Opening vignettes on Tokugawa prostitutes

I never really responded to Jonathan’s post on opening vignettes as pedagogy, but I do like using them. In fact, I will be using a couple Monday. Sometimes I do this by putting a short bit of text on the screen and reading it with them. Sometimes, like this time, I print things out. (( Don’t tell my chair, we are in a budget crunch ))

Next Wednesday the students will be leading a discussion on Amorous Woman and so Monday I need to talk about Geisha and prostitutes and the trade in women on Monday. I hope to do this by stealing shamelessly from Amy Stanley. Her chapters tend to start with a story, and I will be passing out one of hers and one from a review. We will see how this goes.

Two stories about Tokugawa prostitutes

Kokane ran away with a man named Sodayu in 1614, leaving behind her husband and her home in the remote mining town of Innai Ginzan in Akita domain.1 She was taking her life in her hands. It was illegal for a married woman to leave town without her husband’s permission, and it was also extremely dangerous. Although the major military engagements of the Sengoku, or Warring States, era had come to an end, this corner of the archipelago was far from peaceful. Even the newly appointed lord of the domain (daimyo), Satake Yoshinobu (1570–1633), a fearsome warrior in his own right, found it difficult to impose order. While he ensconced himself in the fortified castle town of Kubota, the area along the domain’s southern border remained ungoverned. Bandits hid out in the mountains, ready to ambush those who dared to traverse their territory.2 For a woman, even one accompanied by a male companion, the journey over the steep and thickly forested terrain would have been perilous.

Kokane must have had a good reason for breaking the law and risking her life. The record of her disappearance offers an explanation for her reckless escape attempt: her husband, Tahei, had been hiring her out as a prostitute (keisei). There is very little information offered about her accomplice Sodayu, who could have been her lover, a procurer who promised her a job in another city, or a guide she paid to lead her through the mountains. In any case, it made little difference to Akita domain officials. Regardless of the circumstances, the couple had committed a serious crime by absconding. Since the domain had a financial interest in retaining Innai’s population of laborers, who extracted silver for the government’s coffers, officials imposed the death penalty on those who left the mine without special permission.3 Some absconders were able to argue their way into more lenient punishments, but Sodayu had compounded his offense by stealing another man’s wife. Clearly, he deserved the harshest possible sanction.

Because Sodayu’s crime was so straightforward (and so egregious), domain officials knew exactly what to do with him when they apprehended the couple in the mountains east of the mine: they beheaded him on the spot. But they could not reach an immediate decision in Kokane’s case, which was unprecedented in Akita domain’s short history. What was the appropriate punishment for a married prostitute who ran away with another man? At a loss, they gave her Sodayu’s head and sent her back to the settlement at Innai. The decision about Kokane’s fate was left to the domain’s general mine magistrate, Umezu Masakage (1581–1633). In a terse account of his deliberations, sketched out in a few sentences in his diary, he stated that Kokane deserved the same punishment as Sodayu. But then he seemed to reconsider. In the next line, he mentioned that her husband, Tahei, had invested a large sum of money in her. By juxtaposing these concerns, he suggested the contours of his dilemma: he could not execute Kokane without unfairly depriving her husband of his property, but he could not pardon a married woman who had absconded with another man. Because she was simultaneously a wife and a prostitute, a person and a possession, the magistrate puzzled over the correct response to her transgression. Stolen property would be returned, but an adulteress, particularly one who had compounded her crime by absconding, might deserve to be executed. While he struggled with the implications of Kokane’s multiple identities, Masakage never condemned Tahei for sending his wife out to work as a prostitute. In Kokane’s situation, the categories of “wife” and “prostitute” had come into conflict, but only because she had absconded without her husband’s permission and forced the magistrate to make a decision about her punishment. The idea that the roles of “wife” and “prostitute” were inherently contradictory, that a woman whose sexual body was available to multiple men belonged in a fundamentally different category from a woman whose sexual body was available only to her husband, did not enter into his deliberations. From Masakage’s perspective, his task was not to disaggregate two mutually exclusive categories of women, but to decide on a penalty that was appropriate for someone who belonged within both at once.         

In the end, Masakage ordered an unusual, and rather spectacular, punishment: he forced Kokane to parade around the mine holding Sodayu’s head. Apparently, the magistrate believed that the sight of a woman carrying a severed head (which was by then a few days old) would serve as a disincentive to others who might be tempted to commit similar crimes.4 After she had completed this humiliating task, he returned her to Tahei. This compromise reconciled Masakage’s desire to punish Kokane with his unwillingness to deprive her husband of his property. Yet it did nothing to settle the larger question about her legal status. She remained both a wife and a prostitute.

Amy Stanley Selling Women Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. 23-24

In 1806, a resident of the castle town of Hamada in Iwami province petitioned that his older sister Kinu be removed from their family registry due to her disappearance together with a man named Tokubei. Yet nearly eight years later, both of them suddenly returned. Asked about their unexplained absence, Kinu related that Tokubei had initially convinced her to accompany him to Osaka with the promise they would marry. In her testimony (kōjō-oboe), which was submitted to domain officials within a few weeks of her return, Kinu provided a detailed account of the many events that had transpired thereafter.1

To begin with, upon arriving at Tokubei’s residence, Kinu quickly discovered that he was already married. After a short stay in separate lodgings, she was sold for five ryō to work at an establishment in the city’s licensed quarters (yūsho). Almost six months later, Tokubei again visited Kinu, this time to take her to a Kyoto middleman through whom he had arranged for her sale to an interested party in Edo. Because the move required Kinu’s endorsement and she expressed strong reservations about making the journey alone, Tokubei agreed to escort her. Even so, his role as chaperone lasted only as far as their entrance into Edo’s Yoshiwara district, at which point Tokubei furtively negotiated Kinu’s sale to a local brothel owner and promptly absconded with a profit of thirty ryō. Left with no other choice Kinu continued to work as a prostitute (yujō) until, later that same year, her contract was bought out by a man from Kawagoe with whom she then cohabited for the next seven years.

Following the man’s death, Kinu grew lonely and longed to see her mother back in Hamada. She therefore sought out the assistance of relatives living in Edo and through their intervention acquired permission to join the entourage of a warrior from her native domain who was just then departing for home. Travel proceeded smoothly until the group passed through Osaka, where Kinu parted ways with these companions and an old associate cajoled her into meeting with Tokubei once more. Despite avowing to have learned her lesson  from the events of recent years, Kinu nevertheless consented to speak with Tokubei and even accepted his offer to schedule and pay for the remainder of her trip. That night, however, while feigning sleep, Kinu chanced to overhear a conversation between Tokubei and his wife in which they discussed plans to sell her into service in one of the many port towns that dotted the Honshu and Shikoku coastlines of the Seto Inland Sea. A few days later Kinu attempted to escape, but she was soon caught by Tokubei and beaten severely. Undeterred, Kinu apologized repeatedly and pleaded for permission to visit her family, if only briefly. Tokubei ultimately relented and brought Kinu back to Hamada on the fourteenth day of the tenth month of 1813.

Eason, David. “Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan by Amy Stanley (Review).” Monumenta Nipponica 69, no. 2 (2014): 278–83.


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