New York Times Book Review
Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geishaby Lesley Downer
In this revealing, accessible, and up-to-date portrait of geisha society, an expert on Japanese culture provides persona! insight into a perpetually enchanting underworld. Much has been written about the lives of geishas, but this rich subject has yet to receive the colorful, popular study it deserves. Determined to create a thoroughly entertaining but authoritative account of geisha history, journalist Lesley Downer dedicated years to research and undercover journeys behind doors previously closed to outsiders. In Women of the Pleasure Quarters, she delves deeply into this closed realm, bringing back priceless tales of glamour and romance from some of Japan's most famous geishas, who were the celebrities of their day.
From the first geishas four hundred years ago (who were actually men!) to the later rituals and delicate arts that every successful geisha had to master, Women of the Pleasure Quarters transports readers to a place that is as elegant as it is harsh. Through the eyes of those who lived it, Women of the Pleasure Quarters relates lively stories of the personalities behind the customs and costumes, along with intriguing information about protocol, such as how contraception is handled in a country where birth-control pills are still not licensed for public use. Vividly describing the daily activities in a geisha house, Downer also explores matters of the heart-including the reasons girls entered this life, and how it transformed them inside and out.
While Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha introduced hundreds
of thousands of readers to an exotic new world, Women of the Pleasure
Quarters proves that truth can be even more fascinating than fiction.
About the Author:
An authority on Japanese history and culture, Lesley Downer is the author of several acclaimed travel guides and other nonfiction books on Japan, including The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan's Richest Family, named a New York Times Notable Book. After residing in Japan for a decade, she now lives in London.
New York Times Book Review
–Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman
"Downer describes her increasing intimacy with the Kyoto geisha with candor and grace. She is not a safari guide, leading us on a wild geisha hunt. She is intelligent and curious and modest, and the results of her very personal research are deeply satisfying."
–New York Times Book Review
"Excellent . . . Downer skillfully builds up a picture of the loves of geisha, set against the Japanese attitude toward sex and marriage . . . A well-rounded and enthralling account of the power of that fantasy and the women behind it."
–Literary Review (London)
"Lesley Downer has created a masterpiece."
–The Spectator (London)
- Broadway Books
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1 ED
- Product dimensions:
- 6.38(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.07(d)
Read an Excerpt
japan before the geisha
High-class Courtesans and the Culture of Desire
Because they fall we love them the cherry blossoms. In this floating world, does anything endure?
Ariwara no Narihira (823-880)1
The City of Purple Hills and Crystal Streams
More than a thousand years ago, long before geisha were even thought of, Kyoto was the center of an extraordinarily effete, decadent, and promiscuous culture which transformed love into an art form and beauty into a cult. Centuries later, when pleasure quarters were built where men could transcend their everyday lives and imagine themselves noblemen of leisure, the courtesans and geisha modeled the dreams which they sold on the romantic culture of the Heian princes.
The Heian period lasted from 794 to 1195, the time of the Vikings, King Canute, and William the Conqueror. It began with the construction of a beautiful new capital in an auspicious location, a wide bowl-shaped valley surrounded by tree-clad hills, with sparkling rivers bordering it to each side. The official name was Heian-kyo, the Capital of Peace and Tranquility. Poets called it the City of Purple Hills and Crystal Streams; we know it as Kyoto.
There a city grew up of vermilion-painted palaces, slender-pillared temples, and spacious mansions of wood with wattled roofs. Noblemen and princes rumbled up and down the broad mud-paved boulevards in the shadow of the overhanging willows, in lavishly decorated oxcarts attended by retinues of liveried outriders. Under the rule of the emperor and his all-powerful ministers of state, the Fujiwara family, the country basked in threecenturies of peace and prosperity. For the pampered aristocrats of the Heian court, it was a time of unending leisure which they filled with the pursuit of art and beauty. They spent their days moon-viewing, mixing incense, writing poems, and playing the game of love.
In this strange hothouse world, women lived their lives away from the sight of men, hidden in a kind of purdah in windowless unheated houses, shadowy by day and lit with oil lamps and tapers by night. When men came to visit they received them sitting behind latticed screens draped with silk curtains or opaque hangings. When they went out, they traveled concealed behind the closed window blinds of their ox-carriages, though they made sure that there was always an exquisite silk sleeve trailing outside to hint at the beauty within.
For within their secret world, the Heian noblewomen were articulate, literate, and highly educated. One, named Murasaki Shikibu, was the author of the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, written around the year 1000, which recounts the romantic adventures of the charismatic Prince Genji. Several of the court women kept diaries in which they recorded their thoughts and feelings in extraordinary detail, leaving us very intimate accounts of what life was like for the aristocrats of those days.
This was probably one of the most lax societies the world has ever seen. Promiscuity was the norm. Following the Confucian precepts which governed society, marriage was a purely political affair arranged by the parents to create an advantageous alliance between families. Love and marriage had nothing to do with each other. A court lady was more likely to suffer censure for a lapse of taste in the colors of her robes than for her numerous lovers.
But what made the Heian period most extraordinary was the way in which art and the cult of beauty were bound up with love. For more than sexual desire or gut-wrenching passion, love was an art form, an opportunity to put brush to paper, to immortalize the moment in a small literary gem.
Having heard that a certain lady was very beautiful or, even more titillating, had beautiful handwriting, a nobleman would sit down to compose a waka, a thirty-one-syllable poem, and brush it, in his finest calligraphy, on delicately hued scented paper. When she received it, the lady would assess the handwriting and color of the paper as well as the wit and appropriateness of the poem before brushing a reply. The nobleman would be waiting with bated breath to see whether her handwriting and poem lived up to expectations.
If the exchange of poems was satisfactory, he would eventually assay a visit. He would creep in at night and immediately, in the pitch darkness, remove his clothes, lift the silken counterpane, lie down on the hard straw mat next to the lady and without further ado consummate the relationship. Slipping away before dawn, he would then brush an eloquent morning-after poem, bewailing the rising of the sun or the crowing of the cock announcing the hour of farewell. The lady in her turn would brush a reply. Thus through poems they communicated their decision as to whether to continue the affair or not.
The most famous of all the Heian beauties was Ono no Komachi, a lady-in-waiting in the imperial court. So beautiful, proud, and passionate was she that she has never been forgotten. Her name has come down through the ages as Japan's all-time femme fatale.
Her story is recounted in Noh plays and legend. With her raven tresses that cascaded to the floor, a face like a blossom, and eyebrows painted into perfect crescent moons, she drove the noblemen of her day mad with desire. She would glide through the cedar-scented halls in her multilayered gauze and damask robes, oblivious to the thousands of love letters which lay discarded about her chambers. At night she slept in a room bright with tortoiseshell where golden flowers decorated the walls and strings of crystal beads hung in the doorway. When she passed the cup at banquets, people said it was as if the moon lay on her trailing sleeve.
