Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Review: Edo no Fuuzoku Mangekyou

(Edo no Fuuzoku Mangekyou / Edo's Commercial Sex Kaleidoscope)
著: 永井義男 (by Nagai Yoshio)

Over the New Year holiday I had a chance to do some historical reading. I selected this book in particular because Japan-wise my university background focused more on the art side of things than the martial, and I wanted to supplement what I'd learned of the Yoshiwara via my ukiyo-e classes. (And hey, kimono-clad ladies of the night, what's not to like?)

I've translated the title as Edo's Commercial Sex Kaleidoscope, which is about as accurate as I can get it. While originally the term "fuuzoku" encompassed many aspects of daily culture (food, shelter, clothing), in modern Japan the word almost exclusively applies to stores providing services of a sexual nature. That's how the term is used in the title, so I've gone with "commercial sex" as the English descriptor. The "Mangekyo" (directly translated as "kaleidoscope") suggests variety, that there was a plethora of goings-on, and reading the book, this certainly proved to be the case. The jacket even suggests that Edo was practically a "sex theme park". While I wouldn't go quite that far, the author made a strong case that Edo had a particularly lively commercial sex industry that extended well beyond the famous Yoshiwara licensed pleasure district.

The book is organized into seven main sections: six chapters and a prologue. The prologue consists of a brief overview of the role of prostitution in Edo life, while the four chapters to follow focus on perhaps the most well-known venue of commercial sex in Edo, the Yoshiwara. The chapter after that describes the four less-known pleasure quarters at important trade stops Shinagawa, Naitou-Shinjuku, Senjuu, and Itabashi. The penultimate chapter details the illegal, scattered Okabasho districts, and the book concludes with a miscellaneous collection of other kinds of services (Yotaka streetwalkers, male youth prostitution, the Edo equivalent of love hotels, etc.).

As the prologue shows, prostitution in Edo was widespread and guilt-free--certainly more respected than non-commercial carrying on with the neighborhood girls--and also one of the period's few sources of release and entertainment. Most men who could afford to hire the services of commercial sex workers did so (the book includes an amusing anecdote about an astonishing number of Buddhist clergy caught in a Bakufu-led sting operation), and while the women were frequently sold into the industry and generally lived in a state of indentured servitude, their profession was often the only thing keeping them from dying by starvation. The profession was hard and sometimes even fatal (syphilis was so rampant that some Yoshiwara courtesans held parties when--not if--their younger co-workers first fell ill with the disease), but there was also a great deal of glamour associated with the Yoshiwara women in particular. There was generally no stigma about being a former prostitute, and they were much sought-after wives (despite being generally infertile from syphilis and other work-related conditions). The book did an excellent job of balancing the frequently rosy portrayal of the Yoshiwara seen in art and literature with the harsher aspects of the industry and Edo life in general.

While I already had a fairly general idea of what the Yoshiwara was like, this book offered an excellent overview, covering basically everything that I'd read in dozens of journal articles while going into even more detail about the day-to-day realities.

In addition to the material on the Yoshiwara, I appreciated the information about the less well-known pleasure districts: those at the Shijuku trade stops and the Okabasho. Illegal and either pointedly ignored or vehemently stamped out by the Bakufu, depending on the political climate at the time, the latter in particular are rarely mentioned in books and articles I've seen on the topic. While nowhere near as glamorous, the Okabasho served as the poor man's equivalent to the Yoshiwara.

While the book avoids getting too graphic about actual sexual practices (apart from, perhaps, the section about common lubricant formulas and how the male youth courtesans were prepared for their new vocation), the author goes into an incredible amount of detail in other areas, quoting price lists from the period and listing brothel names and locations (the area near my office was apparently a happenin' place a couple centuries back). Nagai also writes historical novels, and it shows. Rather than just chronicling events and naming personages, he allows readers to easily step into the sandals of the courtesans and their clients.

While this is a mass market book by a non-academic author (Nagai's output appears to be evenly divided among historical novels and Edo lifestyle related nonfiction), it does have an extensive bibliography and appeared well-researched. Nothing stood out as being suspect, and the overall quality was high. I especially appreciated how the author used period senryuu (tanka poems similar to haiku) to provide wry commentary on various scenes and practices introduced in the book.

I would certainly recommend the book to any Japanese reader interested in the subject. It was interesting both as a self-contained work and as a starting point for further research.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. Once one starts looking, it can often feel like there are an overwhelming number of books on a given subject in Japanese - far far more than in English - and it can be basically impossible to have any idea which ones are going to be good, which ones are going to be worthwhile.

    I've long held an interest in the Yoshiwara, but maybe more from the point of view of ukiyo-e, and of popular culture, than from the point of view of down-and-dirty history of prostitution...

    It's good to hear that you would recommend this; nice to have another book to add to my list, to keep in mind as something worth reading.