Beyond the pleasure quarters

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Beyond the pleasure quarters

Sex work, gender, and mobility in early modern Japan

by Yvon Wang on Monday, December 10, 2012 - 8:30am

Radiant in silks and housed in luxurious pleasure quarters, urban courtesans inspired innumerable playwrights, artists, and fashion fads in Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries. Until recently, these women—who sometimes included the iconic, artistically-accomplished geisha—have also been at the center of scholarly attention around prositution in Japan.

Image of Fukaya StationAs historian Amy Stanley read this vast scholarship about urban courtesans, she wondered why so few studies discussed the anonymous, ordinary women who made up the majority of those who sold sex for money. Away from the ranks of the most refined, expensive sex workers, said Stanley, “it was as if prostitution and prostitutes ceased to matter."

Stanley began to study the lives and work of these ordinary prostitutes, leading to her new book, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan. During a recent appearance at Stanford, Stanley explained that prostitution increased in Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries, a result of the commercializing economy. Although there was widespread alarm about the growth of prostitution, argued Stanley, it was not the simple fact of sex for money that led to social outcry.

What really bothered authorities, said Stanley, was the spatial mobility of young women who moved far from their parents' homes in order to work in the sex industry. To many, prostitutes were an example of a larger problem—the traditional social order turned topsy-turvy by market forces.

The rise of prostitution in Japan

By the 1860s, virtually every adult in Japan had "encountered a woman who worked, had worked, or would someday work in the sex trade."

Prostitution became an enormous industry in the era of the Tokugawa shoguns (1600-1868). Using materials ranging from woodblock prints to petitions from village elders, Stanley traced the controversial rise of sex work. Prostitution was initially concentrated in larger, fortified castle towns during the 17th century and became central to the increasingly commercialized Japanese economy by the 19th century. It also took on a major presence in both highbrow and popular culture. Sex workers numbered into the hundreds of thousands and were employed in all corners of Japan. By the 1860s, as Stanley put it, virtually every adult in Japan had "encountered a woman who worked, had worked, or would someday work in the sex trade."

The demand for sex workers was so powerful that large numbers of young women from isolated rural regions became indentured to brothels in distant towns and ports. The steady flow of unwed daughters out of their traditional places in the patriarchal household into spatially mobile, seemingly autonomous roles as independent wage-earners made them threats to public morality and political stability in the eyes of the authorities.

Dutiful daughter or public threat?

Photo of Stanley's new bookCritically, selling sex was legally regulated and not immoral per se in Tokugawa Japan. If people understood a young woman's sexual labor as the “sacrifice” of a filial daughter to support her family, then her status as a prostitute could actually take on positive moral value. For example, Stanley uncovered 17th-century legal documents in which parents used the moral leverage of their daughters' sex work to defend the young women against violent abuse from employers or clients. 

However, as the sex market pulled women away from their families and native villages, prostitutes lost the heroic aura of dutiful daughters supporting their families through sexual labor. Instead, authorities began to condemn prostitutes as materialistic and self-centered. Even so, after her period of indentured service ended, a "serving-girl" at one of the innumerable small brothels across Japan could still become the respectable wife of a local man.

Stanley explained to her Stanford audience that the perceived problem with women sex workers was not that they were having sex for money, but that they were working at an increasing distance outside the patriarchal household.

Prostitution, she said, "began to undermine the ideal gender order, replacing the logic of the household with the logic of market." For local and central authorities, sex workers became the quintessential example of a general, alarming trend—that of people leaving home and farm for more lucrative occupations in Japan's towns and cities.

Prostitution "began to undermine the ideal gender order, replacing the logic of the household with the logic of market."

Local leaders in rural communities were especially vocal in complaining of prostitution's negative effects. Farm families, they claimed, sank into debt as daughters and wives neglected their duties and imitated the prostitutes' extravagant spending habits. These leaders also accused sex workers of causing declining birthrates, whether through infertility resulting from their work conditions or through the use of contraception and abortion.

These condemnations did not usually lead to legal crackdowns on sex work, however. As the growing economy led more people to travel for trade and pleasure, towns competed with one another as destinations, using ever-larger numbers of prostitutes to draw in visitors. Brothels frequently ignored legal limits on the number of women that could be employed at once. And, given that these establishments were a lucrative source of tax revenue, public officials almost always turned a blind eye to violations of the law.

Freedom and vulnerability

In "Selling Women," Stanley argues that neither the meaning of sex work nor the individual agency of sex workers have been constant. Instead, both are conditioned by social and market relations of specific times and places.

Without their positions in the patriarchal household to legitimate their labor, sex workers actually became more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

From a contemporary perspective, some observers may assume that sex workers who left patriarchal homes to work in faraway towns gained self-determination by achieving potential "freedom" from the confines of family. But Stanley argues that without their positions in the patriarchal household to legitimate their labor, sex workers actually became more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse over the course of the Tokugawa period.

To close her lecture, Stanley shared a wrenching story drawn from the legal petition of a teenager named Hatsu. This young woman had contracted a sexually-transmitted disease from her dire working conditions. In her petition, she charged that "because I had no chance to rest during the day or night, I could not recover from my illness." Earlier generations of prostitutes might have relied on the authority of kin and village leaders to achieve redress. But Hatsu, who was hundreds of miles from home, submitted a plea for justice in her own name—to no avail.

Stanley's book illuminates a fuller, more personal, and at times disturbingly brutal side to the business of sex in Tokugawa Japan, populated by women more like Hatsu than the glamorous, silk-clad geisha. Her approach—analyzing prostitution as a form of paid labor against a larger context of increasing economic and social mobility—is relevant for activists and policymakers considering the diverse problems and people involved in the global sex industry today.



  • By the early 19th century, hundreds of thousands of women were selling sex throughout Japan
  • Sex work was no barrier to marriage. Of 51 women who lost their jobs after a raid on a brothel in Kuragano, 45 married peasants in nearby villages.


For further reading: Rhacel Parreñas' study of Filipina hostesses in Japan's present-day nightlife industry uses a similar approach to Stanley's. Both Stanley and Parreñas look at sex work as a form of paid labor, and both consider geographic and economic mobility. Read "The ‘indentured mobility’ of migrant Filipina hostesses."


Image of writer Amy StanleyAmy Stanley received her Ph.D. from Harvard University and is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on early modern and modern Japan, especially on topics of sex and gender in the everyday lives of common people. She is the author of Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan. Her lecture at Stanford was sponsored by the History Department and the Center for East Asian Studies.



Image of Yvon WangYvon Wang is a Ph.D. candidate in Stanford's Department of History, specializing in Chinese history and the history of sexuality. Her dissertation uses pornography as a new way to assess the transformations in Chinese society and culture across the turn of the twentieth century. She is a member of the Clayman Institute's student writing team.