But she was not just a pretty face. She was brilliant, accomplished, powerful, and tough-minded, a woman of burning passions which she wrote about in waka poems read and loved to this day.
Of the fickleness of men's love she wrote:
A thing which fades
With no outward sign
Is the flower
Of the heart of man
In this world!2
Unlike the maidens of medieval Europe, waiting passively for a knight in shining armor to come courting, she herself burned with fiery passion:
This night of no moon
There is no way to meet him.
I rise in longing
My breast pounds, a leaping flame,
My heart is consumed in fire.3
She would only give herself to a man who could prove himself worthy of her. For the most lovelorn of all, a commander of the imperial guard named Fukakusa no Shi'i no Shosho, she devised the sternest of ordeals. He was to come to her house for a hundred nights and sleep outside on a bench used to support the shafts of her chariot before she would even consider his suit. Night after night he hitched up his stiff silk trousers and donned his tall lacquered hat or put on a wide-brimmed wicker hat and straw rain cape and ventured out into the elements. Evading the night watchmen and the barrier guards he walked through wind, rain, and snow, made a notch on the shaft bench, then waited through the night there, shivering. Ninety-nine days had passed and the joyful day, when he was to receive the reward for all his efforts, was dawning when he suddenly died, of heartbreak, perhaps, or exposure.
For such hard-heartedness, Komachi suffered the cruelest punishment of allthe loss of her beauty. Instead of dying young, like Cleopatra or Helen of Troy, and leaving a beautiful memory, she lived to be a hundred. After the death of Captain Shosho she was spurned and driven from court and ended up a tattered, crazed beggar woman. In folk legend and Noh plays she is portrayed as an ancient withered crone, hideously ugly, haunted by the unhappy spirits of the men who died for love of her.
Like the cherry blossoms, beauty is all too fleeting; and this is what gives her story its poignancy. The beauty of women can drive men to distraction and to their deaths but in the end men get their revenge: such women die old and alone. Komachi's tragic end made her all the more the perfect precursor of the geisha. Like her they too came to be regarded with ambivalence. They were sirens, so beautiful that men could not resist themyet to yield and fall in love with one was to court disaster. At least in legend, if not in real life, Komachi had to be punished for her fearsome powers.
Shizuka's Last Dance
Even at the height of Heian promiscuity, when noblemen had no problem finding a companion for the night and flitted merrily from one aristocratic woman's chamber to another, there were also prostitutes who offered a different sort of pleasure. At one end of the scale were ordinary prostitutes who wandered the streets, waterways, hills, and woods and were referred to as "wandering women," "floating women," and "play women." At the other extreme were cultivated, refined professionals whom in English we might call courtesans. Some were of good family, fallen upon hard times; others were noted for their beauty, brilliance, or talent. Skilled musicians, dancers, and singers, they were often the invited guests and chosen companions of aristocrats. These high-class courtesans were the original precursors of the geisha.4
The most popular of the courtesans were the shirabyoshi dancing women (shirabyoshi literally means "white rhythm"). To heighten their allure, they cross-dressed in white male clothing and manly court caps. They carried swords like men and performed highly charged erotic songs and dances to music with a rhythmic beat. Like the supermodels and rock singers of today, they were stars and the chosen companions of the country's most powerful men.
The most celebrated of all was Shizuka Gozen, the concubine of the twelfth-century hero Yoshitsune. (Shizuka, alas, is probably legendary though the great warrior who was her lover is a very important historical figure, a doughty Richard the Lionheart of Japan; the two heroes, Japanese and Western, coincide in both period and story.) She was renowned throughout the country for her extraordinary beauty and also for the power of her dancing, so magical that once, when the country had been suffering from drought for a hundred days, the gods responded by sending rain as soon as she began to dance. This is not as extraordinary as it sounds. Dance began as a way of supplicating the gods in Japan and the women who worked in Shinto shrines often combined the roles of shamaness and prostitute. Centuries later when the first geisha appeared, they claimed the beautiful and spirited dancer as their ancestor.5
Shizuka's story began when her lover, Yoshitsune, was forced to flee Kyoto to escape his wicked half-brother, the shogun (generalissimo) Yoritomo. Besides warriors to defend him, he took with him twelve women with whom he was on intimate terms. But he soon realized that this enormous retinue was slowing him down and sent all the women back, including his favorite, Shizuka, who was pregnant with his child.
When she reached Kyoto, she was arrested and taken to Yoritomo's court. There she was interrogated as to Yoshitsune's whereabouts. But, being plucky as well as beautifulcharacteristics which would come to distinguish the geisha tooshe refused to give anything away. Far worse was to come. The cruel Yoritomo, discovering that she was pregnant, ordered that if the child was a boy, he should be killed immediately; he could not risk allowing any son of Yoshitsune's to live. The baby was barely out of Shizuka's womb when Yoritomo's retainers snatched him from her arms, took him down to the beach, and dashed his brains out against a rock.
Before letting her go, Yoritomo was determined to see this most famous of dancers perform. Caring nothing for her feelings, he sent an order for her to dance before him. Disdainfully she refused. Then his retainers persuaded her that she should perform a dance of supplication before the gods at Hachiman Shrine. Too late, she realized that she had been fooled. Yoritomo was watching, hidden behind a bamboo blind.
Shizuka's dance is still performed on the Japanese stage. Wearing an exquisite garment of Chinese damask over long white skirts which swirled around her feet like a train and a voluminous long-sleeved overgarment embroidered with diamonds, and with her floor-length hair swept into a loose knot on her head, she unfurled her crimson fan and stepped forward. First she performed one of the erotic shirabyoshi dances after which the dancers were named, singing and dancing with such grace and beauty that everyone who watched was bewitched. Thenwhen she was sure she had them in the palm of her handshe burst full-throatedly into a defiant love song. Passionately she sang of Yoshitsune, her love and yearning for him, and her joy that he had successfully managed to evade his evil half-brother Yoritomo. Yoritomo was torn between rage at such effrontery and pleasure at the exquisite beauty of her voice. But she was, after all, a mere woman and therefore harmless, so he let her go unpunished.
She was still only eighteen. She returned to Kyoto where she cut off her floor-length tresses, shaved her head, and became a nun. A year later, or so the story goes, she died of grief. As for the historical Yoshitsune, he was tracked down and killed.
Japan's Great Cultural Renaissance
Living only for the moment, giving all our time to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, cherry blossoms, and maple leaves. Singing songs, drinking sake, caressing each other, just drifting, drifting. Never giving a care if we have no money, never sad in our hearts. Only like a plant moving on the river's current; that is what is called ukiyothe Floating World.
