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  • Selling Women. Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan by Amy Stanley
  • Constantine N. Vaporis
Selling Women. Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan. By Amy Stanley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, xxii plus 256 pp.).

This is an engaging study that takes the reader on a journey across time and space in Japan during the early modern, or Tokugawa, period (1600–1868). It presents compelling micro-histories of individual women and weaves them into a provocative narrative that compels us to rethink basic categories and concepts such as marriage and prostitution. In doing so it reminds us of the necessity of questioning our cultural assumptions as we consider social patterns in different locales across the globe.

The book is divided into two major parts, both of which present change over space, with each chapter situated in a different geographic area; taken together, they also present change over time, from the early seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. Part one, “Regulation and the Logic of the Household,” covers roughly the first half of the Tokugawa period, and consists of three chapters that move from the northern mining town of Inai Ginzan in Akita domain; to the capital city of Edo, which was located on the Pacific coast in the central part of the main island of Honshu; and to the southern city of Nagasaki, the only port in Japan that was open to foreigners for most of the period. Running through these three chapters, Stanley’s main argument is that the system of regulation pieced together by the Tokugawa’s military government, or shogunate, was responsible for the transformation of women’s status from the exclusive property of the household head, which was the norm during the more than century long period of civil unrest prior to the Tokugawa period, to female subjects of the state. As such women, even prostitutes, gained important protections from their com-modification and abuse by men. Prostitution, through a confluence of business and government interests, became segregated in special enclaves, known as “pleasure quarters,” most famously in the Yoshiwara of Edo, and clear legal distinctions made between prostitutes and wives. Accordingly, a household head could indenture his daughter into prostitution, but not his wife. Within the Tokugawa legal [End Page 458] framework prostitutes could claim the protection of a benevolent and paternalistic state; and married women gained protection from being forced into prostitution. The author argues convincingly that prostitution was largely devoid of the stigma often associated with it in other parts of the globe, as the prevailing discourse of the time was to define the practice as a temporary activity to support indigent parents. The lack of stigma was no doubt a reflection of the widespread general acceptance of premarital sex among commoners.

In Part two, “Expansion and the Logic of the Market,” we witness the changing geography of the sex trade during the late Tokugawa period, as the author takes us from the major cities and the licensed quarters in them that were the focus of Part one to the post stations that lined the government-run highway network, to provincial towns, pilgrimage centers, and to the ports situated along sea transport routes. During this time a mass market for the sex trade developed in these new spaces as the commercial economy expanded and a culture of travel flourished, drawing in not only pilgrims but also rural youths to work for wages or as part of corvee service at post stations. The sex trade could not be contained within licensed quarters and the regulatory system set up for it collapsed. In fact, officials at all levels sought to profit from the growing sex trade through increased tax revenues and the general economic stimulus that it provided. While some have emphasized the liberating effects of the commercializing economy in undermining the rigid status order of the seventeenth century and creating a “culture of play,” other scholarship (particularly though not exclusively work by scholars influenced by Marxist ideology) has focused on its destructive capacity. Here, Amy Stanley argues that a focus on prostitution reveals the pernicious effects of the market on women, as the promotion of prosperity...


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pp. 458-460
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