Posts Tagged ‘Yoshiwara’

It has been ages, and the links have really built up. I have just a couple very brief links/topics to share related to women’s history in Japan and China, before devoting the rest of the post to toxic masculinity, and the place of men and men’s issues in feminist discourse. These first two don’t quite fit the theme of the lengthy latter half, but as they’re too brief to put elsewhere, I figured I would just sort of tuck them in here, too.

仮宅の後朝 (Scene in the Yoshiwara) by Utamaro, 1790. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

*First, from Collectors Weekly, one of a number of articles and reviews published this spring in conjunction with the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s exhibit “Seduction: Japan’s Floating World.” Paintings and ukiyo-e prints of the beautiful women (bijin) of the Yoshiwara – Edo’s chief licensed pleasure quarters – have formed the core of Japanese art exhibits in the West since the late 19th century, or so I would imagine. But it is in the last year or two especially that museums have begun (again?) showing shunga – the more sexually graphic/explicit subgenre of ukiyo-e – in a major way. In this respect, Seduction is just the latest iteration, following up on recent shunga shows at the British Museum and Honolulu Museum of the Arts.

To put the focus on the women of the Yoshiwara, and their rather negative and oppressive experiences as prostitutes – essentially, sex slaves – is not entirely new. Cecilia Segawa Seigle acknowledges this serious, dark, aspect of the Yoshiwara in her groundbreaking 1993 book, prior to moving on to focus on the more positive sides of the Yoshiwara as a crucible of cultural flowering and so forth.1 Amy Stanley, in her 2012 book Selling Women, which I’ll be posting a review for at some point, returns to a focus on women’s rights, women as commodities, and so forth.

So, this is not entirely new, but still a fight very much still being fought, to shift the discourse, especially in art museums and art circles otherwise, away from purely talking about the beauty of the works, and about the Yoshiwara as a center of arts and fashion, and instead towards talking about the quite harsh world the Yoshiwara was for these women. As Lisa Hix writes in this Collectors Weekly article, quoting curator Laura W. Allen,

“… The art of the floating worlds ‘ukiyo-e,’ which means ‘floating world pictures,’ usually depicts those two subjects [the Yoshiwara, and the Kabuki theatre].”

But, of course, by and large, this free-floating sensation belonged to men. Allen suggests that we, as viewers, resist indulging in the fantasies of Yoshiwara prostitutes presented in the artworks, and instead, consider the real lives of the women portrayed. …

“Don’t take these paintings at face value,” Allen says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s a picture of a beautiful woman, wearing beautiful clothing.’ But it’s not a photograph. It’s some artist’s rendition, made to promote this particular world, which was driven by economics. The profiteers urged the production of more paintings, which continued to feed the frenzy for the Yoshiwara.

No matter where the discourse within particular circles – e.g. among scholars, or among Asian-American communities – may go, the broader, more general, more widespread popular discourse changes only at a very slow pace. And it is that public to which museums are, to a certain extent, in certain ways, answerable. It is that public which the museum must speak to, in order to get them in the door, and it is that public which includes donors, trustees, and certain other influential stakeholders as well, regardless of what the curators may wish to do, sometimes…

Seduction has attracted considerable controversy, of a variety quite closely related to that of the protests against the kimono event at the Boston MFA. And, indeed, there is plenty of room for constructive criticism of the Asian Art Museum, and there is this much broader conversation to be had about Orientalism in the museum world. However, for the moment, I would like to just touch upon this point – of how curators and other scholars are beginning to focus more and more on the Yoshiwara as not only a “glittering world” of cultural efflorescence, but also on the very difficult and painful lives these women endured, as well as the women’s agency and/or lack of agency as to their situation, and the nuance and complexity this brings into it. Seduction attempts to bring this more nuanced, complicated, story, this less Orientalist, less exoticizing, less essentializing story to the public, to combat the reification of old stereotypes.

An image originally from the early 20th century magazine Beiyang huabao, reproduced on the blog We Drive East.

On a somewhat related note, turning to China, the practice of footbinding is easily among one of the most prominent, most widely known (albeit misunderstood), stereotypical things about Chinese women. From the time of the Tang Dynasty (7th-9th c.) onwards, Chinese women bound their feet in order to look more elegant; it was a practice which first emerged among dancers, then among elite women, and then spread to the common women by the Song Dynasty (10th-13th c.). By the Qing (17th-19th c.), the practice was so solidly ingrained, even the Manchu government, which successfully forced all men to shave their heads and wear their remaining hair in long queues, could not root out this practice.

And yet, it would seem that all along, Chinese women were also binding their breasts, a practice I, for one, had never heard about before.

The blog We Drive East talks about the history of the practice in some depth, as does a post on the website of the the All-China Women’s Federation. Aihua Zhang has published a journal article on “Women’s Breasts and Beyond A Gendered Analysis of the Appeals for Breast-Unbinding: 1910s-1920s,” and Antonia Finnane’s book Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation addresses this as well. The practice seems to have continued as late as the 1920s, when, by 1926-1927 or so, it became a prominent issue, being discussed at length in the Beiyang Pictorial (北洋畫報) and elsewhere; an interesting time for women’s fashion, gender roles, and changing culture the world over.