Ryoi Asai, c. 16616
Had you arrived in Kyoto at the turn of the seventeenth century, you would have found yourself swept along with the mob to the sprawling entertainment district beside the River Kamo, stretching as far as the massive red gates of Yasaka Shrine at the foot of the Eastern Hills. One of the chief attractions was the burgeoning pleasure quarters packed with teahouses and taverns where womenwho a century later would become known as geishasold tea or sake and might, for a consideration, entertain you with singing, dancing, or more, depending on the depth of your purse. Here and there on open-air stages, under wooden roofs, groups of women performed lively dances to the plink plonk of the shamisen or the tootle of the flute while their audiences lounged on red felt rugs or low platforms, tucking into picnics.
Kyoto was the official capital of the country and, along with the bustling mercantile city of Osaka, the center of commerce and culture. Artists of the time painted people in festive robes dancing through the streets between red-painted temples and tile-roofed wooden houses, and crowding to see performances of dance, music, and drumming. Outside the wattle fencing surrounding the stages were stalls selling food. Inside, women in rich kimonos, men with wicker hats or samurai swords, even a couple of Portuguese with big collars, bulbous noses, and tall hats, stood watching the shows.
You could gawk at puppets, wrestling, jugglers, or sword swallowers, laugh at the clowns and jesters, admire the rare animals in cages, try your skill at target practice, shoot darts in the blowpipe parlor, or while away the day in singing and dancing. There you would have felt sorely tempted to fritter away the rest of your life in fun. There was everything a person could want, enough to distract and delight him for the rest of his days. It was an entertainment mecca, a nonstop medieval carnival such as Chaucer might have enjoyed.
On the other side of the world, a century had passed since the heyday of the Italian Renaissance and the glorious rule of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, in Britain. In Japan, after more than four hundred years of warfare and upheaval, there was peace again such as had not been seen since the halcyon days of the pleasure-loving Heian aristocrats. The country had changed beyond all recognition. As the medieval knightsthe samuraifought their bloody civil wars, Kyoto had been burned to ashes time and time again. Now all that was over. The different warring states that made up Japan had been unified, leaving the people free to turn their attention to becoming prosperous and developing the arts of peace. It was the beginning of an extraordinary Japanese Renaissance.
The man who brought all this about was the great general Ieyasu Tokugawa, who defeated the last of his rival warlords in the Battle of Sekigahara in October 1600 and declared himself shogun and ruler of all Japan. The emperor had always been merely the titular ruler of the country. He spent most of his time isolated in his splendid palace in Kyoto, performing religious rituals, and had no real power. It was Shogun Ieyasu who was the true ruler. He chose as the seat of his military administration the little fishing village of Edo, an area of marshland and rivers a few days' walk to the east of Kyoto, where he had established his castle a decade earlier. Edo gradually grew in size and importance. Eventually it was to become the great city of Tokyo.
Determined that the country would never again descend into civil war, the shogunsIeyasu and his successorsset about fencing in the population with rigid systems of control. Among other measures, they sealed off the country from the outside world to ensure that no subversive ideas entered to disturb the delicate balance. Foreigners and in particular Catholics were not allowed in and Japanese were not allowed to leave. Anyone breaking these rules was liable to execution. Only one small window was left openthe remote southern port of Nagasaki, where Chinese junks brought their goods and a few Protestant Dutch merchants were allowed to trade.
For the next two and a half centuries the Japanese were to develop a unique culture and lifestyle, largely free from outside influences. Western explorers were extending the bounds of the world they knew; in 1610 Henry Hudson discovered Hudson Bay, in 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers reached New England and millions of slaves were being shipped from Africa to the Old and the New Worlds. The Dutch were a power all over the globe and had laid claim to an area which they called New Amsterdam, later to be known as New York. But the doors of Japan remained firmly closed.
To create a well-ordered society in which there would be no room for the slightest possibility of rebellion or upheaval, the shogunate adopted neo-Confucianism, with its rigid codes of behavior and emphasis on hierarchy and respect for authority, as the official basis of government and the underlying ethical code for society. The system remained in force until the end of the Tokugawa period in 1853, after which in theory it began to change. But many of the attitudes and social structures which it engendered remain in place to this day.
The shoguns divided society into rigid classes, with a different set of laws governing each. Sumptuary laws were issued decreeing what each class could and could not wear, what they should eat, how they should wear their hair, where they could and could not live, whom they could marry, and how they should decorate their houses.
At the top of the hierarchy were the daimyo, provincial princes who governed their own domains but had to pledge fealty to the shogun. Then came the samurai, the military class who had grown in numbers mightily during the years of warfare and were now the army, police, and administrators of the new system. Below the samurai came the farmers, who ranked high because they were responsible for producing the rice by which everyone lived, though in fact they had miserable lives. They were followed by the artisans, who were also producers; they were craftsmen and builders.
Right at the bottom came tradesmen and merchants who, so the argument went, produced nothing. They just passed goods around from the producers to everyone else, skimming off a profit along the way, and were thus considered worthless parasites. In reality, of course, they were absolutely essential to the life of the country, ensuring that goods were shuttled from the provinces, where they were produced, to be sold in the cities.
In practice the main division was between the samurai and the rest, lumped together as "townsmen." But the trouble with relegating merchants to the very bottom was that the samurai desperately needed and wanted the goods which the merchants sold and quickly spent their miserable stipends on them. Over the centuries their stipends never increased at all; they were rigidly prescribed. So the merchants started lending money, first to the samurai, then the daimyo, and eventually to the shogun himself, and thus became richer and richer.
There were a couple of classes so low that they did not even fea- ture in the Tokugawa ranking system. One was the hinin (nonhumans), most of whom were beggars or did the work that no one else wanted to do. The other encompassed popular entertainerseveryone from grand courtesans, dancers, tea-serving wenches, sake servers, and itinerant prostitutes to actors, roving minstrels, musicians, jugglers, and jesters. They were all lumped together under the term kawaramonoriverbed folkand (unless, like the courtesans, they were lucky enough to have a patron) they lived in ghettos in the dry riverbeds and along the river banks, frontier areas of the city which were outside government control, considered unsuitable for permanent habitation because of flooding. This was the class from which the geisha were to emerge.
Like everything else in the highly regulated Confucian society of seventeenth-century Japan, prostitution needed to be organized. The best way to manage it was to control it, to herd as many prostitutes as possible into one place and to make prostitution legal there but illegal anywhere else. Along with the kabuki theater, the pleasure quarters were classified as the "bad places" where the lower orders, and anyone else who wanted to, could go to let off steam and exercise their baser instincts. But, "bad" though they were, they fulfilled a recognized need. Ironically the geisha and the whole culture of eroticism arose directly out of the rigid strictures of Confucianism; the walled cities of pleasure which were to become the heart of the counterculture in Japan were created with whole-hearted government approval.
