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  • Other Names: 豊町御手洗 (Yutaka-machi Mitarai)
  • Japanese: 御手洗 (Mitarai)

Mitarai was a port town in Hiroshima han, located on Ôsaki-Shimojima, one of the Geiyo Islands in the Inland Sea, located roughly halfway between the cities of Kure (in Hiroshima han) and Imabari (in Iyo province, on Shikoku). Today, Mitarai has been absorbed into Kure City.

The port of Mitarai in 1904

The town's name literally means "hand washing," and depending on the source one refers to, the placename derives from either Izanagi, Empress Jingû, or Sugawara no Michizane having washed their hands there at one time. Numerous rivers, ponds, and other sites across Japan share the same name (sometimes pronounced Mitarashi or Mitarase, but written with the same kanji).[1]

Mitarai got its start around 1666, when the domain granted permission for the construction of divided homes; it's said that as of the 1630s, there was not a single residence,[2], but only fields and orchards. As both official (shogunate and daimyô) and merchant ships increasingly began to sail through the center of the Inland Sea, rather than only closer to the coast as they had done in the medieval period, Mitarai was able to grow in centrality and importance.[3] The town thus quickly grew into a significant port over the course of the 17th to 18th centuries, and all the more so in the early 19th century as the Japan-wide "travel boom" burgeoned. As late as the 1690s, when Engelbert Kaempfer passed through, he estimated there were only about forty homes in the town.[4] And yet, he writes that there were many ships anchored in the area, waiting for winds or tides, and that the port was well-known among Inland Sea sailors.[5] By 1748, there were some 83 homes. Twenty years later, the town had grown somewhat to number 106 homes housing over 530 people, and by 1801, the population had roughly tripled, to over 1,500.[6] Like many other prominent Inland Sea ports, Mitarai was chiefly home to warehousers, affiliated with wealthy, powerful warehousing guilds in Osaka; essentially they served as middlemen, buying, storing, and selling a variety of goods which sea captains transported across the Inland Sea and beyond. A number of western Japanese domains maintained funayado in Mitarai - places run by merchants with a particular loyalty to that domain (goyô shônin), and where officials or merchants associated with that domain would have a designated place to stay, and to do business with (or through) in Mitarai. Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Chôshû, Nakatsu, Nobuoka, Obi, Kokura, Fukuoka, Uwajima, and Ôzu domains all maintained such establishments in Mitarai.[7]

During the Edo period, Mitarai became one of the more typical stops for daimyô and their entourages to stop during their sankin kôtai journeys to and from Edo; Dutch, Korean and Ryukyuan embassies to Edo also stopped here, and a hengaku plaque featuring calligraphy by Ryukyuan envoy Ryô Kôchi can be found in the temple of Manshû-ji in the town.[8] Numerous other notable figures visited Mitarai, including Inô Tadataka in 1806, Philipp Franz von Siebold in 1826, Yoshida Shôin in 1853, Sanjô Sanetomi and several other court nobles in 1864.

Like many such port towns, Mitarai was home to a number of brothels, catering to sailors and travelers. Hiroshima domain authorities paid little attention to regulating or forbidding prostitution; Mitarai competed with other neighboring ports which offered other entertainments, including plays, lotteries, and teahouses. There were four main brothels in Mitarai: the Sakaiya, Wakaebisuya, Tomitaya, and Ebiya. In the mid-18th century, the town had a population of just over 500, of whom roughly 100 were indentured women. However, by the 19th century, this proportion dropped considerably. In the 1860s, the Wakaebisuya, which employed around a hundred women by itself at its peak time, now had only around a dozen; meanwhile, the other brothels were on the brink of closing.

By the Bakumatsu period, Mitarai began to decline as many sea captains bypassed the warehousers and simply bought and sold directly with producers in cities like Onomichi and consumers in places like Osaka. By that time, too, fears of foreign ships led to Mitarai being equipped with shore batteries.

Though long a part of Ônaga Village, Mitarai officially became its own separate municipality in 1879. Today, it is part of Kure City, and is officially known as Yutaka-machi Mitarai.


  • Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012), 163-187.
  • Mitarai tsûshin 御手洗通信 no. 1, Dec 1996, p11.
  1. Mitarai tsûshi 御手洗通志 16 (July 2005), 5, 8.
  2. Or at least no residences of a certain type; presumably there must have been farmhouses of some sort, but according to records from the time, there were no yashiki 屋敷.
  3. Kimura Yoshisato 木村吉聡 (ed.), Ryukyu shisetsu no Edo nobori to Mitarai 琉球使節の江戸上りと御手洗, Shiomachi kankô kôryû Center 潮待ち館観光交流センター (2001), 3.
  4. Kimura, 5.
  5. Kimura, 6-7.
  6. Kimura, 1.
  7. Kimura, 5.
  8. Shirarezaru Ryûkyû shisetsu 知られざる琉球使節, Fukuyama-shi Tomonoura rekishi minzoku shiryôkan (2006), 37.

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