Now, moving along and turning to a different subject, way back in September, when Emma Watson spoke before the United Nations about feminism, gender equality, and her “He for She” campaign, there were of course a great many responses reflecting a wide range of perspectives. A great many praised her for championing this cause, and for inviting – really, demanding – that men need to get their act together and start being part of the conversation. This, of course, was wonderful to see. And it came at a time, for me, and I think for a great many of us, in the wake of the decidedly misogynistically motivated IV shootings, and the #NotAllMen / #YesAllWomen conversations which followed, when it seemed this was all the more needed. Men need to start realizing just how serious, how real, and how widespread these issues are; it may not be “all men” who are the problem, but it absolutely is (on average, in a meaningful way, just about) all women who are the victims – of cat-calling; of unequal pay and unequal treatment otherwise in their careers; of gendered expectations in myriad aspects of their lives; of laws threatening their bodily autonomy; victims of physical harm, sexual assault, and all too often of being killed simply for being women; victims of countless other ways in which our society, our culture, is deeply founded in male dominance, and female inferiority.

One article from TIME Magazine, written by Cathy Young, and entitled “Sorry, Emma Watson, but HeForShe Is Rotten for Men,” argues, however, that “Until feminism recognizes discrimination against men, the movement for gender equality will be incomplete.” And I would have to say, I agree.

Further, Young writes:

Watson asked, “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” Truer words were never spoken. Too bad they are belied by the campaign itself, which is called “HeForShe” and asks men to pledge to “take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls” but says nothing about problems affecting men and boys.

The fundamental cause of so many – if not all – of the problems of gender inequality, sexism, and so forth, is the way our society constructs and reinforces particular notions of masculinity, of machismo. This is at the core not only of myriad problems affecting men and boys, but of those from which feminism seeks to free women and girls as well. It is for this reason, and in this way, that men need to be included into the conversation. To fight for women’s protection, and rights, power, voice, and equality, as men standing behind (and not speaking for) women. To fight against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and all the rest. But, we can only do that by addressing the fundamental issue at the core.

It is not men who are the problem: it is masculinity. We need to stop forcing one another to have to behave a certain way in order to “be a man.” We have to stop judging one another and reinforcing upon one another a need to be strong, to be unemotional, to be sexually aggressive, to be all of these things. And when those things are expunged from what it means to be a man, or when the need to “be a man” is itself expunged from how we live our lives as human beings, as members of society who just so happen to have somewhat different parts but who are otherwise 99% similar, that is key to achieving cultural, social, gender equality. It is because men are constantly pressured to need to prove themselves, to perform up to an imaginary standard, and to compete with one another in manliness, that sexist attitudes are propagated and that sexist acts are eventuated. Kill the patriarchy, kill the machismo, break down the societal constructions of masculinity and not only of femininity, and feminist goals can be achieved. That’s my personal opinion, anyway, as a man. I may not be a woman, and therefore perhaps I should not have the right to speak on feminism – if you feel that way, that’s your prerogative, I suppose. But as a man, I should hope that I should be able to speak to how I feel as a man, my relationship to masculinity, my lived experience which few women would have experience with in the same way.

Dr. Jed Diamond has written several books on the subject, and in a recent blog post, he shares the following experience:

In the book I wrote about going into a feminist book store in San Francisco because I felt that a lot of what I was reading from feminists was going to liberate me. A number of the women seemed fine with my being in the store, but others, including the person in charge seemed hostile. There was a young boy, about nine years old, in the store who was obviously the son of the person in charge. He would walk by me and “accidentally” bump into me. At first I didn’t notice how angry he was. On the third “bump through” he pushed a little hand-written note in my hand. What I read hurt my soul. “We don’t like men in here,” it said. It still pains me to remember that young boy and what he was learning about his own maleness.

Who is this boy going to grow up to be? Is he going to be banned from the shop himself at some point, purely on the basis of being a man, regardless of his character, attitudes, or intentions?


This brings us to Mad Max: Fury Road. I finally saw the film, and immediately came home to draft a post about it. But while I struggled with just what it was I wanted to say, Arthur Chu wrote a piece in the Daily Beast which pretty much says a lot of what I was going to (which is not to say I agree with everything he has to say, or necessarily how he says it, but..). What I have to add, below, is quite brief, but, SPOILERS AHEAD. LOOK AWAY NOW, if you haven’t seen the film.

Right: Much thanks to feministmadmax.tumblr.com for creating more or less precisely the image I was looking for.

