The modern history of Japan’s transwomen, commonly known in the West as ‘newhalf’ dates back to 1965, when police raided a bar in Tokyo’s Akasaka district and arrested 10 women on charges of prostitution, according to historian Junko Mitsuhashi.
However, three of these women were male on paper, but had undergone GRS to remove their external male genitalia. We do not know if this amounted to full vaginoplasty or rather, was simply a complete castration. Japan’s prostitution law meant that the police could not charge them with prostitution, as only women could be charged for this.
In the early years of the 20th century, newhalf became better known outside Japan, often performing in porn movies. Inside the country, many work as prostitutes but these constitute only a part of the broader trans scene. We don’t know the relative proportions of HSTS and autogynephilic transvestite forms, but we do know that both exist. No research has been done that might inform us as to the total numbers or the breakdown.
The phenomenon is much older than this, though. Kabuki theatre first appeared in Japan in the early 17th century, at which time it was performed entirely by women, who played both male and female roles. However, in 1629, the authorities banned this, which immediately promoted another form of kabuki, in which males played all the parts. Those who played women in the theatre were called ‘onnagata’ and were seen not as actors playing women, but as real women.
This association of transwomen with theatre and entertainment persisted right up to the modern era. However, kabuki itself is related to an even older tradition of entertainment, geisha. This had already appeared by the 13th century. While geisha became open to women in the 17th century, prior to this, all geishas were male, called taikomochi. These still exist within contemporary geisha, though there are few left. Taikomochi have traditionally appeared to be, and lived as, women.
Westerners usually think that geishas are a form of courtesan, that it is, essentially, very glamorous sex workers. But this is not exactly the case. Geishas are entertainers, not prostitutes. On the other hand, sex work itself is a form of entertainment, principally for men, and there has always been a link between geisha and sex, however much it might be denied. While today’s newhalf of Japan may work in sex and in porn, this is an extension of the notion of entertainment. So their connection to the earliest forms of geisha and kabuki is clear.
When we think of ‘sex work’ we in the West immediately think of the physical act, but it is much broader than that. Geisha fits into a ‘hostess’ tradition found all over Asia. In this, women are retained by bars and clubs to entertain male clients, often just by sitting talking to them. The man buys the woman ‘lady drinks’ which are more expensive than ordinary ones, and she takes the difference. In addition, tipping generously is encouraged, with big tippers becoming ‘celebrities’ constantly surrounded by women or transwomen, depending on the venue and his tastes. Whether or not the relationship extends to actual sex is between the customer and the hostess; in many cases it does not.
Ray Blanchard noted the propensity of HSTS to be involved in sex work and, while this is absolutely not true of all, many are. More importantly, perhaps, they enjoy it and feel affirmed by it. After all, what stronger reassurance could a person have that she is a beautiful woman, than that a man would pay to be with her? It is easy to see the parallel between the satisfaction of stage entertainment, the rapturous applause of the audience, and being showered with gifts, money and even offers of marriage by men. Every society has niches where transwomen can feel fulfilled and have good lives and newhalf occupy one of them; they fit into a global pattern of similar lifestyles.