Confucianism required unquestioning obedience to authority. Within the state, this was the shogun, acting in the name of the emperor. Within the household, it was the father, who was to be accorded as much loyalty and respect as one would give the ruler of the country. The basic unit of society was not the individual but the family, which had to be preserved and protected at all costs. A woman had to obey her father, then, after she was married, her husband, and finally, if her husband predeceased her, her son.
Marriage was a political matter, nothing to do with love. It was an alliance between families which was arranged by the head of the household with the help of a go-between, far too important a matter to be left to the will of the individuals concerned. Rather than marrying the man, a woman married into the household. She became a yome, which means "daughter-in-law" as well as "bride," and moved into her husband's house with her in-laws, where she was more like a glorified domestic servant than our concept of a wife.
As for conjugal sex, the only function was to produce a male heir who would ensure the continuance of the household and carry out the ritual respects due to the ancestors. Apart from that, sexual gratification was not supposed to take place within marriage. In other words, a husband was not supposed to love his wife, enjoy sex with her, or give her sexual pleasure. That was the theory; though in reality many a Japanese mother provided her daughter with a "pillow book" of sexual techniques to try and lure her husband away from the sirens of the pleasure quarters and the manifold other temptations available to him.
Just so long as a man did his duty by his wife, supported her financially and produced an heir, he was at liberty to amuse himself in any way he pleased. As François Caron, who was in Japan with the Dutch East India Company in 1639, observed, "One Man hath but one Wife, though as many Concubines as he can keep; and if that Wife do not please him, he may put her away, provided he dismiss her in a civil and honorable way. Any Man may lie with a Whore, or common Woman, although he be married, with impunitie; but the Wife may not so much as speak in private with another Man, without hazarding her life."7
Besides enjoying oneself with the wife and concubines, there was no disgrace in visiting the "bad places." And the options were not limited to the pleasure quarters or the female sex. In fact, a man who chose to stay home with his wife and children would have seemed a bit of a wet-blanket goody goody, probably tight-fisted, and certainly far from a stylish man about town.
The Lusty Lady of Izumo
One of the most urgent tasks for the new shogunate was to clamp down on vice, which had increased enormously over the years of civil war. Kyoto had become a center of prostitution, with women who had lost their menfolk, itinerant nuns, and unemployed shrine maidens wandering the streets. There were also thousands of prostitutes servicing travelers along the rivers and roads, at ports, and in front of shrines and temples where pilgrims gathered. The problem came to a head not long after Ieyasu Tokugawa established peace.
The cause of all the trouble was a woman named Izumo no Okuni (Okuni of Izumo). Okuni claimed to be a shrine maiden and shamaness from the Grand Shrine at Izumo (from where she took her name) though this may have just been an invention to give her an air of mystery. She was, in any case, a dazzling dancer and by definition a prostitute; in those days, the two were one and the same.
Around 1603, when peace had barely been established, she set up an open-air stage in the dry riverbed of the Kamo and, with her troupe of wandering female entertainers, began to dance. Those who saw her were electrified. After two centuries of civil war, people were hungry for pleasure, diversion, and beautiful women in silk kimonos. It was from Okuni and her dancing that the geisha, with their irresistible combination of charm, entertainment, and eroticism, were to develop.
As word spread, crowds descended on the riverbed to watch Okuni perform. Artists of the time portrayed her dancing wildly, accompanied by singers, a flute-player, and people beating hand drums before an eager audience of top-knotted samurai and robed women and children, sheltered by huge red parasols, with the townsfolk jam-packed in front of the stage.
Some of her dances were adapted from ancient folk dances. One of these was the Buddhist prayer dance, for which she dressed in priest's robes, sporting a conical black hat and baggy black trousers and carrying a bell which she struck with a small hammer. Sometimes she dressed as a Shinto priest and at other times she mimicked a Christian one, wearing a large golden rosary.
But the most thrilling part of her show was when she played a man. Audiences cheered, applauded, and roared with laughter when she sauntered out wearing brocade trousers and an animal skin jacket. With a painted mustache like a dashing young man about town, she would mime chatting up a teahouse woman, wooing a courtesan, or having an assignation in a bathhouse. Okuni's dancing was not just brilliant but cheerfully erotic. It was so extraordinary that a new word had to be coined: kabuki, from the verb kabuku, meaning "to frolic" or "to be wild and outrageous." Okuni's sexy dancing was the seed of the kabuki theater and also of the floating world of the courtesans and geisha.
Okuni's fame spread all over the country. In 1607 she and her all-women troupe went on tour to Edo and gave a public performance at the shogun's castle there. Soon there were imitatorstroupes of prostitutes and courtesans performing erotic dances and bedroom farces throughout the great cities. It was showbiz; the actresses were stars. But, while the court ladies and townswomen imitated their stylish ways, men were more interested in their bodies. A contemporary wrote, "Men threw away their wealth, some forgot their fathers and mothers, others did not care if the mothers of their children were jealous . . ."
There was nothing wrong with eroticism. But the shogunate could not risk anything that threatened public order. When men started fighting over the actresses, it was time to put a stop to it. In 1628, after a major brawl, the authorities banned women from performing in public. It was a law that was extremely difficult to enforce. It had to be passed again in 1629, 1630, 1640, 1645, 1646, and 1647. Finally the manager of the last offending theater was thrown into prison and women disappeared from the public stage, not to reappear for another 250 years.
Banned from public performance, some of the women dancers took up work as prostitutes, licensed or unlicensed. Others found positions in samurai households where they gave private performances or set themselves up as teachers of music and dance. These were the sort of women who a century later were to become known as geisha.8
The authorities had banned women's kabuki. But they had said nothing about kabuki performed by young men, which now became hugely popular. The young men incorporated acrobatics and juggling into their kabuki and the most beautiful took on female roles.
Alas for the efforts of the authorities, these beautiful young men too were prostitutes. Those who played women dressed the part off stage as well as on. They lived in little shacks near the riverbanks, notably in the area of Kyoto called Miyagawa-cho, now one of the geisha districts, and used their performances to attract customers. Most of them were under fifteen, the age of adulthood, which probably made them all the more attractive.
For Buddhist priests who had abjured the company of women it was perfectly acceptable thus to work off their frustrations with a clean conscience. The youths also appealed to samurai, among whom homosexuality was considered the purest form of love. In any case, in this societyfree of Christianity's guilt-inducing notions of sinlove was simply love. Homosexual and heterosexual love were seen as different sides of the same coin. Both, as far as the authorities were concerned, were equally liable to lead to public disorder. Eventually in 1652, after the death of a shogun who had himself been partial to young men, this variety of kabuki was also banned and replaced by kabuki played by adult males, as it is today. Thereafter kabuki and the women's world of courtesans and geisha together made up the heart of the demimonde.