I think it would be easy to mistake the conflict in Fury Road as being one in which women need to be rescued from men, and the world also needs to be rescued from men, and rebuilt. Furiosa is bad-ass, as are the Wives, and they work together to rescue themselves from the grips of the sex slaver Immortan Joe and his hyper-masculine, violence-worshipping Warboys. And the Mothers they meet towards the end of the film are also bad-ass in their own way, and help Furiosa and the ladies to take Immortan Joe’s Citadel, and to begin rebuilding the world. Tons of female badassery, lots of female characters with whom to identify. Excellent.

But, just as in real life, I don’t think this is necessarily a conflict in when men are the enemy. Who, after all, destroyed the world? If men are the enemy, then what is that boy in the feminist bookstore supposed to do? He will inevitably grow up to be a man (unless they decide to identify as non-binary or trans*), and then what? No. The enemy is masculinity: certain definitions of masculinity, certain conceptions and standards of masculinity, and of machismo, and all that comes with them. It is not only women who need to be rescued from men, but men and women both, from the world that toxic masculinity has created.


In a blog post entitled Rants of a Feminine Feminist, a graduate student at the University of Calgary eloquently attacks the notion that feminism is only for women’s benefit, or only for women’s participation.

She especially attacks the idea that feminism is the cause of men’s problems – a fight that, sadly, we still need to have, as far too many people remain terribly mistaken as to what feminism is really about. As she writes, “Feminism is not primarily concerned with women’s issues. … It is primarily concerned with the patriarch[y], i.e. the gendered system in place that (among other things) promotes unrealistic expectations and standards for masculinity and femininity.” I hope that some of the MRAs and dudebros get the fucking message.

But what was really powerful for me, what that she writes, further,

There is no such thing as a singular feminism. There are feminisms. … each person interprets feminism in a way that works for them and their unique life experience. … Feminism is not some institutionalized doctrine that has a list of rules to follow in order to be a member of the club. Feminism has no dress code, no required hairstyle, and no standard for one’s sexual frequency or preference. …

Feminism – put simply – is the call for equal social, political, and economical opportunities for all people. All. People. Not “all people except men”, not “all people except those who dress like cats on the weekend”, not “all people except misogynistic assholes.” ALL. PEOPLE. (emphasis in the original.)

I read this and I want to cheer. It’s posts like this that make me feel validated, that make me feel like I am welcome, like I am included, and that feminism does care about my problems. Regular readers will know I don’t post as regularly on gender issues as some others do… I have posted even less frequently in the last year or so on gender issues especially since certain people shunned me out, quite cruelly laughing to themselves, to their friends, to the Internet at large at how absurd it should be that a cis, het, white man should think he should be allowed to say anything within a feminist conversation. Well, this may come as a surprise, but like everything else in the world, there is nuance and complexity to sexuality and gender identity, and just because I was born into a male body, and raised as a man, and am not quite ready to say that I am “questioning” or am definitively “queer” or some other identity, and therefore am assumed to be, and present as, “cishet”, even if I don’t really identify as anything in particular, doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with my gender identity, and with my gendered place in the world. And if you don’t want me as an ally, or whatever the proper word is, then that’s fine. Fuck you too. But, with the validation and support of my friends, and of articles like this one, after a year of agonizing over it, and refraining from commenting on these issues for fear of blowback, I’ve finally come back around, that I’m just not going to let other people dictate that I cannot be a feminist, too – that I cannot have some place in the conversation, even if that place is standing behind my friends, and others, and not in front. Tempted as I am to place a big STFU gif right here, a gift to those people, instead, rather than silencing you as you wished to silence me, how about we both continue to accept one another as having some right to be in the conversation?


Finally, today, you’ve probably seen at least one of the many articles, interviews, and books, which have been floating around recently, asserting that women subordinate themselves, or present themselves as submissive, and need to act more like men – more assertive, more confident, in order to better compete with men in the workplace, in job interviews, in earning respect and promotions and so forth, and in society in general. A number of articles, actually, have come about defending the way that women talk: one in Jezebel says “let’s stop feeling anxious about feeling aware that we’re feeling our feelings. Feel me?”, while one from NY Magazine which I have seen going around a lot writes that “When we use words like so, I guess, like, actually, and I mean, we are sending signals to the listener to help them figure out what’s new, what’s important, or what’s funny. We’re connecting with them.,” and concludes that

“When women talk in ways that are common among women, and are seen as ineffective or underestimated, they’re told it’s their fault for talking that way,” the linguist Deborah Tannen, who’s written several best-selling books about gender and language, told me. “But if they talk in ways that are associated with authority, and are seen as too aggressive, then that, too, is their fault when people react negatively.” Asking women to modify their speech is just another way we are asked to internalize and compensate for sexist bias in the world. We can’t win by eliminating just from our emails and like from our conversations.

A satirical piece called Just Don’t Do It takes it a step further, in a direction I particularly enjoyed.

This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.

The Economist article referenced here doesn’t exist. This is a conversation that we are not, in fact, having, but perhaps we should be.

