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University of California Press
Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan / Edition 1

Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan / Edition 1


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This book traces the social history of early modern Japan’s sex trade, from its beginnings in seventeenth-century cities to its apotheosis in the nineteenth-century countryside. Drawing on legal codes, diaries, town registers, petitions, and criminal records, it describes how the work of “selling women” transformed communities across the archipelago. By focusing on the social implications of prostitutes’ economic behavior, this study offers a new understanding of how and why women who work in the sex trade are marginalized. It also demonstrates how the patriarchal order of the early modern state was undermined by the emergence of the market economy, which changed the places of women in their households and the realm at large.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520270909
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/19/2012
Series: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes , #21
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 282
Sales rank: 424,200
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Amy Stanley is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern University.

Read an Excerpt

Selling Women

Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan

By Amy Stanley


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95238-6


Adulterous Prostitutes, Pawned Wives, and Purchased Women

Female Bodies as Currency

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. 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. 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. 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 (so yama bugyo), 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. 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.


Masakage's dilemma might have seemed irrelevant only a few decades earlier, before the Tokugawa peace had granted samurai administrators like him the luxury of considering the appropriate penalty for a married runaway prostitute. During the constant strife of the Sengoku era (1467–1568), warlords had considered themselves to be lawgivers, and they understood that the security of their domains depended on managing conflict within the ranks of fighting men. However, they were far more concerned with ensuring military preparedness than dictating the terms on which common people related to one another. As long as peasants continued to bring in the harvest and pay their taxes, they were usually permitted to fend for themselves. But in the late sixteenth century, the hegemon Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–98) broke with precedent by pursuing a radically ambitious agenda of social reform. Through conquest as well as legislation, he worked to implement his vision of a realm that did not yet exist: a federation of peaceful domains in which warrior magistrates would administer a docile and productive population from their headquarters in castle towns. He forced samurai to abandon the countryside and compelled peasants to relinquish their weapons. By promulgating a series of edicts outlawing violent quarrels among commoners (kenka choji rei), he signaled his intention to extend his rule to all levels of society, from the warriors guarding newly fortified castles to the peasants toiling in carefully surveyed fields.

Hideyoshi died before his vision could be fully realized. But his successors, the Tokugawa shoguns, presided over an initially tenuous and ultimately lasting peace, which gave them the opportunity to extend his project of creating order out of wartime chaos. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) and his heirs worked to bolster their authority through a series of policies meant to stabilize and control both the samurai and commoner populations. This task was complicated because the shogunal household directly administered less than a third of the territory in the Japanese archipelago; the rest was parceled out among over two hundred and fifty daimyo. Hideyoshi had allowed them to remain largely autonomous as long as they recognized his preeminence, and the early Tokugawa shoguns elected to continue this strategy. They relocated certain domainal lords whom they considered untrustworthy, but they permitted the daimyo to collect and retain their own tax revenue and to promulgate and enforce their own laws (within certain limits). However, the Tokugawa imposed a strict requirement during the reign of the third shogun, Iemitsu (1604–51): daimyo were obliged to leave their wives and heirs as hostages in Edo and to spend one out of every two years there attending on the shogun. This policy of "alternate attendance" (sankin kotai) ultimately acted as a form of taxation, straining the daimyo's finances and siphoning money into the new capital.

Early Tokugawa policies also imposed obligations on ordinary people. In the first decades of the seventeenth century, the shogunate formalized a system of organizing society in which each household was assigned a status (mibun) and placed within a social unit, which John Hall memorably called a "container." These containers—households (ie) of samurai or nobles, villages (mura) of peasants, city wards (cho) of townsmen, sects (shu) of Buddhist clergy, and so on—had originated in self-governing communities that took shape amid the violence and uncertainty of the Sengoku period. They were given legal force by the Tokugawa shogunate, which assigned each a distinct responsibility to the state. A household's position in one of these containers determined its place of residence along with its tax burden and corvee labor obligations, and it also established its members' legal standing relative to those who belonged in other containers—a samurai, for example, was considered superior to a peasant, who ranked higher than an outcast. Ideally, every household was headed by a man, and his dependents would take on his status designation.

Eventually, the effects of this project of social reform were felt in villages, port cities, and castle towns all over Japan. But this process took time, and in the first decades of the new era, the status system had not yet been institutionalized across the archipelago. Demarcations of status had no bearing on social life in Innai, where the major divisions were not between samurai, peasants, and townspeople, but between the wealthy prospectors (yamashi) who controlled mining operations and the masses of manual laborers and petty shopkeepers. This type of variation was typical of the unsettled early seventeenth century. Elsewhere along the Japan Sea coast, even Hideyoshi's land surveys were not implemented until the middle of the century, and historians have estimated that the iconic Tokugawa village took several decades to develop. Although Innai was isolated deep in the mountains, it was like many other places in that the social order was still quite fluid and administrators were just beginning to assess how best to pacify an unruly population.

According to legend, the settlement at Innai was founded when four masterless samurai (ronin) who had fought on the losing side of the battle of Sekigahara discovered silver in the mountains of Akita and asked the daimyo for permission to begin mining. Eager to exploit this new source of revenue, in 1608, the domain appointed silver mine magistrates (ginzan bugyo) to oversee the unruly prospectors. Under their watch, the mine proved to be extraordinarily productive, yielding about five thousand kan of silver per year at its peak. The proceeds were forwarded to the castle town of Kubota, where they were used to finance Yoshinobu's fledgling administration.

As the mine grew, Innai's population increased dramatically, reaching seven or eight thousand in only a few years. A later account dismissed the immigrants to the mine as "lonely people who had suffered in the war and chaos of recent years, along with hicks and bumpkins who only yesterday were covered in mud." But in reality, the settlers were a much more diverse and sophisticated group. Skilled miners arrived from Chugoku, where mining technology was the most advanced, and refiners and metalworkers streamed in from the great cities of Kansai, where the demand for their craft had been highest. Prosperous merchants and down-and-out samurai from all over the realm came as speculators, lured by the promise of easy money during the silver boom, and soon they were trailed by administrators eager to tax their discoveries. Only the unskilled laborers, the men who hauled rocks and dug holes, were local people. Aside from these workers, some of them farmers who worked in the mines during the agricultural off-season, very few of the newcomers arrived with their wives and families. They were unattached young men, just like those who built castle towns during the same period.

Demographically unstable, Innai also faced problems unique to its function and location. Mountain bandits often raided the mine and then fled over the border to Yamagata domain, where it was nearly impossible to apprehend them. Criminals from within the settlement also terrorized local residents, and samurai administrators resorted to violence to pacify their dominion. Herman Ooms's description of the Tokugawa state as a "regime of conquest" aptly characterizes the situation in Innai, where the powerful wielded weapons to mark and subjugate the populace. A mid-seventeenth-century chronicle of the town's history says of these tumultuous early years: "Day after day, the fights and arguments never ceased, and there was no respite from violent, injurious thefts and robberies. Officials carefully examined the harshness of fines, and they designated a place for beheadings, crucifixions, and burning people alive. They piled up mountains of skeletons, and red waves ran over the grasses and trees."

Once their supremacy was established, however tenuously, warriors sought to discover the productive capacity of their conquered lands. As Ooms has written, "power needed knowledge rather than the sword to carry on." Innai was not a rice-producing area, so cadastral surveys were fairly unimportant, but the daimyo Yoshinobu pursued other types of information about the mining town. He needed to measure the kan of silver produced from the mine, tally the tax revenue produced by various levies on the townspeople, and count the population. He selected his trusted retainer, Umezu Masakage, to take charge of these tasks. Along with his older brother Noritada, Masakage had begun his career as a lowly masterless samurai. When the highly educated and cultivated Noritada gained a position as Yoshinobu's tea server, Masakage joined him in the daimyo's service. He cemented his place as one of the lord's closest advisers by assassinating a treasonous domain elder (karo), and eventually he distinguished himself as an able administrator with a certain amount of technical expertise in the area of mining. When the daimyo appointed him to the post of mine magistrate in 1612, he could be certain that he had chosen a man who would govern with brutal efficiency.

Masakage lived up to his lord's expectations. Realizing that Innai's primary function was to provide income for the domain, he dedicated himself to ensuring that the business of silver mining functioned smoothly. His style of administration reflected this priority: he wielded violence to punish thieves and extort tax payments, but he did not bother to issue many ordinances about where the townspeople could live and what they could wear. Economic productivity concerned him far more than any abstract idea of order. In contrast, officials in political centers—Edo first and foremost among them—focused on their jurisdictions' military preparedness, which depended on a high degree of social organization. Their cities housed thousands of samurai, who needed to be fed, clothed, and disciplined. In order to prevent violent infighting and ensure adequate provisioning of these standing armies, castle town administrators worked to construct and secure a hierarchical order that could withstand challenges from unruly warriors and townspeople. Meanwhile, Masakage was free to make his judgments on a case-by-case basis, never losing sight of his ultimate goal: extracting revenue.

This did not mean that Innai was an outlier, or that Masakage's methods were atypical of his time. Although the early seventeenth century is often regarded as the age of the castle town in Japan, it was also an age of mines. In fact, the two types of settlement were inextricably connected, since mines produced revenue that supported the erection of castles and the building of barracks: unprecedented construction depended on unprecedented resource extraction. In Akita domain, Kubota's ability to function as the domain's capital depended on economic support from Innai, just as Innai's ability to function as a mine depended on administrative support from Kubota. In that sense, both cities—the remarkably orderly castle town and the unusually chaotic mining town—were equally representative (and unrepresentative) of their historical moment. They existed on opposite ends of a spectrum of approaches to urban administration, in which officials weighted their priorities either toward ensuring social stability or guaranteeing economic productivity.


Excerpted from Selling Women by Amy Stanley. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Foreword, Matthew H. Sommer
A Note on Currency and Prices

Part One: Regulation and the Logic of the Household
1. Adulterous Prostitutes, Pawned Wives, and Purchased Women: Female Bodies as Currency
2. Creating “Prostitutes”: Benevolence, Profit, and the Construction of a Gendered Order
3. Negotiating the Gendered Order: Prostitutes as Daughters, Wives, and Mothers

Part Two: Expansion and the Logic of the Market
4. From Household to Market: Child Sellers, “Widows,” and Other Shameless People
5. Glittering Hair Ornaments and Barren Fields: Prostitution and the Crisis of the Countryside
6. Tora and the “Rules of the Pleasure Quarter”



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