Pleasure for Sale: The Shimabara Licensed Quarter
Japan's first pleasure quarter opened in Kyoto even before Ieyasu Tokugawa's great victory of 1600. In 1589, when Tokugawa's predecessor, the enlightened warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi, was governing the country from his castle in Osaka, one of his favorites, a stable hand called Saburoemon Hara, asked permission to open a brothel. Hideyoshi granted him a license, and he built a small walled-in quarter with a single gate, not far on foot, horseback, or by palanquin from the emperor's palace. He called it Yanagimachi (Willow Town). There he set up brothels and teahouses and installed some high-class, educated courtesans to lure the sophisticated gentlemen of Kyoto.
It was an immediate success. Hideyoshi himself used to sneak in, in disguise, with his retainers. It was, however, altogether too close to the imperial palace for propriety and in 1602 was moved to a site further south. In 1641 the quarter was finally established a decent distance from the center of the city where it would not corrupt upstanding citizens. Thereafter business continued until it burned down in 1854. But it reached the apogee of its prosperity and fame in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when, in the West, Louis XIV, the Sun King, was establishing his glittering court at Versailles and in Britain the pretty orange-seller, Nell Gwynn, was bewitching the Stuart king, Charles II, with her charms.
Thanks to the peace which the shogunate had brought about, the country was quickly becoming prosperous. An end of warfare meant that all hands could be turned to production, developing arts, crafts, and trade. Seeking a share of the growing pool of wealth, people flocked to the rapidly expanding cities.
This was the height of the Japanese Renaissance, the gli ttering Genroku period. By then, money lenders and merchants had built up stupendous fortunes. Samurai, trying to subsist on their stipends, were forbidden to get a job; not only was there no upward mobility, there was no downward mobility either. There was nothing they could do but borrow from the money lenders, who got richer and richer. Every now and then edicts were issued forbidding merchants from, for example, wearing silk, living in a three-story house, and decorating their rooms with gold and silver leaf or furnishing them with gold lacquer objects; edicts had to be issued, of course, because that was precisely what they were doing. These supposedly low-class townsmen lavished their money on luxuries, filling their storehouses with fabulously expensive gold screens, ceramics, lacquerware, tea bowls, books, prints, and sumptuous kimono. All this big spending further stimulated the economy by providing a market for the artisans.
But no matter how rich the merchants became, they were prohibited from using their wealth to improve their status by, for example, marrying into a samurai family or moving into the samurai section of town. And the wealthier they became, the more likely it was that the government would confiscate everything they had. Merchants did not pay taxes, as that would have given them rights; instead, every now and then, the shogunate found a pretext to seize their riches. Therefore it made ample sense to squander as much of one's fortune as possible, as quickly as possible, on pleasureand where better to do so than in the newly burgeoning pleasure quarters!
Something had gone badly wrong in the shoguns' plans. The idea had been to sweep vice under the carpet, to restrict the perpetrators of vicethe prostitutes and the kabuki actors, their companions in sinto specific areas of the capital and thus control both them and their vulgar customers, the nouveau-riche merchants. But instead the pleasure quarters rapidly turned into the most glamorous part of town. Everyone from samurai to the imperial princes and even the emperor himself sneaked off for surreptitious visits.
As well as sex, romance, and sensual pleasure, Shimabara offered all that a sophisticated man about town might demand: elegance, culture, and brilliant conversation with beautiful women in an atmosphere of refinement. It was a place where merchants could entertain clients and show off their glamorous connections, basking in the company of these not-quite-reputable stars. As for what happened afterward, that was practically irrelevant. The show was the thing.
In 1661 a writer called Ryoi Asai coined a word for this new way of living: ukiyo (the floating world) from which came the term ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) for the woodblock prints which depicted the courtesans, prostitutes, and later, geisha who were its denizens. In the past, the word ukiyo had been a Buddhist term, referring to the transience of all things. In Ryoi's Tales of the Floating World, it took on a new slant. Life was indeed transient; so what better way to spend one's time than in the pursuit of pleasure, like a gourd bobbing lightly along the stream of life!
For men it was a topsy-turvy world of pleasure which was the reverse in every way from the world of work and family outside its gates. There, it was said, a man would forget what time of day it was, what period of history, and even his own wife. There the outcast courtesans and prostitutes could play at being queens and the low-grade merchants kings. As for the samurai, who were supposedly at the top of the tree, they were dismissed as bumpkins.
For the women, however, it was no dream. It was where they lived and worked. Even if they wanted to leave, their wings were clipped. Gorgeous though they were, the inhabitants of the pleasure quarters were caged birds. They had been brought to the quarter as small children and had grown up entirely in this hothouse world of women. They knew nothing else. For all their finery and glamour, they were virtual slaves, indentured to the brothel owners.
Almost all were from the lower classes, the beautiful children of impoverished rural families or debt-ridden townsfolk. There were professional procurers or pimps, called zegen, who scoured the countryside and poorer sections of the city. When they found a suitable child, they would offer the parents a set sum of money. Buying or selling of persons was illegal so the child would be bound with a contract for a fixed period of time, usually ten years.
For the parents, sending a child off to the pleasure quarters was nothing out of the ordinary; it is still done to this day in Asia. Apart from the much-needed money and the brutal necessity of reducing the number of mouths to be fed, they probably felt they were giving their daughter a chance in life. Going to Kyoto to eat fine food, wear fine clothes, meet fine people, and be educated offered far more hope than staying in the countryside hoeing the soil for the rest of her life. As for the child, according to the Confucian code it was her filial duty to put the well-being of her family ahead of her own. Girls who were sold to the pleasure quarters were considered virtuous and admirable for having sacrificed themselves for their family.
Most were recruited when they were six or seven and had only the haziest memories of life outside the walls of the pleasure quarter. While peasants were lucky if they had millet, the children in Shimabara ate white rice, wore beautiful kimonos, and learned to walk, talk, and comport themselves in the exaggeratedly feminine style of the quarter. Shimabara had its own dialect, as did the other pleasure quarters, with distinctive slang that was charmingly polite yet playfully seductive. Any child who managed to escape could thus be immediately identified by the way she spoke and sent back again. For visitors it made the pleasure quarters feel all the more like a dream world, an exotic foreign land.
The children were the property of the brothel owner. Before they even arrived, they had already incurred an enormous debt: the outlay involved in buying them from their parents. Their food and kimono were provided by the brothel; but every grain of rice and every bolt of silk only served to increase the burden of debt. By the time they were old enough to start working, their debt was so huge that they had no choice but to work day and night in a desperate attempt to repay it.
