An astute student in my Japanese Women class sent me this link [very adult content] with the thought that I might use it…. to stimulate…. class discussion! I’m actually quite intrigued… by the historical context and puzzle it presents. For those of you who wisely refrained from clicking through on first link, it’s a catalog of sexual devices and medicinals, bearing the imprint
Arita Drug & Rubber Goods Co.
Export and Import
1 Motomachi St.
Tel. Sasanomiya (3) 1465
There are a wide variety of offerings here, from self-pleasuring devices to all sorts of odd stimulating condoms, to medicinals offering freedom from disease, and heightened pleasure. Well, no surprises there. Japanese attitudes towards sex have always been a bit more free than Western ones, and the sex-toy business seems to have been in full swing (sorry) worldwide by the early 20th century.
Two things strike me as odd, though, and make me wonder if it might not be harder to put this into the context of Japanese sexual history than it appears on first …. blush? (sorry, it’s hard to stop. I’m much more discreet in the classroom, I promise) First the entire catalog is in English, except for the drawing of the Arita establishment itself which has a number of signs in Japanese…. all of them attesting to the fact that it’s a drugstore, but not hinting at the other products offered therein. The huge English sign at the top of the building, however, reads “Sex Store.” What this suggests to me is that these products were primarily marketed to non-Japanese buyers; the location of the shop in Kobe reinforces that, since it was the site of a substantial American/European merchant population. It could also be targetted at “sophisticated” and educated Japanese, of course.
Second is the question of provenance. The hosting site Rotten.Com claims that this is from the 1930s. Based on the prices (no, I don’t know that much about the Japanese or American sex toy markets; I’m just guessing) and production values it seems plausible, but only for the early ’30s (also because a shop importing from and marketing to foreigners might well have come under pressure in the late ’30s to find other lines of products). There’s no copyright, nor do I know enough about the products offered to date the materials that way. (there is the nagging doubt in the back of my mind which says “this might not be authentic at all” but I don’t have any specific evidence to support that)
My initial impression, then, is that this document speaks not to the sexual freedom of interwar Japan, but that it does perhaps say something about the foreign community in Japan, and perhaps about the internationalization of industrially enhanced (?) sexuality. But I need more context on that….
Your post jogged my memory of a book I read a long time ago by Richard Hughes,
entitled “Foreign Devil: Thirty Years of Reporting in the Far East.” He has a
sketch entitled “Sex Shop Sayonara” that seems (at first glance) to refer to
this very shop. Here are some exerpts:
“A dark quarter of a century has dustily unrolled, but I still nurture fresh and
tender memories of the Honourable Sex Shop in pre-war Kobe, rightly esteemed by
lonely mariners plying the China seas in the twenties and thirties. It was
doomed, alas, to destruction by US fire bombings in 1944. In distant ports, I
do not doubt, gnarled sea captains heard the tidings of its violent passing
with bowed heads and a sentimental pang…
My own affectionate and grateful tribute to the old cultural establishment harks
back to December 1940…
Kobe’s Sex Shop was a modest, two-storied, clapboard structure in simple
neo-Yedo style, which crouched with a distinct leer on a side street corner
within kite-flying distance of Sannomiya station…The single uncompromising
English word ‘Sex’ glared like a beacon in sunken white lettering on a scarlet
board above the front swingdoors, where the three banners of nazi Germany,
Mussolini Italy and Japan drooped dutifully from an entwined triangle of bamboo
The Kobe Honourable Sex Shop sustained its commercial success largely by
goodwill and word-of-mouth-advertising. But it also published a catalogue –
today, a rare collector’s item – which was distributed widely and freely at
Oriental seaports from Shanghai to Singapore, and which, despite picturesque
infirmities and deficiencies in pidgin English, was sufficiently explicit to
attract a regular and rewarding clientele. From the street, the Shop’s windows
gave little clue to the specialized merchandise on sale within. There were
dusty bottles of liniment and pills, anonymous tins and tubes and strange
cardboard devices with Japanese calligraphy in one window, and non-committal
posters vaguely evocative of a horse-dealer’s clinic in the other.”
The piece concludes with a colorful anecdote (as one might expect) to the effect
that the Japanese police were quite amused to see foreigners exporting sexual
aids in late 1940.
Based on this I would say that Jonathan is quite right, the shop was aimed
mostly at the foreign community.
Since Mr. Hughes is at pains to inform the reader that he only went into the
shop for a light-hearted prank, I should inform the reader that I do not only
remember sex-related anecdotes. I swear!
The bit about the flags is fascinating… if it’s the same shop (and the thought of multiple Kobe-based, foreign-oriented, drugstore-fronted sex toy shops would imply a much larger market for these things than my imagination will tolerate) then either they took the flags down for the picture or the flags date to after the publication of the catalog.
There’s no shame in remembering these sorts of anecdotes: they make such great lecture fodder. I remember Jay Rubin telling a graduate seminar once that his book Thought Control in Prewar Japan came at least partially from a desire to see what sort of sexy materials had been censored, but he was, apparently, disappointed by the results.
The horses on the cover are a laugh. When I lived in Taiwan in 1979, the one gay bar in town was called the Madrid club(What are you talking about? All the homosexuals are on the mainland!). One of the guys I knew explained the name as being a play on the kanji “ma,” because horses represent sexual vigor. I haven’t ever run across the Japanese using that symbolism before. Hmmm.
I know the initial post is nearly four years old, however I thought I’d post anyhow. I recently purchased several items that belonged to a U.S. Navy serviceman of the late 1930s. One of the items I purchased was a scrapebook he put together of his travels in 1937/1938–you guessed it, in his scrapebook is a copy of the Kobe,Japan Sex Store Booklet. So yes, the booklet on ROTTEN.COM is authentic and dates sometime in the 1930s.
Fantastic! Thanks very much for confirming that.
(This is, by the way, one of the things I love about blogging: though the initial conversation ended four years ago, it’s still here and we can pick it up again!)
Dear John do you have this Catlouge still with you? what if i wana buy it?
Contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org regarding the catalog!
This afternoon I went to Motomachi St.
but I can not find down your shop please send me a map to show the way to go this shop
I’d be more than a little surprised if it still existed. honestly.
My copy of “The Key to the Sex Question” has a different front cover (showing a cherry tree in blossom) from the one shown above, and it has the back cover (apparently missing from the copy above) providing a map of Kobe Harbour and the exact location of the sex shop. My copy has 16 pages (not counting the covers), with a separate, four-page price list, laid in. It would seem to be somewhat later than the copy shown above (there are 14 items on the price list). -tb