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‘A person and a possession’: Japanese women in history

by Kris Kosaka

SELLING WOMEN: Prostitution, Markets and the Household in Early Modern Japan, by Amy Stanley. University of California Press, 2012, 282 pp., $49.95 (hardcover)

In the vast cultural landscape, Japan fascinates the mainstream with manga and anime, the martial arts, Zen and kimono. Of course, Japan equally attracts with its underground culture. Since its 19th-century erotic woodcuts stormed France, Japan repels and beguiles the world with hostess bars, male bras, used underwear for sale and other twists of the water-trade.

For a well-researched, feminine perusal of Japan’s underground history, pick up Amy Stanley’s “Selling Women.” Stanley provides background and context for Japan’s underground sex trade, traveling back to early Tokugawa Japan. Stanley, a history professor at Northwestern University in Illinois, clearly pieces together the cultural and economic forces behind the marginalization of Japanese women into a product, tracing the forces that both imprisoned and liberated women from societal expectations.

Stanley organizes the book by area, showing the differences and influences between historical rural and urban Japan. We see the famed Pleasure Quarters of Edo or Kyoto and contrast it to the small postal stations in Niigata near mining towns, where rural villages were legally allowed to set up brothels to satisfy the all-men populations surrounding the mines.

We meet the many individual women caught within the legal tangle behind prostitution. Court records from 1614 reveal the judge’s dilemma over Kokane, “simultaneously a person and a possession”: a wife/prostitute who fled her husband/owner with the help of another man. Should she be considered returned property or a condemned adulterer when found? Reprimanded with public shame as a prostitute or beheaded as the adulterous wife?

We read a legal contract indenturing Hisa to a Kansai brothel, drawn up by her parents. As both wife and prostitute, daughter or “possession,” there developed contradictory legal confines. Women gradually fought these confinements, using both language and the law to warp the boundaries of their livelihoods. Here is where Stanley’s book brilliantly reveals the social constructions behind ideals of the feminine in Japan.

Surprising social facts emerge; geisha, for example, started as male entertainers. Women gradually hijacked the name and the occupation, carefully keeping it separate from the sex trade. Socially, prostitutes were traditionally not condemned by society as they were in “Christian” countries.

On the contrary, prostitutes were widely seen as showing family obligation and sacrifice since daughters in poor families were often sold to save their starving relatives. It was only after prostitutes asserted their legal rights to make money that prostitutes were chastised as “greedy” or part of a corrupt trade. The many underlying social nuances fascinate, long after I reached the extensive bibliography.

A chapter detailing prostitution in Nagasaki illuminates the special legal considerations the government debated regarding prostitution with foreigners, and the ways women used the nebulous rules to form long-term relationships with foreign men. Overall, the entire book details the fascinating and often tragic struggles of women ingeniously trying to salvage a small slice of autonomy within a highly patriarchal society.

Stanley’s writing style is both exact and fresh, using detail to accurately portray the changing worlds of prostitution, whether within the city or country, inside Tokugawa or Meiji Japan. Her frequent narratives of actual Japanese women, their stories coldly preserved in court records but fleshed out warmly with Stanley’s descriptions, adds immediacy and personality to all women’s struggles.

This book satisfies more than the academic: It reveals the cleverly surreptitious power that helps form the modern Japanese woman, where historically, direct assertions proved useless, for wives, daughters and prostitutes.

Kris Kosaka teaches literature and writing at Hokkaido International School.

  • A M Corbett

    This sounds like a really good book. Very enlightening – an aspect of history I definitely don`t remember being introduced to as a student of Japanese at university. Class systems yes but not the place of women in these systems. I think it would be a good edition to the bookshelf of a Japanese department in a university, or at all levels really (second level education also). I think it would be good as a contrast to all those tales about emperors, shogun, samurai etc. Isn`t there an expression that was used at one time, something like a woman is owned 3 times during her life, once by her father (who as it says could sell her if the family were desperate enough), then by her husband (who could divorce her at his whim) and finally by her son/daughter-in-law who look after her when she`s old (and can possibly do with her as they please) – or something to that effect? Maybe it doesn`t apply today but it did at one point in time.

  • kyushuphil

    I’m curious about Kris Kosaka’s end paragraph.

    Much of the earlier parts of the review stressed the book’s attention to how women more directly sought clarity and rights regarding their legal status. Amy Stanley primarily discusses — says Kris Kosaka — public contracts, court cases, and other venues of clarity. Nowhere does Kosaka note Stanley following any history of guile, or recording any growth of women becoming more “cleverly surreptitious,” as this review quite out of nowhere concludes.

    Women did lose much of their prominence in the shogun centuries following the flowering of the Heian era. They were worse than marginalized. But if there’s some history of how women resisted this wholesale subordination — some history of the private, clandestine, or “cleverly surreptitious” arts, I’d like to see it.

    My guess is neither women nor men escaped the massive cultural suffocation of the male-dominated shogun centuries. All faced their inner “honne” having to retreat further, their outer “tatemae” becoming more formalistic, formulaic, ritualized. Group pressures and regimentations grew. It would be a long time before the arts softened again, became supple, and found human voice and skill in persons such as Chikuden, Hokusai, Hiroshige, and finally Yosano Akiko and Hayashi Fumiko.

    And these artists are the minority. Most Japanese didn’t learn to resist the shogun era suffocations by any surrreptitious skills — not that I know of. Or am I missing something that’s otherwise in the Stanley book, or in Kosaka’s private knowledge?

    • Kris Kosaka

      Thanks so much for reading; I enjoyed your post. Starting in the fifth paragraph, I begin a thread of thought, tracing Stanley’s examples of women as “cleverly surreptitious” — hijacking the word geisha or using the nebulous rules in Nagasaki with foreigners to form long-term relationships under the eyes of the law. It is just a difference in perception, I think. I myself choose to remember the resilience of the human spirit; doubtless, as you say, both men and women suffered “massive cultural suffocation” under military rule —- but there are always pockets of resistance, in every example of repression throughout history, throughout time – as the book shows with the few, small cases of triumph amongst the many examples of women (and men) trod down as mere vassals or possessions. Thanks again -