Initially the children worked as maids. When they were older, if they showed promise they became kamuro (child attendants to a courtesan). The courtesan taught them how to behave and ensured that they were trained in accomplishments such as calligraphy, tea ceremony, and music. There were many little secrets to be absorbed: how to lure men, how to wind them around their little fingers with tears or protestations of undying love, how to write love letters, how to hold men off long enough to drive them mad with desire, how to pleasure them in the bedchamber, and how to fake an orgasm while conserving one's energy for the next customer. The key rule was to play at love but never, never to allow oneself to feel it. That way lay disaster.
At thirteen or fourteen, when the child reached sexual maturity, there was a grand celebration accompanied by a rite of passage which the girl had to accept with gritted teethmizuage, literally "raising or offering up the waters"ritual deflowerment, conducted by a patron who had paid mightily for the privilege. If she was uncommonly lovely she might be designated a koshi, the second rank of courtesan, though there were many that slipped through the net and ended up as lower-grade prostitutes, sitting patiently behind the latticed windows of the teahouses waiting to be chosen by a customer.
At the very pinnacle of the hierarchy of prostitutes and courtesans were the tayu, the aristocrats of the courtesan world. Some were the concubines and courtesans of the imperial princes; unlike the lower ranks of courtesans, tayu were permitted inside the palace. And in their leisure time the princes went on horseback or by palanquin to amuse themselves at the famous Shimabara pleasure quarters where the tayu lived.
If a man wanted to enjoy the company of a tayu, the first step was to go to an ageya, a house of assignation (the precursor of the teahouses of the geisha districts) to apply for a meeting. If he was a sophisticate, he would ask for one of the tayu by name; some were so popular that it might take months before a day became free in their calendar. The owner of the ageya would write a letter to the bordello where the courtesan lived, roll it up, and give it to a messenger. While the customer was waiting, he would enjoy the services of jesters and dancing girls and ply them with food and drink, all of which, of course, would be added to his bill.
Hours later, the tayu would sweep in, dressed in layer upon layer of gorgeous kimonos and accompanied by a flotilla of child attendants and dancing girls, having progressed at snail's pace along the boulevard with her entourage. They would while away the evening playing music, dancing, exchanging poems, and enjoying the tea ceremony and incense ceremonyexactly as if they were ladies and gentlemen of the Heian court. Sex did not automatically follow. After all, it would lower the courtesan's worth if she were too easily available. A proprietor who owned a beautiful tayu would want to increase the value of his or her investment by making her as exclusive as possible.
If the man wanted to spend the night with the courtesan, he would have to engage in a long and very expensive courtship. The earliest that one could hope to experience her luxurious silk bedding was at the third visit. And even then, if the tayu was not satisfied with the man's performance, she could decline to sleep with him. If she did agree to spend the night with him, the cost was 90 silver nuggets (momme) which equaled one and a half gold nuggets (ryo), in modern currency about $675. It was costly but, for a wealthy man, the only sort of person whom a tayu would consider, hardly prohibitive.9
The koshi, the second rank courtesans, charged sixty silver nuggets, and the sancha (teahouse waitresses-cum-courtesans) charged thirty. At the Shimabara even the lowest class of prostitutes, the hashi, whom one could buy for just one silver nugget, were said to be elegant.
But no matter how famous the courtesans became, they were still slaves of debt, constrained to work out their ten-year contract. In fact the system ensured that, no matter how hard they worked, their debts only increased. There were always new costs being incurredthe purchasing of the splendid kimonos necessary to carry on their trade, the costs of bedding and of clothing and supporting their retinue of retainers, the tips that had to be paid to the bordello staff. They had just three days off a year. If they missed a day's work for any reason at all they had to pay the bordello out of their own pocket the sum they would have earned. Most carried on working until they were twenty-seven, the usual retirement age. Those who were successful would have plenty of supplicants begging to marry them after that.
They probably accepted the hardships with stoicism. That was the way it was in the floating world and, in any case, any other life would have had its hardships too. Within the narrow confines of their gilded cage they were queens. The one chance of escapeif they wanted itwas to find someone prepared to buy out their contract and make them his wife or mistress. As the old saying went, the courtesan's favorite lie was "I love you," the customer's "I will marry you."
The names and rankings changed over the centuries but everyone agreed that the greatest courtesans of all time were the tayu of seventeenth-century Shimabara.
The Courtesan and the Swordsman
In the early days of the Shimabara quarter, there were seven celebrated tayu courtesans in Kyoto. Of these, Yoshino was the most adored. Many legends have gathered around her, not least that she was the lover of Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman of all time and author of The Book of Five Rings (a bible for practitioners of the martial arts and more recently for businessmen). He learned his secrets, so the story goes, from the gentle but insightful Yoshino.
Yoshino was entertaining him and his friends in the pleasure quarter one snowy night when he slipped quietly out of the room. She was the only one to notice him leave. He returned a few minutes later. But there was a splash of red on the hem of his kimono.
"What is that?" asked one of his friends.
"Just a peony petal," said Yoshino and quickly wiped it away with a napkin.
When the party came to an end, she suggested lightly that he had better stay there with her. With her unerring instinct she had guessed that he had been engaged in a duel to the death in the few minutes he had been away. The retainers of the two men whom he had killed, several dozen of them, were waiting right outside to ambush him and exact revenge.
Sitting in her chamber he was silent, tense in anticipation of the hopeless battle that lay ahead. Suddenly Yoshino picked up her biwa, a priceless lute, took a knife, and smashed the curved sound box to pieces. From the ruined instrument she picked out the crosspiece, a single piece of wood, and showed it to him.
This, she explained, was the heart of the instrument; all the sound came from this. If the crosspiece were as taut and unyielding as he was at that moment, a single stroke of the plectrum would break it. But if he could be as flexible and responsive as it was, no one could defeat him. Inspired by her words, he bounded out into the snow and, with a few nonchalant slashes of his sword, decimated the dozens of men gathered outside. For the rest of his sword-wielding career, he never forgot her or her advice.
The historical Yoshino was born on the third day of the third month 1606. She was sold to the pleasure quarters at the age of six and at fourteen was so beautiful and accomplished that she was promoted to the rank of tayu, a rare and extraordinary honor. So famous and so hugely desired was she that she had no need ever to bestow her favors on anyone. Her wealthy and adoring patrons made sure that her income was high enough for her to be able to pay all her annual expenses in advance. But no matter how much they paid her, she kept them at a distance, hopelessly yearning for her.
One day she was called to entertain at a gathering of Kyoto's most influential literary coterie, presided over by the emperor's fourth son. There she met Joeki Haiya, a merchant's son. Not only was he handsome, refined, and accomplished enough to satisfy the most demanding courtesan, he was an adept of the tea ceremony, which he hosted with wonderful finesse, and also extremely rich. At the time he was twenty-two, she twenty-six. He fell hopelessly in love, so much so that he laid out the enormous fortune necessary to buy out her contract, forbeautiful, accomplished, and celebrated though she wasshe was still the property of the bordello keeper. Having bought her freedom, he married her.