Here’s a thought – I’m sick of this “lean in” bullshit. How about instead of telling women they need to be more confident and assertive, instead we try to stem the plague of men confidently, assertively, obnoxiously, bullshitting their way through life. I show deference and apologize because it’s polite, and shows humility. It shows honesty about what I don’t know or can’t do, and it shows consideration for others. Rather than advising women, and men both, to be /more/ assertive, how about instead we take some kind of action to push our society towards a friendlier, more deferential, less obnoxiously in-your-face place. How about, instead of perpetuating the constant masculine/patriarchal pissing contests for dominance, we write articles that lambast such ideas of masculinity, such ideas of success, that point to such attitudes and make fun of them as the Neanderthalish, Mad Men bullshit that they are, and assert that here in the 21st century, the time for that rat race, dog-eat-dog, macho self-righteousness is over.

1. And as Segawa Seigle is a major, prominent scholar of women’s history, I don’t think we should see this decision as un-feminist or anything… I think we can trust Segawa Seigle to have known what she was doing, and to have made her decision knowingly.

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(1) The fourth anniversary of the 3/11 Triple Disaster has now come and gone. Ima, Futari no Michi (roughly, “Today, Two People’s Roads”) is an anime short, just over five minutes, released a month or so ago, in conjunction with the anniversary. It employs Tôhoku voice actors, and tells the story of two young people who have come back home to Tôhoku to try to help with the recovery. It is available streaming for free via NicoNico only until mid-April; you can find it at Anime News Network. The link provides an explanation of the plot/content in English, but I’m afraid the video itself is not subtitled.

Meanwhile, in other Japanese history:

(2) The Japan Times reports on new research which shows that the first Japanese Buddhist mission in the West was in London, not California. While the standard story has it that the first Japanese Buddhist mission in the West was established in 1899 in California, work by Brian Bocking of the University of Cork, working with two other historians of Japan, has revealed the story of Charles Pfoundes, who educated thousands of people in Japanese Buddhism in his London home, beginning in 1889, a full decade before the California mission was established.

The main gate at the Yushima Seidô, center of Confucian learning in Tokugawa era Japan.

(3) Dissertation Reviews has a nice, thorough review of a dissertation on the Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Tokugawa Japan, by Doyoung Park. Park completed this dissertation at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) under Ronald Toby; I was particularly interested to come across this review having read an article by Park recently describing the attitudes of Korean envoys to Tokugawa Japan, regarding the Japanese scholars they met with, and the quality of Confucian scholarship in Tokugawa Japan.

Korean-Japanese relations today, and impressions of one another, are heavily colored by the brutal events of the first half of the 20th century, and understandably so. Yet, it should come as no surprise that relations were quite different prior to that. While Toby and others have written on Tokugawa efforts to make the Korean missions to Edo convey an impression of Tokugawa power and legitimacy, by representing the Koreans as having come to pay tribute to the Tokugawa shoguns, according to Park, the Korean envoys saw these missions as opportunities to show off their superior culture to the backwards Japanese. Even meeting with Hayashi Razan, one of the most famous and celebrated of all Japanese (Neo-)Confucian scholars today, Korean envoys wrote that “Razan seemed to have some trivial knowledge of Chinese history and culture, but his writing was crude and he did not seem to understand the real meaning of the scholarship,” and further, that “the writing ability of the sons of Razan is quite terrible. I do not understand how these poor scholars are able to work for the government” (Park, 12). I find this rather fascinating, and valuable, given that all I had read up until them about the Korean missions was from the Japanese Studies point of view; we in Japanese Studies, of course, think of figures like Razan as truly great scholars – genius-level talents, even, perhaps – so it’s great to get an alternative perspective, and to get a better sense of how Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Ryukyuan elites understood their position within the region, and perceived one another, at that time. The full article, “A New Perspective on the Korean Embassy (Chosen Tsushinshi): The View from the Intellectuals in Tokugawa Japan,” is freely available here.

As for the dissertation review, intellectual history has never been one of my strong points, but as my research begins to take me further into consideration of the classical Sinocentric world view, especially as understood and appropriated by the Japanese, and scholars’ understandings and usage of political ritual in that time, I have found myself of necessity reading more conceptual & intellectual history material – specifically on Neo-Confucianism – and actually finding some of it quite interesting. Park’s analysis of the rise of Neo-Confucianism in Japan, particularly surrounding Fujiwara Seika in the very last years of the 16th century, and the very first years of the 17th (at the beginning of the Tokugawa period), brings in some interesting ideas about Japanese, at least initially, not seeing themselves, or presenting themselves, as “Neo-Confucian scholars,” but rather as simply scholars advocating or considering Neo-Confucian ideas. The interaction between Neo-Confucianism and Zen, and the role of Seika’s interactions with Korean envoys in spurring the introduction and spread of Neo-Confucianism into Japan, are also quite interesting. If you’re interested in further detail, I invite you to check out the review; I will certainly be keeping my eyes out for Park’s republication of the dissertation as a monograph.

