The Japanese Sex Shed Mystery
March 18, 2014

The Japanese Sex Shed Mystery

I’ll be honest, a lot of what I know about Japanese culture and history comes from conversations in bars, and quite often those conversations involve no Japanese people at all. They basically consist of a group of foreigners saying ‘hey, did you know this?’ to each other and sharing fun Japan ‘facts.’ Or what we believe to be facts. Unsurprisingly, much of this bar discussion/speculation involves the subject of sex.

Not uncommonly, something which I hear in the bar later turns out to be false or only partially true when I do some proper reading and research. Like Googling it. Okay, proper reading and research. But in the case of the Japanese sex shed the process was the other way around. I read about it in a very insightful and well-researched book about Japan called Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane. It was then dismissed by everyone I spoke to in person, whether Japanese or a foreigner who had lived in Japan for a long time.

The sex shed, as I have termed it in my own mind, is the phenomenon whereby until the influence of the West in the mid-19th century – and their imposition of Christian influenced attitudes towards sex, marriage and family – the more traditional Japanese methodology of having and raising children involved the parenthood lottery of a small community, usually a village. A woman who was deemed sufficiently qualified to begin motherhood would go to a cosy place in the village that would be accessible by all eligible men of the village. They would then sleep with her in turn, until she became pregnant. Once born, the baby would be mothered and fathered by the entire village. The father would remain unknown (or at least unacknowledged), and the mother would not be any more responsible for her own child than the rest of the community was.

This all sounds fairly plausible. It fits in with traditional Japanese and East Asian-wide ideas of collectivism and communal responsibility. However, not only has this quite notable feature of Japanese social history never been confirmed to me by anyone I have spoken to in Japan, indeed when I have gone back to Alan MacFarlane to review it I cannot find it anywhere within the book’s pages!

Is it possible that I just imagined the Japanese sex shed? It seems a pretty odd thing to have made up. I don’t lie awake at night concocting fantasies of life in an ancient Japanese village with all its strange goings on and astounding sexual adventure (although maybe I should). Internet research has led me to some interesting discoveries about sex in old Japan, such as Oshouji – an ancient practice which involves the writing of degrading words in calligraphy on a sexual partner (a wonderful example of Japanese patience, I’m sure you’ll agree). But nothing at all about sex sheds.

If anyone can shed any light (pun intended) on this historical mystery, please feel free to assist me using the comments box. A word of warning, though: if researching online, be careful, particularly if at work.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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