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水商売 【みずしょうばい】 (n) (1) chancy trade (business) with a high turnover rate and uncertain profitability; (2) the entertainment, eating, and drinking business; (3) the night entertainment (nightlife) business

The implied meanings behind the use of 水 in 水商売 seems varied and colorful. Would anyone care to explain the usage? I take it that 水 here both refers to liquor as well as the "flow" of the trade and the risk (such as the risk from wet weather) that comes with these types of businesses. Is the diverse set of meanings in 水 here used in other compound words or expressions?

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I had heard that the 水 stemmed from 風俗営業 and 飲食, but I didn't know about the "flow of trade". – Chris Harris Jun 27 '12 at 21:03
if by 風俗営業 you mean sex industry, then i didn't think of that other pun for sex acts. that makes it more interesting if so... – yadokari Jun 27 '12 at 21:37
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The answer that I think is the most likely is on Wikipedia, which is that the term derives from maybe as far back as the Tokugawa era, where there was overlap between bath houses and the sex trade. The water in the bath houses became a euphemistic reference for the sex trade.

However, I noted that the reference cited on the Wikipedia page for that explanation linked to a text by Boye De Mente, who is far from a reliable source of information about Japan. So a more believable reference would be advised if you need something truly authorative.

On that same page, they also have references to possible origins from Japanese phrases that link water to aspects of the sex trade:

  • 勝負{しょうぶ}は水物{みずもの}だ ("Gain or loss is a matter of chance"). The idea here is that the entertainment industry (which extends to the sex trade) is fickle, and success comes and goes like the flowing of water.
  • 泥水{どろみず}稼業{かぎょう} ("muddy water earning business"), a term for illicit business
  • 水茶屋{みずちゃや} ("public teahouse"), which seems to imply that at some point in Japanese history you could probably find your way to the sex trade by going into certain teahouses.

I think the origins in these phrases are a little bit overthought, but then what do I know? Maybe they're true.

In any case, it seems like the true origin isn't known for sure, but hopefully these will be helpful for you.

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A few explanations found on the

  • 水 comes from 水物, as in 勝負は水物だ. This expresses the lack of guarantee regarding return.
  • Like a flow of water, income is indefinite
  • Work in red light districts was called 「泥水稼業」or「泥水商売」 (ie. work in dirty places)
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