Thus far is history. The rest may or may not be legend. Joeki's adoptive father, goes the story, was furious that the boy had brought the family into disrepute and disowned him. After all, Yoshino might be a superstar but until she married she had been a glorified prostitute who made her living by selling her body (or so he thought). Reduced to poverty, the lovebirds retired to a humble house on the outskirts of Kyoto. Joeki began to sell off his much-loved collection of tea ceremony utensils to support them.
Then one day Joeki's father, far from home, was caught in a rainstorm and sought shelter under the eaves of an unprepossessing house. Through the window he heard a gentle, refined voice inviting him to rest inside. He walked across the stepping stones of a humble but perfectly arranged garden and into a house where everything, though poor, was of the most exquisite taste. On a wall was a single piece of calligraphy by the most accomplished master of the day.
The lady of the house appeared, dressed in a plain, humble kimono which could only enhance her radiant beauty. Dignified and gracious, she knelt and performed a tea ceremony for him, whipping up a bowl of foaming green tea. On returning home he recounted the tale of his adventure to friends and discovered that this vision was none other than Yoshino. He summoned his son immediately, was reconciled with him, and took the couple back into his family.
Yoshino died in 1643 at the age of thirty-eight (very young in modern terms but not so extraordinary in those days). Joeki grieved for her for the rest of his life. Without her, he declared, the magnificent city of Kyoto, with all its luxury and culture, was nothing but a desert.
Music of a Bygone Age
Once the most glittering of pleasure quarters, today Shimabara has become a shabby backwater. But there are a couple of splendid old buildings with blackened beams and tatami-matted rooms, where five or six women still preserve the tayu traditions. There in a huge, ancient house called Wachigaiya, I came face to face with one.
She was a tiny fairy-like creature, barely visible beneath her voluminous layered kimonos. Her face was chalky, her eyebrows and eyes etched in black and her underlip an intense peony red. Her hair was swept into loops and coils, as bulky as a Restoration wig. On it she supported an enormously ornate headdress studded with tortoiseshell and silver hairpins and decorated with silk flowers and foliage, with dangling mother-of-pearl ornaments and strings of coral weighted with gold-leaf blossoms.
She was wrapped in layer upon layer of priceless antique kimonos. At her throat was a thick collar of beige brocade embroidered with a swirling pattern of irises. On top of that came a red kimono with a quilted hem which swept the floor and swung heavily as she walked, and above that an exquisite robe of thick black silk glistened with lustrous gold flowers, swirling around her feet like a train. The obi, a swathe of orange silk brocade with a gold-thread design of chrysanthemums and maple leaves, was tied in the front in an enormous knot which hung in great folds from her waist to her knees. This was a symbol of her availability. In theory it might be untiedif you happened to be rich and fortunate enough to be permitted to do so.
Underneath it all, she had a cheeky, elfin face with a tiny nose and pointed chin. How long had she been a tayu, I asked, then gasped when she opened her small mouth to answer. In the chalky-white face with the blood-red lips, her teeth were painted black. It was macabre, like looking into a black hole.
Four years was the answer. She was twenty-four and she was interested in the particular styles of dance and music which the tayu performed, quite different from the dance and music of the geisha tradition. She was fascinated, she said, by the history and traditions of the tayu and the stories of the great tayu of old. She loved the world of darkness and shadow in which the tayu moved. It was, she said, more shibui than the geisha tradition. The word shibui, which literally translates as "astringent" or "sober," evokes a mood of old gold, glimmering shadows, and rust.
Dusk had fallen. In the banqueting hall guests were waiting, cross-legged on the floor. The women among them knelt demurely. Huge smoking candles flickered, set in tall golden candlesticks. Dimly visible in the gloom of an alcove was an ancient scroll bearing a poem brushed with exquisite skill.
Then the tayu appeared, framed in the doorway like a visitation from another age. She was transformed, she was a shamaness. Aloof, withdrawn, self-contained, she did not speak, smile, or glance at the guests. She was to be looked at, not to look. As she swept gracefully into the room, deftly swinging the heavy quilted train of the kimono, more layers became visible, rippling at the sleeve and hem.
Solemnly she knelt, lifted a shallow red-lacquered bowl brimming with sak and put it to her lips. Then she picked up a kokyu, an instrument shaped like a small shamisen with a square base and long narrow neck, and rested it on her knees. Taking a bow strung so loosely that it looked as if it could not possibly produce any sound, she scraped it across the strings to coax out a thin scratchy melody, turning the instrument so that the bow touched each of the three strings.
It was an extraordinary, archaic sound. It lifted the hairs on the back of your neck and took you back across the centuries to a time when, one could imagine, rakes and dandies dissipated fortunes in places such as this. Lastly, rising to her feet, she danced, mesmerizingly slow and stately, while the guests and I, sitting in the shadows, watched, entranced.
But the most unforgettable thing was that under the layers and layers of brocade and silk, her tiny feet were bare. It was the most erotic sight, it sent a shiver up the spine. They peeked from beneath the heavy finery, the only reminder that underneath the painted face, the priceless headdress, the three layers of under-kimono and four layers of over-kimono, there was a real woman.
It must have been even more poignant in the old days, if anyone then ever stopped to think about it. For in those days, for all their sumptuous finery, their robes embroidered with gorgeous landscapes and their velvet and damask bedding, the courtesans did not own their own bodies. They were chattels, to be bought and sold.
The Harlot Queens of the Nightless City
Closing time is midnight
So why do I now hear
The wooden clappers
Strike out four times?
In Yoshiwara, even the
Wooden rhythm sticks are liars.
Geisha song 10
When Saburoemon Hara was petitioning to start a brothel in the great city of Kyoto, Edo was nothing but a few fishermen's shacks in a marshy area where three rivers met. But once Shogun Ieyasu established it as his capital it became a boomtown such as the world had never seen before. It was here, in the rough northeast of the country, in the shadow of the shogun's castle, that a pleasure quarter was to develop which would put all the others in the shade. This was where the culture of love was to be taken to its zenith and the geisha were to flower.
It was a gold rush. People flocked from all over the country to help in the building of the new city and make their fortunes. Mansions, palaces, temples, shrines, shops, stalls, and houses sprang up, while alleys, roads, and a maze of canals that made the city an eastern Venice spiraled out from the walls of the shogun's castle to the newly reclaimed land beside the river. In 1500 Edo had a population of 1,000; in the early 1600s it was an urban center of 150,000. By the end of the seventeenth century it was the largest city in the world with a population of well over one million. London, the largest European city, had yet to reach a million.
