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  • Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan by Amy Stanley
  • Laura Nenzi
Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan by Amy Stanley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. Pp. xxii + 256. $49.95.

As a topic, prostitution in early modern Japan has the potential to trigger a number of different expectations on the part of the reader, so let us begin by saying what Selling Women is not. It is not a study of actual practices inside the pleasure quarters, nor is it a behind-the-scenes snapshot of daily life in the teahouses and the brothels. It is not a work concerned exclusively with the aesthetics of the courtesans or with the place of the pleasure quarters in Tokugawa art and literature. Lastly, it is not a study of male prostitution in early modern Japan (Stanley offers compelling reasons for this exclusion on pp. 15-16). Now on to what Selling Women actually is: an extensively researched, meticulously organized, and well-argued study that uses prostitution as an access point to reevaluate the function of the household, the impact of the market economy, and the role and place of women in the Tokugawa period. The debate on the issue of "selling women" and of their place in the Tokugawa order involved shogunal officials, regional administrators, peasant elites, brothel keepers, families, and, to the limited extent to which we can retrieve their voices, the women themselves. Because much more than sex was at stake, the debate was contentious and prolonged: the book opens with a case study from the early 1600s and [End Page 207] wraps up with the nineteenth century (with a brief look at the Meiji era in the conclusion).

In following its contours, Stanley uses the discourse on prostitution to turn two longstanding notions about Tokugawa culture and society upside down. Her targets are, first, the characterization of the Tokugawa order as "unambiguously negative" (p. 43) for women; and, second, the notion that the culture of play engendered by the nineteenth-century emergence of the market economy gave commoners a way of challenging and escaping "an oppressive social and political order" (p. 11). Stanley does not attempt thoroughly to discredit these interpretations but, rather, uses the case of the sex trade to infuse them with important nuances.

In the first part of the book, Chapters 1 through 3, Stanley questions the characterization of Tokugawa policies as universally detrimental to women. If we look at the case of the sex trade, she argues, the opposite was surprisingly true: early Tokugawa laws replaced anarchy with order, and unrestrained exploitation with regulations. Consider Kokane, whose husband hired her out as a prostitute in the early seventeenth century in Akita domain. Kokane exemplifies how difficult it was in the early Tokugawa period to tell "a woman from a possession, a wife from a prostitute, or marriage from human trafficking" (p. 29). Pawned, sold, and purchased on a regular basis, women were just another asset to liquidate when the financial need arose. Although they occasionally resisted such characterization by appealing to the authorities or running away, rarely was the outcome in their favor. Magistrates like Umezu Masakage, who presided over Kokane's case, strove to protect their jurisdictions' economic well-being; what we may call "moral considerations" or concerns for the "exploitation" of women were not part of their vocabulary, much less of their world view. The lack of a clear line of demarcation between wife and prostitute did not affect just a few isolated individuals but created a dangerous ideological terrain where all women were vulnerable. By precisely defining the distinction between a wife and a prostitute and by designating separate social and physical spaces for each category—the household (ie) for the former, the pleasure quarter for the latter—the Tokugawa legal system, starting in the second decade of the seventeenth century, strove to eliminate ambiguities, thereby creating "a source of security" (p. 10) for (most) women. [End Page 208]

Insofar as wives and daughters stayed home while prostitutes worked in the legally designated pleasure quarters, social order was upheld and the local economies prospered. Unfortunately, the ideals were subverted...


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