‘Ugly History’: The Battle to Restore Iconic Brothel Building in Osaka

At the bend of a red light district in Osaka stands an unlikely architectural gem: a century-old brothel at the center of a restoration campaign.

Taiyoshi Hyakuban hasn’t operated as a brothel for decades and now operates as a restaurant, but it is considered a symbol of the surrounding neighborhood, which is still associated with the sex industry.

Experts say the two-story wooden structure is a rare original example of architecture from the Taisho era (1912-26).

“Most of the Japanese architecture dating back a century or more has burned down in wartime air raids or large fires,” said Shinya Hashizume, professor of architectural history at the University of the Prefecture of El Salvador. ‘Osaka.

“Old brothel buildings, in particular, have rarely survived,” he said during a visit to the site.

Taiyoshi Hyakuban has dozens of Japanese and Western-style party rooms, some with delicately painted sliding doors and ceilings with ornate inlays.

Festival murals, goddesses playing traditional instruments, and Dutch merchants dressed in old-fashioned clothing adorn the suites, which surround a garden where towering “yin and yang” rocks represent men and women.

Light switches next to aging decorations on a wall in Taiyoshi Hyakuban, a former brothel in Osaka. | AFP-JIJI

“The art here is part of the building… that’s what is so wonderful about it,” said Masakazu Rokuhara, an architect involved in the restoration project.

At night, red lanterns hanging outside the building’s second floor give the structure a nostalgic charm, gently illuminating its red wood cladding.

But daylight reveals the desperate need for restoration, including cracks in a large wooden plaque above the front door and fading paint.

The building is designated a “registered tangible cultural property” in recognition of its historical significance, but this has not resulted in any public funding to protect it.

And while its owner has long planned to give the building a makeover, the pandemic downturn has left funds scarce.

Thus, a group of local real estate agents and municipal developers decided to launch a crowdfunding project to raise 15 million yen ($ 133,000) to save the ailing structure.

Japanese artist Masakazu Rokuhara, architect and member of the Taiyoshi Hyakuban Restoration Project, poses in front of the old brothel on October 12.  |  AFP-JIJI
Japanese artist Masakazu Rokuhara, architect and member of the Taiyoshi Hyakuban restoration project, poses in front of the old brothel on October 12. | AFP-JIJI

“We were concerned that restoration might not even be possible if we waited and let the building continue to deteriorate for another 10 years,” said Keisuke Yotsui, a campaigner.

Taiyoshi Hyakuban is also somewhat of an emblem of the historic Tobita-Shinchi red light district, which housed hundreds of brothels a century ago.

Many reinvented themselves when prostitution was banned in 1957, with customers paying for a room rather than a companion, to circumvent legal restrictions.

But the neighborhood retains a salacious vibe, with women sitting at the entrances trying to attract customers.

“Hey sir! Why don’t you stop?” Shouts a tout, as a young woman bathed in a pink spotlight meets passers-by.

And although Taiyoshi Hyakuban has been an upscale Japanese restaurant for decades, its history meant that fundraising for its catering was sometimes tricky.

“We heard from women telling us that there was no way they would donate money for this,” because of the association with the sex industry, Yotsui said.

Men's Toilets at Taiyoshi Hyakuban |  AFP-JIJI
Men’s Toilets at Taiyoshi Hyakuban | AFP-JIJI

Despite the obstacles, by August the campaign had raised nearly 19 million yen and the restoration has now begun.

Hashizume said there was no cover up of Taiyoshi Hyakuban’s past, but the building still deserved to be saved.

“This neighborhood lives with an ugly history,” he admitted.

“But it’s also a story of how a neighborhood has survived despite this legacy,” he said. “This piece of architecture is the only original part of the neighborhood that speaks of it.”

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