(4) Finally today, we have a blog post from Rekishi Nihon about Jokanji, the “Throw-Away” Temple of the Yoshiwara Prostitutes.

I explored the Yoshiwara area a little a few years ago. There’s very little to see there today – unless you know what you’re looking for, and I didn’t. The former site of the Yoshiwara’s Great Gate (Ômon) survives as the name of an intersection. A “backwards-looking willow” (mikaeri yanagi), a famous sight associated with the trip to the Yoshiwara, has been replanted and maintained there, but that’s about it. There are some traditional-style buildings off to one side, but I have no idea if they bear any historical connection to the Yoshiwara… The embankment (Nihon-no-tsutsumi 日本堤) which led to the gate similarly survives as a place-name, but throughout the area, at least of what I saw of it, there is absolutely nothing to be seen that’s recognizable about the geography/topography, and few if any historical buildings other than Buddhist temples. You can see this at the end of the Jokanji article, as the author shows a street from Hiroshige’s prints, as it looks today – a perfectly ordinary, undistinctive-looking Japanese street.

But, now that I’ve read about Jokanji, it’s one more place to take a look at the next time I’m in Tokyo. Some 25,000 women from the Yoshiwara were unceremoniously dumped after their deaths at the gates of the Jokanji, also known as “Nage Komi Dera,” (投込寺,) the “Throw-in Temple,” where they are thus now interred. While the Yoshiwara is celebrated as a vibrant center of the flourishing of popular culture – fashion, art, literature, dance, music – it very much had a darker side, as a center, by its very nature, of sex slavery, something that very much needs to be acknowledged as well. While the Yoshiwara looks glorious in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and literature, it was surely an extremely sad, difficult, and lowly life of exploitation for the women who lived and worked there. Amy Stanley’s Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan (2012) does a great job of bringing out these issues… I look forward to reading more along those lines, in order to get a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what went on there, beneath the flash and glitz; and I look forward to visiting Tokyo again, and checking out some of these sites.

All photos my own.

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As my more regular readers known, last year (Spring 2011), I was immensely fortunate to get to take part in a kabuki production here at the University of Hawaii. I played the taikomochi, and also got to serve as dramaturg for the show.

Having never heard the term before, as soon as I found out I was playing a taikomochi, I did a little research, and wrote a blog post explaining my findings. In summary, a taikomochi was the guy at the teahouse who helped facilitate things, helping to make arrangements/appointments, communicating between restaurants (venues) and the teahouses, between clients and courtesans, and sometimes sitting with a party and helping make small-talk, or playing the fool to help provide entertainment.

But I had no idea that the term was still used today, outside of traditional contexts (geisha houses, kabuki), as a regular everyday word. Apparently, it is used today to mean someone who is really good at buttering people up, always knowing the right thing to say to make someone else feel good about themselves. I think the connection to the teahouse context is obvious. A large part of the taikomochi’s job in the teahouse was to make everything go smoothly for the client, to make sure he had a good time, whether that means making sure that arrangements/appointments go smoothly, or making sure that conversation flows nicely at the party.

Wow. My big thanks to my friend Yasu, for happening by chance to bring up this word in conversation, and for explaining it.

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So, I’ve been cast as a taikomochi for the spring’s kabuki performance. But what is a taikomochi? No, it has nothing to do with Bubbie’s icecream-filled balls of pounded rice (mochi, 餅).

I figured it must be written as 太鼓持、taiko (太鼓) being a drum, and mochi (持ち) meaning “to carry.”

Right: A tsutsumi, or taiko, drum like that which a taikomochi would have played, though he would have also played shamisen and presumably other instruments as well.

c. 1925, by lacquer artists Kamisaka Sekka and Kamisaka Yûkichi; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2005.194.

Right: The wrong kind of mochi. We’re not talking pounded rice, here.

So, a drum-carrier. But what does that mean? Am I part of the hayashi, the orchestra? Judging from the context within the play, I could be a member of the retinue of the merchants and/or samurai who have rented out the back room of the teahouse for their party. But what would a samurai or merchant need of a drum-carrier? This isn’t the Union Army, that we should be talking about drummer boys.

Wikipedia identifies taikomochi as male geisha, before going into deeper detail. Okay, that makes more sense. A geisha (芸者) is a person (者) of the performing arts (芸); a “drum carrier,” too, would be a musician, an entertainer. That makes sense; I like that. So, I guess my character works for the teahouse, as a geisha would, providing entertainment, but not (necessarily) sleeping with the clients.

Let’s see what Cecelia Segawa Seigle, reigning expert on the Yoshiwara has to say on the subject.

