Selling Songs and Smiles: The Sex Trade in Heian and Kamakura Japan, by Janet R. Goodwin. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007, 208 pp. with maps, $48 (cloth)

Prince Genji was apparently among the few to resist the charms of those bands of young women who made a living by offering themselves. Upon seeing such a group at Sumiyoshi Shrine, the hero of the “The Tale of Genji” agreed that there were a number of courtiers who might find them interesting but that he was after bigger game and saw no advantage “to getting oneself in a casual affair with someone a bit inconstant.”

This inconstancy was, of course, one of the conditions of the women’s profession, but Genji, it will be noticed, did not dramatize or justify his position by using such words as “prostitute” or “whore.” His objection was merely that these girls shared their charms with many men. (A strange objection, to be sure, given Genji’s deserved reputation for sexual infidelity.)

His tolerance, if that is the term, for professional erotic entertainers was typical of his age. In Genji’s Japan we are still in the beginning stages of defining and dealing with sexual transgression and female sexuality. During the next 400 years, from the mid-10th to the mid-14th centuries, the Heian through the Kamakura periods, sexual norms would be much changed.

They were shaped by political and economic configurations of power, by the needs of religion, and by the patterns of marriage and inheritance laws. These took many forms, and the author of this very interesting study lists a few: the perceived need to limit itinerancy and to preserve class boundaries, the competition for inherited land, the notion of the female body as polluted, and the idea that sex was a snare for men seeking religious fulfillment.

Originally, such itinerant women were praised as professionals. One early record speaks approvingly of “her knowledge of all the sexual positions, the merits of her lute strings and buds of wheat, and her mastery of the dragon’s flutter and tiger’s tread techniques.” Such public approval was soon withdrawn, however, when it became politically and economically advantageous to construct prostitutes and oppress women.

By 1241 there were already “whore” houses. The “Azuma Kagami” mentions one, right on the main street of Kamakura. Their purpose, in addition to the apparent one, was to construct a lewd figure against which the authenticity of a necessary new figure, the “good” woman (faithful, much given to self-sacrifice, loyal to a fault) could be measured.

For example, female chastity was necessary to establish patrilineal succession in a male-dominated family. Another example, apparent female pollution and an inherent sinfulness was necessary to bring to Japan the full Buddhist package waiting to be imported from China and Korea. These changes of attitude, as the author of this study avers, “foreshadowed later attempts to regulate and limit the sex trade and contributed to a view of such women as prostitutes and their occupation as degraded.”

Also, an important consideration, sexual entertainment was evolving from a few aristocratic types at play to a service for broad segments of society, making it seem a threat to authority and order — an attitude still reflected in the laws and customs of Japan today. From here began the taxation of brothels and the establishment of licensed quarters, the creation of the “prostitute.”

In presenting her argument, part of which earlier appeared in the “Monumenta Nipponica,” author Janet Goodwin offers an erudite account that acknowledges all prior scholarly work on the subject. At the same time the nonspecialist reader is spared the boredom of a dry academic paper by the very nature of the information imported. The book is packed with juicy details, historically necessary and judiciously picked from sources not usually encountered.

Of major interest, however, is Goodwin’s ability to see behind the self-serving screens of political history, to divine the true intentions of this demonization of one of the few professions then open to women, and to present her facts in the fairest possible manner.

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