Amy Stanley’s Selling Women provides a much-needed counterpoint to discussions of Edo period prostitution which focus on the pleasure quarters primarily, or solely, as a romantic(ized) site of cultural dynamism – a font of popular arts, fashion, and attitudes. Indeed, the significance of the pleasure districts upon painting, prints, publishing, music, dance, theater, fashion, and literature cannot be understated. Places like the Yoshiwara were in fact profoundly influential upon Edo period popular culture, and upon much of what has since come to be regarded as “traditional” Japanese culture, as described by Cecilia Segawa Seigle in her book on the Yoshiwara, Eiko Ikegami in Bonds of Civility, and in countless other works on ukiyo-e and Edo period popular culture. However, the suffering and exploitation of the women in these districts, the functioning of prostitution across the archipelago, and attitudes towards prostitution have very much been under-discussed in English-language scholarship.
Stanley’s Selling Women represents a powerful step in rectifying this. Though prostitutes were officially seen as marginal people in the official status hierarchies of the day, along with other types of entertainers, Selling Women clearly shows they were hardly marginal at all in the economy, local culture, and everyday society of many villages, towns, and cities throughout the archipelago. Moving beyond the Yoshiwara, Stanley discusses and contrasts prostitution in a variety of different spaces of early modern Japan, including the big cities of Edo and Nagasaki, a small mining town in Tōhoku, the ports of Niigata and of the Inland Sea, and post-stations along the Nakasendō, each at a different time within the period.
In the process, we also see something of how women, in general, were regarded in society at the time, as wives, as daughters, and sometimes as property, and how they were treated, economically and legally, as a result. By illuminating the logics underpinning women’s (and especially prostitutes’) circumstances in Edo period Japan, showing how fundamental assumptions and attitudes particular to that historical period contributed to a distinctive set of repercussions, Stanley makes a valuable contribution to a more global, more diverse, conception of women’s history, and to scholarly discourses on sex, women’s role in society, and so forth as well.
As Stanley explains, prostitutes in early modern Japan had the most advantage in defense against exploitation or ill treatment, ironically, when representing themselves as passive victims, and when having someone else speak for them. This was perhaps most powerful in Nagasaki, where girls of the Maruyama and Yoriai districts, who chiefly served European and Chinese clients in the foreign districts of the city, maintained close ties with their families and local communities. Parents or guardians could speak on a girl’s behalf, presenting her as a dutiful and filial daughter, working and suffering in order to help provide for her family. That prostitution contributed positively to moral order or the social fabric, or was at least a necessary evil, is a recurrent theme throughout the places and times Stanley discusses in the chapters of Selling Women. Among other arguments, brothel owners, local officials, and others argued that prostitution provided an outlet for men’s sexual urges (thus protecting village daughters from men acting on those urges), and also that it was essential in many cases (especially in port towns and post-stations) for the prosperity of the town, as it brought travelers and traders who would otherwise bring their trade and custom to other towns instead, thus dooming the town to economic decline or collapse. The ability to provide for one’s family by engaging in prostitution, especially if it means rescuing one’s parents from poverty, was also often seen as a virtuous and self-sacrificing act on the part of the girl. As such, protecting prostitution – and thus protecting the economic prosperity of the town, and the wellbeing of the prostitutes’ parents – is often framed as “compassionate” or “benevolent governance” on the part of officials, a key element of Tokugawa Neo-Confucian attitudes about government. Stanley shows, however, that at other times and places in the archipelago, however, especially later in the Edo period, commercialism grew more influential, and many brothel owners, as well as local officials, began to appeal less to the idea that prostitution served a valuable moral or social function, and more to the simple commercialist idea that businessmen had a right to a certain degree of freedom in how they pursued business. Producers supplied purchasable sex because consumers demanded it, these men asserted, and all was done fairly and properly according to contracts and agreed-upon (if unspoken) rules of the business.
An important and interesting distinction raised by Stanley throughout the book, highlighting differences from modern/Western discourses on sex, is that in early modern Japan, prostitution was not stigmatized for the same sorts of reasons that it has historically been (and still is) in our own society. Japanese did not see sex itself, female sexuality, or promiscuity, as inherent evils. That a woman was unchaste, or even promiscuous, was not seen to make her “dirty” or otherwise undesirable, let alone sinful. What was seen as dangerous, distasteful, and problematic, on the other hand, was women acting independently, for their own personal monetary benefit. This was seen as posing a threat to the patriarchal social order, to Confucian relationships, and thus to community and society itself. The stigma against prostitution thus came primarily not from any association of sex itself as being stigmatizing, but rather from a Neo-Confucian morality which both opposed greed, and supported a patriarchal conception of women’s passive relationship to the men in her life (father, husband, employer) as rightful and appropriate. When women were seen not as self-sacrificing dutiful daughters, but as profit-seeking independent women who sought to entice young men away from their work, their families, and their wallets, this, Stanley argues, was the key source of stigma and attitudes against prostitution.
Another significant trend seen in Selling Women is the commodification of women. Whereas in some times and places, such as Nagasaki in the mid-Edo period, prostitutes were treated much like full subjects and members of the community, with, Stanley asserts, prostitution being seen as little different from any other job, in others, such as the early 17th century northern Japanese mining town of Innai, or the highly commercialized networks of trading women from brothel to brothel across the mid-19th century Inland Sea, women were essentially objects, owned by their families or by brothel masters, to be bought, sold, loaned out, or moved about as men wished. The commodification, or objectification, of women is key to women’s exploitation and ill treatment both historically and today, and so in addressing this issue, Selling Women becomes an eye-opening introduction too, in some respects, to some of the most key issues in women’s history and feminist studies more broadly, bringing the reader insights into how these issues play out beyond their own place and time (the 21st century Western world / US), informing about early modern Japan while at the same time containing great relevance beyond simply that which pertains to the early modern Japanese case.