One explanation for the origin of the term is said to derive from the time of Oda Nobunaga. The drummer Yozaemon, in service to Nobunaga, it is said, was “jealous of talented pupils, so he favored the untalented sycophant Idayû who was good [merely/primarily] at holding the drum;” Idayû thus came to be called taikomochi.1

I like the other story she provides better. In Buddhist processions, the drum would traditionally follow the bell. Since kanemochi (鐘持), or “bell-carrier,” is a homonym for kanemochi (金持) meaning “someone with a lot of money,” it’s a sort of ironic or sarcastic jab at the entertainer (the taikomochi) who follows around the wealthy client.1

Things, of course, do not remain constant over the course of the entire Edo period (1603-1868); after all, this is the period that saw the introduction of the shamisen, the rise of the geisha, the shift from male geisha to female geisha, and sooo many other shifts and developments over the course of the period. So, we cannot really generalize that the Yoshiwara (and the taikomochi) within would have operated the same in 1650 as in 1750, as in 1850. But, as our information is limited…

Segawa Seigle writes that in the Genroku period (1688-1704), this is more or less how it would have worked: A client would hire a taikomochi or two to entertain him and his party until the courtesans (who apparently took some time…) were ready.2 Have I mentioned that I have yet to read her book through? I do apologize that my understanding of other matters surrounding this is a bit weak – I’m really just skimming through the book for references to taikomochi and working from that, for now. I do very much hope to read the book eventually – maybe over summer break? – but for now, I apologize if I make any poor assumptions about aspects of how this all worked.

Apparently, though we rarely think of them being there, taikomochi were present throughout the history of the Yoshiwara, and in fact increased in number over the years, even as they lost their position as the chief entertainers to female geishas (and courtesans). They accompanied and entertained clients’ parties with song, dance, shamisen, and comic stories – pretty much the same things female geisha would specialize in. Apparently, at some point, the taikomochi split between musicians and those more skilled at comedy, and the term came to be applied more heavily to the jesters, to those who played the buffoon.3 Not that it necessarily makes a huge difference given my extremely small part, but I think I intend to play a proficient and upright musician rather than a buffoon, if given any choice.

Above: “Party Scene in the Yoshiwara” by Gessai Gabimaru, 1800. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 11.7592.
Could one of these men be a taikomochi? I wonder.

A novel from 1711 provides some tips for success as a taikomochi: To start with, a taikomochi must never upstage the clients, nor the women, but must always be humble; he is one of the lowest in station in the room, and must act like it. He must be sly and witty, but never show himself to be smarter or more knowledgeable than the patron, and must do whatever possible to protect the patron’s dignity and reputation. The taikomochi similarly must also watch out for himself, taking care not to drink more than the patron – or, if the situation allows, not at all. He must be witty in his foolishness, in just such a way as to make the whole situation playful and to make the patron say “what a fool you are!”3

The novel goes on to explain how patrons might sometimes buy a courtesan for the taikomochi, not as a genuine gift to the taikomochi (who, in the story, might prefer to have the money himself rather than having it spent on buying a woman for him), but rather, as an additional entertainer who would therefore be present at the patron’s parties.3

Here’s where it gets interesting. Who are the taikomochi? Where did they come from, and how did they get to become taikomochi? Well, the story for the women geisha and courtesans is a whole story unto itself, but Segawa Seigle writes that many taikomochi were themselves patrons, clients of the Yoshiwara who could not afford to maintain such an expensive lifestyle, and so turned to becoming entertainers. This was a way for men ruined financially by their expensive adventures in the pleasure districts, and now penniless, to still enjoy being a part of the world of the pleasure quarters – and possibly, I suppose, though Segawa Seigle doesn’t say it explicitly, to pay back debts owed. Known as nodaiko (野太鼓), these relatively talentless amateur entertainers would follow a daijin (wealthy patron/client) around, being the butt of his jokes, joking around with shinzô and kamuro (the child servant-apprentices to courtesans), eating, drinking, maybe even getting to bed a shinzô if the patron was willing to pay for it, and otherwise participating in pleasure quarters life as an actual member of that community, albeit a rather low-ranking one with little or no funds to his name. Nodaiko, like geisha or courtesans, also sometimes received garments or other gifts from patrons… Segawa Seigle describes them explicitly as “professional spongers.” Talentless though many of them might have been, they were valued by patrons who desired a larger entourage, and someone to make fun of, slap upside the head, and the like, all in good fun, of course.3

Taiko also sometimes acted as intermediaries, telling a patron when a courtesan was going to be late or couldn’t meet with him at all, and, leaving the patron there in the greeting room (or even in the genkan, I suppose, or even out on the street, perhaps), going deeper into the house to speak with the courtesan to arrange a new appointment on behalf of the patron. In her description of the patron striving to become tsû (that is, to become a real regular in the sense of really knowing his way around the pleasure quarters, being known, knowing all the ins and outs of the social protocol, knowing the girls and the teahouses), Segawa Seigle describes how a man might seek to manufacture an image of even being “too cool.” After finally earning the cred to be granted an appointment with a high-ranking courtesan, he sends two taiko to tell the tayû (the courtesan) that he needs to reschedule; furthermore, they were to then schedule him, intentionally, for a time when the tayû had another patron, thus essentially enforcing his image or position as being more important than that other patron…4 So, anyway, we can see that the taiko often played these kinds of roles as intermediaries. I still remain a little unclear as to whether the taiko belonged to a teahouse as geisha and courtesans did, or if they were more closely associated with a given patron, following him from one teahouse to another.

