their occupation, is it strange if they sometimes yield to the solicitations of guests?

These girls are of course neither professional prostitutes nor geisha. Yet, assured by a provincial chief of police, some years ago when making investigations, that, in the eyes of the police, three fourths or four fifths of the girls in hotels and tea-houses are virtually prostitutes, though of course they have no licenses and are subject to no medical inspection.  Occasionally they are arrested for illegal prostitution, at the instance however of brothel keepers.  Hotels and tea-houses take pains to secure pretty girls for servants, in order to make their service attractive.  It is a dreadful statement to make, but, if I am justified in judging from such facts as have come to my knowledge, it would appear that few traveling men in Japan feel any special hesitation in taking advantage, with financial compensation of course, of such opportunities as are afforded them.  Hotels give the girls their food, perhaps two kimonos yearly, and generally a small payment in cash, but their principal earnings come from tips.  This makes them attentive to the wants of the guests.

There are many first-class hotels throughout the country, but chiefly in the principal cities, to which geisha are not admitted, but in those hotels to which they are admitted the green country girls soon learn from them the brazen ways and licentious talk that are evidently pleasing to many of the guests.  All in all, the life and lot of the hotel and tea-house girl are deplorable indeed.  She does differ from the geisha and licensed prostitute, however, in that she can leave her place and retire to her country home at any time, being held by no contract or debt.  Hotel and tea-house girls are recruited largely from the families of artisans and small tradespeople, living in interior towns and villages, they do not often come from farming families, since they would lack the regular features and light complexion desired by hotels. Their family pedigree explains in part this easy virtue. They are saved from more disaster than they actually meet, because geisha and prostitutes abound and are more attractive.

I remember, one summer at a little country hotel, a girl rushed into my room from a neighbour’s in order to escape from the urgency of a guest.  She told me the following day quite freely of her troubles, of the horrid men that came to the hotel, and of the fact that most of the girls did not mind what she found unendurable.  She had been there but a few weeks and was resolved to go home as soon as possible, claiming it was better to starve than to lead such a hard and especially such a disgusting life.  Realizing that I had an exceptional opportunity for sociological study, I improved the occasion and asked many questions.  When asked for her reasons for not responding to the solicitations of the men, she replied that it was the fear of being laughed at should she have a child.  I could not learn that she had ever been taught to regard loose sexual relations before marriage as immoral or as intrinsically wrong.  In her mind the question had no connection with religion, so far as I could discover.  Her refusal was based wholly on utilitarian grounds.

At another hotel where I often stopped, I noticed on one of my tours that an especially attractive girl of eighteen or nineteen, who usually waited on me, was no longer there. On asking her substitute what had become of her, I was told she had become a regular prostitute, having found she could earn much more money that way than at the hotel.  I asked if the parents had not opposed. “O no!” replied the girl, “the parents were the ones who proposed it and arranged for it.”  I asked the substitute if she herself did not regard the business as shameful and immoral.  She looked at me with apparent surprise, hardly understanding what I meant, evidently regarding the matter entirely as a financial one.

In another another case. A number of Young Men’s Christian Association secretaries, tramping in the Japanese Alps, were convinced by the noises one night at the hot springs that the five or six guides and porters were indulging in licentiousness.  The next night it came out around the camp-fire that these guides and porters had paid the hotel girls five sen (two and one-half cents) each.

Of course, one may not generalize from three cases.  But three such cases, together with the statement of the chief of police, and the experience, closely corresponding with my own, of many missionaries who have travelled in all parts of Japan, are strong evidence.  I myself do not think that guests often solicit the girls, nor that hotel girls commonly yield to the requests of guests, but there can be no doubt that it occasionally happens, and is not regarded in any such way by either the men or the women as an occidental would expect.  As said above, there are many hotels in the cities from which geisha are rigidly excluded, and where without doubt the relations of guests with hotel girls are above criticism.

It is an impressive fact of Japanese civilization that the “greenest” country girls can adapt quickly, even only after few short weeks of hotel service become so graceful and attractive. That in their lives which to the occidental is so deep a sin is nothing to them.  Their calm, innocent eyes, winning ways, and gentle conversation can hardly fail to impress the foreigner. But compared with the girls in their homes they have lost that air of modesty and reserve which is so important an element in the charm of Japanese womanhood.  The hotel and tea-house girl belongs rather to the geisha class, whose loud, harsh voices and artificial, coarse laughter are distinguishing characteristics.  Girls of both these classes however have an advantage enjoyed by no other women in Japan, namely, that of meeting large numbers of men of various occupations and interests.  They hear varied conversation and thus become somewhat acquainted with the affairs of the outside world, which makes them more intelligent than the average Japanese woman, so that it is possible to carry on some sort of a conversation with them, a thing practically impossible with the average young woman of Japan.

Original written by Sidney Gulick in 1915, a missionary for 25 years in Japan.

Edited by Stuart.