That Stanley addresses multiple different places, and types of places, across the archipelago and across the Edo period, makes her study far more valuable and meaningful than it might have been otherwise. The Yoshiwara cannot stand as representative of prostitution throughout the realm, but neither could a case study of a post-station, mining town, or port town alone appropriately represent the archipelago-wide situation and thus remedy that problem. In this sense, Selling Women could serve as a model, or as inspiration, for other works, which might similarly bring a more regionally diverse approach to any of a myriad of other topics. Certainly in my own work I intend to examine how the Ryukyuan missions processed through the streets, and were received, not only in Edo, and not only in Tōkaidō post-stations, but in Kagoshima and Inland Sea port towns as well. In doing so, Stanley provides a much more illuminating and informative treatment of how prostitution manifested itself, across the realm, than perhaps any other previous work.
However, her approach also creates some difficulties, in that by spanning both space and time, the book compares apples and oranges, and fails to provide a clear indication of which differences manifest across time, and which across space. In Chapter Four, village headmen and the like in villages surrounding Kantō area post-stations are shown to have seen prostitution in the post-stations as a distraction pulling young men away from the farms, as a waste of money, and as a threat to social order and to village culture otherwise. Meanwhile, Chapter Five illustrates that urban/commercial town officials in port towns in the Inland Sea encouraged the opposite, seeing prostitution as essential to the prosperity of the port. It is laudable that Stanley shows both townsmen and villager perspectives, silencing the voices of neither. However, her case studies leave unclear the ways in which Inland Sea port officials’ attitudes aligned (or not) with those of the post-station officials the Kantō villagers were opposing, and likewise, how much the people of fishing villages in the Inland Sea might have been comparable in their views and desires to those of the Kantō farming villages. Similarly, Chapter One describes the all-but-complete commodification of women in the mining town of Innai, in northern Japan, in the early decades of the Edo period, before the reach of Tokugawa legal & administrative authority had quite extended into such an area. Yet it is left fairly unclear whether the same took place at that time throughout the archipelago, or only in the north, or perhaps even only in some towns and villages of the north and not others. As women are presented as more commodified again towards the very end of the Edo period, in the Inland Sea ports of Chapter Five, here too we are left wondering whether this is something distinctive of the Inland Sea cross-temporally, or distinctive of more archipelago-wide developments by the 1850s-1860s.
The question of the representativeness of each of Stanley’s cases, and the extent to which they can stand to inform us as to circumstances in other port towns or post stations, recalls an issue we have wrestled with throughout this reading list, perhaps most eloquently addressed by Martin Dusinberre in defense of his discussion of Kaminoseki. No case can be truly representative. Reality is more complicated than that, variation is everywhere, and no study could truly even begin to approach representative comprehensiveness without doing an even more thorough examination of a far greater number of cases. None of the places described by Stanley in this book can truly stand as indicative that all other post-stations, or all other mining towns, were just the same. Indeed, she even notes that, for example, some domains (such as Hiroshima) largely looked the other way and tolerated prostitution in their ports, while others (such as Takamatsu) were far stricter on prohibiting it outside of entertainment districts such as those associated with shrines and temples. Yet, while Mitarai might not be able to stand for Murotsu, nor the Kantō area post-stations of the Nakasendō for those of the Tōkai region along the Tōkaidō, some general trends and recurrent themes are evident.
Prostitution in Japan is argued to have grown chiefly in the big cities in the 17th century, before expanding out to provincial villages and towns in a significant way only beginning in the mid-18th century. While Stanley’s often conflicting examples remind us to always acknowledge the great degree of variation which existed, still there are enough similarities between the cases to allow us to generalize about what likely took place, if not in any one particular locale untouched by Stanley, then still about what “likely” “often” happened in “many” cases. Officials often prioritized economic prosperity over protecting the social order, claiming this to be compassionate & benevolent governance and to be a defense of the economic well-being of the people, even as they ignored the suffering of a sub-section of those people: their female subjects sold into, essentially, sex slavery. Indentured servitude was represented as dutiful and self-sacrificing, and not as an affront to women’s personhood and autonomy, and assertion of that autonomy on the part of the woman was seen as socially destructive, and as deriving from selfishness and greed. As a prostitute, she was meant to be an outlet for others’ desires, not to possess or act upon her own, and since female passivity was seen as a virtue, a woman could not assert her own agency without compromising her own moral position. Though one of Stanley’s key purposes in this book is to counter the romantic vision of the Yoshiwara put out by much other scholarship, and thus she does emphasize the difficulties and suffering of women forced into prostitution, she also notes beneficial or progressive aspects of cultural developments. She notes, for example, that even in the case of Inland Sea ports in the 1860s, where girls were legally bound to their contracts, and to the unspoken “rules of the teahouses,” and where a brothel manager could transfer a girl to another establishment as far as several provinces away without much room for moral appeal by her parents, and indeed even in most prostitutes’ circumstances throughout the archipelago and across the period, even in these cases they still were treated as something more than purely property with monetary value. By contrast, in the mining town of Innai, a man frequently could not petition for debt forgiveness unless he had sold his wife and daughter along with all of his other possessions.
Thus, we are presented with both a handful of focused and informative case studies, and considerable overarching general understandings. Selling Women goes far beyond what (almost?) anyone else has previously done, examining prostitution and attitudes towards women across numerous different places and circumstances across the early modern Japanese archipelago, and while noting trends across time. Her study shows how many of the same issues which plague women in other times and places throughout world history played out in Edo period Japan, both similarly, and in distinctive ways particular to this case.
Public domain and Creative Commons images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.