And, that is just about all that Segawa Seigle has to say about the taikomochi. Seems an intriguing sort of character. Not that I’d necessarily want to be one in real life, of course, penniless, constantly serving as someone else’s lapdog, always on a lower rung than nearly everyone else around – the women, the clients, even the children (read: apprentice geisha/courtesans) – but, as a character, and as a thread in the colorful tapestry of our imagined, romanticized Yoshiwara, I find the taikomochi quite interesting. … Maybe I could play one in an RPG sometime ^_^

A quick cursory Google search would seem to indicate that the tradition of the taikomochi as an entertainer – possibly moreso in the vein of the jester, the comic storyteller – continued until quite recently, or still continues today, judging from the posters and photos that pop up on a Google Image Search.

EDIT: An Update

I don’t imagine I’ll have time to read it any time soon, but I have finally obtained myself a copy of Cecilia Segawa Seigle’s book “Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan,” which contains wonderful anecdotes, bringing the pleasure districts to life, and providing greater details on the district than any other source I’ve come across. All footnotes/quotes in this post are from this book.
(1) Segawa Seigle. p256n30.
(2) p66.
(3) pp117-118.
(4) pp132-133.

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I really wish I was in NY and could attend these events. Any NY-based readers out there?

*“Thinking on the way to the Yoshiwara: Poetry and Pictures about the trip to Edo’s Courtesan District”
Professor Timon Screech, SOAS, University of London

The Yoshiwara was Edo’s premier courtesan (or ‘pleasure’) district. It existed for some 200 years, so that thousands of men would have gone. Pictures of the Yoshiwara were very commonly made, and form one of the major themes in art of the Floating World. Yet it is never asked how people actually got to the district, nor have representations of the journey to the Yoshiwara ever been properly investigated. This talk will engage with such material, and will offer the theory the pictures and poetry worked to create a sense of difference and transformation in the traveller incrementally, as the journey unfolded.

The lecture will take place at 6:15-7:15 p.m., April 8, 2010 and will be held in Room 934 Schermerhorn Hall. Given the spatial constraints, attendees are encouraged to arrive by 6 p.m.

I was fortunate to take a course with, and otherwise get to know, Prof. Screech during my time in London. This topic, the poetic or metaphorical symbolism or allegory of elements of the trip to the Yoshiwara, played a prominent role in the course, and while I must admit I do love to hear Tim speak about just about anything, I really do have a particular interest in this topic.

*And the following week:

Soshitsu Sen XV Distinguished Lecture on Japanese Culture

The Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University will host a rare public lecture by the Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura. Mr. Morimura will deliver the annual Soshitsu Sen XV Distinguished Lecture on Japanese Culture at 6:00 p.m., on Wednesday, April 14, 2010, at Columbia’s Miller Theatre. The title of Mr. Morimura’s lecture is “Why I Posed as Yukio Mishima.”

The title of Morimura’s lecture, “Why I Posed as Yukio Mishima,” alludes to a controversial 2006 video work in which the artist took on the persona of Yukio Mishima (1925–1970), the internationally celebrated Japanese novelist. Four decades ago this year, Mishima staged a highly public suicide at the headquarters of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, an unforgettable scene that Morimura imaginatively recreated in his 2006 video.

Morimura is the twenty-second eminent figure to deliver the Soshitsu Sen XV Distinguished Lecture on Japanese Culture. The annual lecture series at Columbia University was established with an endowment from the Urasenke Foundation of Kyoto, Japan. Named in honor of Soshitsu Sen XV, former Grand Master (Iemoto) of the Urasenke School of Tea, the Sen Lectures aim to expand American awareness and understanding of Japanese culture. The series began in 1988 with a lecture by Soshitu Sen XV entitled “The Heart of Tea.” Subsequent lecturers have included the novelists Natsuo Kirino, Taeko Kono, and Ryotaro Shiba, the poets Gary Snyder and Makoto Ooka, the composer Toru Takemitsu, the stage director Tadashi Suzuki, the photographer Fosco Maraini, and the graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo.

Donald Keene Center Prize

Directly prior to Morimura’s lecture on April 14, the Keene Center will award the Fourth Donald Keene Prize for the Promotion of Japanese Culture to Impressions, the journal of the Japanese Art Society of America (www.japaneseartsoc.org). Julia Meech, editor of Impressions, and. Joan D. Baekeland, president of the Japanese Art Society of America, will accept the award at a brief ceremony in Miller Theatre.

For further information, please contact Ms. Kia Cheleen, Assistant Director, Donald Keene Center: kcc2126@columbia.edu

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Anyone who has discussed the topic of geisha and courtesans in Japan has surely come across this issue. Certainly, it’s a question that has been asked of me numerous times by my father, and others with only a passing knowledge of Japanese history. And, until now, I have always defiantly denounced the idea that geisha engage(d) in prostitution.