Edo was a man's city, a frontier town akin to those of America's Wild West, with just as many bars, brothels, and brawls. More than half the population were samurai, retainers of the daimyo (the ex-warlords who governed the provinces). This was a direct result of the shogun's policy of sankin kotai (alternate attendance), which required all the daimyo to maintain a mansion in Edo as well as their provincial seat. While they had to shuttle back and forth, their families lived permanently in Edo, effectively hostages, supported by a huge staff of vassal samurai. Most of the samurai were unmarried; they could not afford to support a family on their stipends. To add to this multitude of men there were thousands of merchants and tradesmen from Kyoto, Osaka, and points west, who arrived to set up businesses and sent money to their wives and children back home. As the great comic novelist Saikaku Ihara wrote toward the end of the century, it was "a City of Bachelors."
All these frustrated men provided fertile soil for prostitution. Among the flood of people hoping to make fortunes or at least stay afloat in the new city were a goodly number of harlots, not to mention procurers and brothel-keepers who came from all over the country. Even before anyone had been given a license to open a pleasure quarter, professional brothel-keepers from Kyoto who had spotted an irresistible opportunity were erecting a red-light district with streets and beautiful wooden houses in a broad grassland dense with rushes near the coast. Just as in later years, when the geisha areas became cultural centers, the district offered far more than sex. There was also plentiful entertainment: kabuki, shrine dancing, temple dancing, the spider dance, the lion dance, wrestling, singing, and twanging joruri music. "How these conspiring courtesans allure men without resorting to force is beyond our comprehension," wrote a commentator of the time disapprovingly.11
Following the initiative of Hara, who had founded Shimabara, a wealthy brothel-owner named Jinemon Shoji petitioned the shogun for a license to establish an official pleasure quarter. Like Shimabara, the Yoshiwara was built, rebuilt, moved, and burned down in a fire before it was finally established in 1656 in a reed plain (yoshi wara) a decent hour's journey from the city.
By the end of the century it was far larger than the country's other famous pleasure quarters. Shimabara women were said to be the most beautiful; Shinmachi, where the playboy merchants of Osaka went to enjoy themselves, had the most sumptuous buildings and luxurious facilities; the women of Maruyama in Nagasaki wore the most gorgeous kimonos; but the Yoshiwara girls outdid them all with their hari (attitude or style). At its height there were more than three thousand courtesans in the Yoshiwara, though only a few held the rank of tayu.
For the people of Edo, the Yoshiwara offered nonstop drama. The vast majority, who could never even dream of being able to afford an evening with a courtesan, could still follow their exploits in print. For the pleasure quarters together with the kabuki theater were the heart of a cultural renaissance, both democratic and subversive, produced by, for, and about the townsfolk and treated with great suspicion by the sho- gunate who made periodic attempts to clamp down on it. The courtesans and their clientele were the prime subject matter of woodblock prints, kabuki plays, and the courtesan critiques and tayu biographies which poured off the newly developed printing presses. Like the lives of the rich and famous today, they offered endless fascination and vicarious excitement.
The stories of the time are full of grand guignolpassion, love, debauchery, men ruined for love, suicides, deathsand also of ribald humor. Like the great tayu of Kyoto, the courtesans of the Yoshiwara stood the usual customer/merchandise relationship on its head. They were at liberty to turn down any client, no matter how wealthy or aristocratic. Many of the sizzling stories of the day, much appreciated by the townsfolk, concern courtesans who rejected lovesick nobles and fell in love with handsome but low-born and impoverished clerks.
Much as the lower orders loved such bodice-ripping melodramas, the real lives of the courtesans tended to be a lot more down to earth. Besides the elegant, high-class courtesans of the official pleasure quarter, there were also many unlicensed and distinctly lower-class prostitutes operating illegally. Around the mid-1600s, many of these were to be found in bathhouses. These were a little like the Turkish baths of today, with large reception areas where customers could lounge, drink tea, and be entertained after bathing. As far as the Yoshiwara brothel-keepers were concerned, this was unwarranted competition. They frequently petitioned the shogunate to have it stamped out.
Katsuyama was a real-life prostitute who appeared at a bathhouse called Tanzen in 1646. She was a beauty with a warm, open face and a cheeky, larger-than-life personality. But what the customers loved most was when she dressed up as a man. There had been nothing like it since Izumo no Okuni took to the stage dressed as a man back in 1603 and stunned the populace with her wild kabuku dancing. Wearing a wicker hat, man's kimono, and two swords like a samurai, Katsuyama would bring the house down with the Tanzen-bushi dance, named after the bathhouse, strutting and swaggering in jaunty macho fashion. As with all such dances, there was an erotic coda.
Katsuyama became so popular that she outshone all the tayu of the Yoshiwara. In 1653, after a brawl between a bunch of townsfolk and some rival samurai, the authorities closed down the bathhouse. Katsuyama was head-hunted by one of the top Yoshiwara bordellos, which gave her instant promotion to tayu. When she made her first grand procession down the main boulevard of the quarter to an assignation with a client, the great courtesans were so curious about this up- start that they all turned out to watch. They were so impressed with the cocky way in which she kicked out her feet in the "figure of eight" walk and with her distinctive topknot that the "Katsuyama gait" and the "Katsuyama knot" continued to be in vogue for a century afterward.
The whole thing was a game. Like any game, you had to play it to the best of your ability and you had to stick to the rules; but in the long run it was not to be taken too seriously. And whatever went on in the licentious night-time dreamworld of the Yoshiwara was always forgotten the next day. It never infected the world outside those enchanted walls. That tradition carried over into the world of the geisha. Mystery was of the essence.
It was all showbiz. But in the floating world, nothing could continue unchanged for long. By the eighteenth century, the pleasure quarter culture had been thriving for over a hundred years. The courtesans, with their stilted conversation and layer upon layer of starchy clothing, were beginning to seem a little passe. It was time for something new.
Gradually the number of women worthy to be designated tayu began to decline. The term itself, which had been used exclusively in Shimabara, disappeared as the focus of culture and life shifted to Edo. The last recorded tayu was in 1761. (The tayu of Wachigaiya, sadly, are not a continuation of the line but actresses, playing out a charade, a re-creation of a lost era.)
It was then that a new breed of woman first began to step out not just in the pleasure quarters but in the town: a woman who was not a caged bird, who dressed with understated sophistication, not showy glitter, and who sold not her body but her arts.
Meet the Author
An authority on Japanese history and culture, LESLEY DOWNER is the author of several acclaimed works on Japan, including a travel book, On the Narrow Road, and The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan’s Richest Family, selected as a New York Times Notable Book. Having lived in Japan for a decade, she now divides her time between London and New York.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews