The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan
Cecilia Segawa Seigle
There are a few accessible books out there about Edo’s licensed pleasure quarters, the Yoshiwara. But many are out of date or include weird biases specific to the times they were written1. When it comes to something as rarified yet celebrated as this subject, I think only academic books can do it justice. Having read a few other things by Cecilia Segawa Seigle, I’m embarrassed to say I’ve just gotten around to reading 1993’s Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan, which is by most accounts the book on the topic in English. It’s an academic text, and as such, it’s gonna set you back about 60 bucks. That’s probably why I put off buying it for so long, TBH.
|What I Expected||What I Got|
|Overall Impression||A well-researched book on the life of women who lived and worked in Edo’s pleasure quarters.||A well-researched book on the culture and social history of Edo’s pleasure quarters, not only the women.|
|Type of Book||Academic||Academic|
|Readability||I imagine it’s written in fairly plain and accessible language.||It’s not a page turner, but it’s an easy read. Seigle uses endnotes instead of footnotes which is pretty annoying, but not uncommon in scholarly books.|
|Bias||I’m familiar with Seigle’s work, so I assume she won’t get preachy about the status of women in the Edo Period.||Unbiased. The author addresses this immediately in the preface. The book is neither a survey of prostitution in Japan nor a critique of Edo Period mores.|
|Audience||I’m familiar with the author’s work, so I think this is written for academically-minded folks, but not limited to specialists.||Clearly written for academically-minded folks, but definitely not limited to specialists.|
Highly Regarded for a Reason
As I said before, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan is the go-to book (in English) on the subject of the Yoshiwara – and for good reason. I was only a page or two deep into the preface when I learned that some everyday, modern terms like フる furu to dump someone and 指切拳万 yubikiri genman “pinky swearing” both originated in Edo’s “floating world” of Yoshiwara2. Another thing that was fascinating to learn right off the bat was that in the early years, many high-born women (ie: ladies of samurai pedigree) worked in the original pleasure quarters. This is where the Yoshiwara’s tradition of refinement and elegance arose. Sure, cheap prostitutes worked there too, but the rarified world of the elite courtesans always hearkened back to a noble foundation myth.
Vignettes in Context
Seigle includes plenty of anecdotes from her sources that illustrate various aspects of the Yoshiwara’s social history.
Clients didn’t just pay for sex. They were paying for the privilege and experience of participating in elaborate and stylish pseudo-courtship rituals – paying a premium, at that! You had to spring for a new haircut, maybe brand-new clothes for your visits, food and drinks for you and your entourage, musicians and dancers (and their food and drinks), tips for all workers at the establishment, tips for the entertainers, tips for your courtesan and her staff, etc. And yeah, eventually, you have to pay for her services too3. Hilariously, Seigle tells how customers would rent horses (white being the most expensive) to make a grand approach to Yoshiwara’s Great Gate in dignified style. Another expense might be hiring palanquins, and encouraging coolies (with extravagant tips, of course) to outrun other palanquins en route to the pleasure quarters4.
The rivalries between courtesans are also fascinating. Some of them fought over prestige. For example, who had the best kimono at big, yearly events or who was more famous in the regular “who’s who” publications. But many girls also fought over customers5. These rivalries weren’t just spoiled sex workers being catty with each other – it was often a matter of survival. The girls relied on regular customers to pay off their “employment” contracts. In fact, on monbi, movable or fixed holidays, and neighborhood festivals, proprietors doubled prices and they demanded the girls secure their own bookings on that day (or else pay their inflated day rates themselves!).
Change Over Time
One thing Seigle does really well in the book is detail the cultural and social changes of the Yoshiwara over time. I’m not just referring to Moto-Yoshiwara (Old Yoshiwara) and Shin-Yoshiwara (New Yoshiwara), but the attitudes and the expectations of those who lived, worked, and played in the pleasure quarters. This covers how the clientele changed, some of the trends that came and went, but also how business changed over 250 years. In fact, the author does an excellent job illustrating the time when tayū ruled the Yoshiwara, then oiran, and finally geisha6.
