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Reviewed by:
  • Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan by Amy Stanley
  • Bettina Gramlich-Oka (bio)
Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan. By Amy Stanley. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2012. xxii, 256 pages. $52.95, cloth; $52.95, E-book.

During the Tokugawa period (1600–1868) in the three big cities (Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka, and some others as well), prostitution became an officially licensed business, and it was prohibited to sell sex outside these licensed quarters. Yet as officials accommodated inroads and ignored loopholes, the expansion of the sex industry and many other morally objectionable trades such as the theater led the early nineteenth-century critic Buyō Inshi to lament that the benevolent and upright regulations by the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu are ignored because “‘restricted areas’ and ‘secret prostitution’ have become only empty words, and houses of prostitution operate openly.”1 This clash of the market economy with the sociopolitical order observed by Buyō is the focus of the well-written book under review.

Amy Stanley’s book provides a detailed and informed introduction to recent scholarship on the topic of prostitution. Stanley’s own vital contribution [End Page 387] to this literature is her substantiation and reaffirmation of how prostitution has been and still is embedded in dynamic socioeconomic contexts. Her focus is on the market, the act of “selling women,” and thus she deals less with sexuality and the body, aspects closely linked to academic discussions on prostitution, but takes up female sex work as a service industry that has different forms and developments contingent on the specific needs of the location throughout the Tokugawa period. With this approach, Stanley provides a clear and well-defined analytical framework that facilitates a move away from contemporary cultural presumptions that may otherwise blur the understanding of prostitution in the Tokugawa period. In other words, Stanley does not investigate matters of what is wrong or right with prostitution, but instead explores the “logic” surrounding female sex work as it was argued by people of various social statuses who participated in the changing economy of this period.

Stanley’s discussion is based on her postulation that the new Tokugawa rule in the beginning of the seventeenth century transformed the household from having “no stable legal or social meaning” (p. 47) into a clearly de-fined unit within the “gendered order of the status system” (p. 51). In order to ensure state power and control over a household’s place in this gendered order, human trafficking was made illegal. With new laws, the authorities, and “not the individual patriarch, would determine whether a woman was eligible to be sold or rented out for sex” (p. 9), at least ideally. On this ground, Stanley divides her book into two main sections that uncover the contradictions of those political ideals and social realities. Her description takes up cases of women being sold in various spatial and temporal settings, and provides solid context and background information along with explanations of how these cases are connected.

In the book’s first part, “Regulation and the Logic of the Household,” the contentions in the seventeenth century to this new social order are explored. The silver mines in the town of Innai in the Akita domain, which were at the time under direct shogunal control, serve as the entry point into the changing social and legal world of the early Tokugawa period coming out of the long decentralized Warring States era. Stanley’s analysis in chapter 1 of the diary of Umezu Masakage (1581–1633), who held the position of mine magistrate from 1612 until his death in this young and predominantly male mining town, demonstrates a vision belonging to a former age, when household members were possessions of the household head.

The next two chapters explain the new order as encountered in the shogunal cities of Edo and Nagasaki. Chapter 2 deals with Edo and the reshaping of the sex trade into licensed quarters. Here we come across documents from magistrates and brothel keepers as discussed in recent Japanese scholar ship. The brothel keepers, we learn, were eager to “eliminate competition and to justify the legality...


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pp. 387-390
Launched on MUSE
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