After all, it was as a product of the Occupation era that Americans came to be familiar with the concept of the ‘geisha girl’ (mispronounced, as it often is today by the average person on the street, as gee-shah, not gay-shah), the whores who populated red-light districts such as Yokohama’s Isezaki-chô, dressed in traditional kimono (as, I suppose, many women still were at that time in their everyday lives) and either purporting to be part of this long tradition, or simply misconstrued by the Americans as connected to real geisha tradition. Granted, all of this connects too to American and European perceptions and encounters in the bakumatsu and Meiji through early (pre-war) Shôwa periods as well, but I would hazard a bet that the Occupation played a very major role in shaping this piece of ‘conventional wisdom’ which still persists today.

Most more informed accounts of the geisha, including even the novel and film “Memoirs of a Geisha”, show the geisha as markedly different from courtesans, i.e. prostitutes. The geisha is not hired to have sex with a client; she is hired to entertain, with music, dance, conversation, and pleasant company more generally. We should see geisha as refined professionals, the gei (芸) in geisha meaning “the arts”, as distinctly contrasted against the prostitutes, or yûjo (遊女, lit. “girl of pleasure”).

This image, to which I have long clung, however, is complicated by the assertion of Cecilia Segawa-Seigle, one of the leading experts on the Yoshiwara, that “As the early Yoshiwara was primarily a place of entertainment and socializing, sex was a discreet and secondary aspect of the business. Indeed, Edward Seidensticker has gone so far as to liken an evening at the Yoshiwara to an afternoon of tea.”1

Courtesans, after all, were not simple low-class, filthy whores. The Yoshiwara and other pleasure districts were the cores of Edo period popular culture, the courtesans trendsetters and fashion symbols. They were expert at conversation and pleasurable company, and I think, at music and dance as well. The Yoshiwara represented its own world of complex etiquette and proper behavior, and the higher-level courtesans reserved the right to refuse a client.

Still, the courtesans were, by definition, in the business of selling their bodies, while geisha were not, at least in theory. Remember “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which emphasized within it that geisha are not prostitutes, but are refined, elegant women, truly professionals of the arts? Remember how upset many people were at the portrayal of the mizuage rite of passage, in which men bid extraordinary amounts of money for the honor of being the one to deflower the main character, Sayuri?

Ukiyo-e expert Gina Collia-Suzuki, in a recent brief but strong blog entry, attacks this notion, asserting that geisha of the Edo period absolutely *did* engage in acts of prostitution, though it should not be confused for being a part of their primary profession.

Collia-Suzuki also claims that Mineko Iwasaki, the geisha whose life, revealed through interviews, was the basis of Arthur Golden’s novel, was essentially lying when she denied that the mizuage ceremony involved the selling of a geisha’s virginity for money. Modern morals and attitudes being what they are, Iwasaki-san would probably have been quite embarrassed and ashamed to admit such a thing, and more importantly, perhaps, she may have had in mind the protection of the reputation and image of the geisha as a whole (i.e. and the geisha still working today).

In the end, while I have the utmost respect for Ms Collia-Suzuki’s expertise, it would seem that this topic remains a controversial one. Though it does seem quite reasonable to think that the geisha of the Edo period, so closely associated with the pleasure quarters as they were, did on occasion, “on the side”, engage in acts of prostitution, I think it should be nevertheless acknowledged and emphasized that this was not a part of their profession, not a part of what it means to be geisha. As for the mizuage, as far as I can tell, the jury is still out on that one; I have heard and read arguments on both sides asserting very strongly that they are the one who is in the right.

In any case, if there is one thing to take away from all of this, I think it is this: As for our preconceptions of the geisha, courtesans, and pleasure districts of the Edo period, as we continue to learn every day, nothing in our world is as simple as conventional wisdom or stereotypes would have it. Courtesans were not simply whores, but were seen as cultured, refined, fashion idols and trendsetters, at the core of Edo period popular culture, experts in entertainments. Geisha, meanwhile, were, and are, experts of traditional music and dance, far more refined and cultured than the stereotype of the geesha girl which seems to have settled in American minds; yet, that is not to say that they never engaged in acts of prostitution on the side.

Thanks much to Gina Collia-Suzuki for bringing up the subject and for her valiant attempts to set the record straight.

1) Segawa Seigle, Cecilia. Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993. p152. citing Edward Seidensticker. Low City, High City. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1983. p18.

Image above a bijinga ukiyo-e woodblock print by Utamaro, portraying a young woman playing shamisen and practicing narrative chanting, or singing. I’m not sure if she is a courtesan (as the elaborate hairpins would seem to imply) or a geisha (as the relatively simple and plain garments would imply), but in any case, I thought this a not half-bad image to represent the fact that beautiful women of the Edo period, whether courtesans or geisha, were experts of the arts, and not simple prostitutes.

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