The book ends at the beginning of the Meiji Period when the Yoshiwara was “liberated” by the Japanese Imperial Government. However, in the closing years of Tokugawa rule, the pleasure quarters seem to have been at the first of many low points. In the preface, Seigle alludes to the horrible state of decline leading up to its abolition in 1958, but the book effectively ends in 1881 when the neighborhood tore down the old wooden Great Gate and replaced it with a crappy iron gate to the tune of ¥5007.
The final section of the book is a series of appendices that are super useful to me personally. I love charts and lists of data that I can keep handy for future reference. This book has two doozies. First, there’s the formation of a typical 21-person procession and figures describing the three characteristic “figure-eight” walks used by oiran in those parades. This means, you can totally recreate an oiran dōchū with your friends. And second, there’s a list of courtesan ranks, their duties, and prices. This is really useful if you want to recreate the Yoshiwara with your kinky friends who are into that sort of roleplay8.
Longtime readers know I have some standard pet peeves.
First, this book has endnotes – a lot of endnotes. And just so everyone knows, I despise endnotes. Look, just put footnotes at the bottom of the page so we don’t have to use two bookmarks and keep flipping back and forth to the end of the book. The lack of footnotes and the abundance of endnotes drove me freakin’ nuts while reading this. Seriously. Publishers, listen to me carefully: Footnotes good. Endnotes bad.
Also, Seigle decided to use the traditional Japanese lunar calendar for all dates prior to 1872. Why??? Seriously. There’s no need for this kind of laziness. Just convert those dates into the modern calendar that we all know and love today. Don’t leave the head calculations up to the reader. We just want to read the book; not stop every time you cite a date like “the 15th day of the 6th month of Tenmei” to try and figure out exactly when that would have actually been in the modern calendar. Using Era Names is fine (honestly, it’s really helpful), but including the actual year and the adjusted day/month is so much more useful to readers. It’s also more consistent, especially if you’re going to use “normal years” after 1872 anyways…
Finally, even though many Japanese terms come up in the book, there are no Japanese characters anywhere in the text. Loads of words and phrases are obsolete or specific to Yoshiwara culture. Because of this, looking up certain terms in dictionaries is a little time consuming if there are modern homophones, or some dictionaries don’t have those words because… well, nobody uses them anymore. That said, it would be nice if they included Japanese terms, you know, in Japanese so those of us with an interest don’t have to waste time looking things up.
Apart from a few editorial gripes here and there, Yoshiwara: The Glittering Life of the Japanese Courtesan is a first-rate book. Yes, it’s pricey, but trust me when I say this is so much better than any non-academic books on the subject.
Like everything by Cecilia Segawa Seigle, this is an accessible read with plenty of vignettes of real people who lived and partied in the Yoshiwara. It presents the “floating world” as celebrated in the culture of its time, but doesn’t shy away from the darker realities of the pleasure quarters9. And when it comes to the seedy underbelly of the Yoshiwara, the author doesn’t get preachy about prostitution or judgy about the morality or immorality of this aspect of Japanese history. There’s definitely a time and place for that, but Seigle stays laser-focused on the findings of her research creating an accessible classic on the historical Yoshiwara in its own context. I highly recommend.
For example, I have one book from the 1920s which constantly refers to the courtesans as whores and harlots. Another, from the 1970s, was written at the height of the sexual revolution and paints the women of Yoshiwara as sexually-empowered libertines.↩︎
The author points out that a black market for human fingernails and pinkies sprung up due to demand from courtesans who needed to send pinkies as a testament of their “love” for a regular client.↩︎
According to Seigle, a man’s first trip to a Yoshiwara tea house (just to be introduced to a courtesan and her employer) would cost $3000 in tips alone. Let’s assume, he couldn’t play with the courtesan alone until his 3rd or 4th visit. We could very well be looking at $10,000 to bang a tayū.↩︎
Even today, sex workers in Japan fight over regular customers. Actually, I think this is true in any service industry work that requires a bit of salesmanship and/or pays commission and/or earns tips.↩︎
If my calculations are correct, that’s about $6300 today.↩︎
Yeah, I know you Japanese history nerds are perverts for historical accuracy.↩︎
Suicides, crucifixions, punishments, pre-modern abortions, STDs, misogyny, slavery, etc. You name it. This book’s got it all!↩︎