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  • The Unprecedented Views of Wada Yoshiko:Reconfiguring Pleasure Work in Yūjo monogatari (1913)
  • Ann Marie L. Davis (bio)

One mid-winter morning in 1913, some six months after the death of the Meiji Emperor on July 30, 1912, newspapers across Japan announced that “an unprecedented manuscript” had arrived in bookstores everywhere. The book, Yūjo monogatari: kukai 4nen no jikken kokuhaku (A prostitute’s tale: Experimental confessions of a four-year abyss), was a detailed memoir written by Wada Yoshiko, a sex worker from one of Tokyo’s largest pleasure quarters in the district of Naitō-Shinjuku.1 Newspapers nationwide publicized the book with overwhelmingly positive ads and reviews. Leading the way was Tokyo’s best-selling journal, the Hōchi Shimbun, which carried a front-page advertisement heralding Wada’s tale as an extraordinary yet reliable behind-the-scenes narrative by a prostitute.2 News about her book traveled far and wide, resulting in a long procession of visitors to her brothel in the ensuing weeks. As Wada observed in her sequel, the Yūjo monogatari, zoku-hen: kukai 4nen no kinen (A prostitute’s tale, part II: Commemorating a four-year abyss), journalists lined up to interview her, patrons came to congratulate her, and aspiring customers came to set eyes upon her.3

Wada’s books open a unique window onto the lived experiences of a licensed sex worker in the heart of early twentieth-century Tokyo. Although readers do not learn all her true thoughts or feelings, her books do contain her personal observations and experiences, and also reveal the consequences of the choices she made in conveying her story to the public. Moreover, the success of her two volumes provides rare insights into the changing figure of the prostitute in Japanese print culture. The media fanfare over [End Page 79] her memoirs indicated a new kind of knowledge formation about pleasure work, fueled by consumer demands for previously undisclosed information. Critical praise for Wada’s books focused on the new realities that she divulged about a prostitute’s personal sentiments and encounters. Given the demand for this privileged information, Wada’s books suggested a new role for prostitutes as potential authority figures uniquely qualified to convey authentic, and thus valuable, information.

While Wada’s identity as a reliable author marked a significant departure from past representations of the pleasure worker, the success of her writing drew on a range of historical narratives that treated prostitutes as significant objects of observation and study. In what follows, I situate Yūjo monogatari as a top-selling media phenomenon in the early twentieth century vis-à-vis a long lineage of historic images that range from the “amorous courtesan” of the Edo period (1600–1868) to the “contagious sex worker” of the Meiji period (1868–1912). I argue that Wada invoked such themes and tropes, widely available in popular print culture, to build a new consciousness about seeing and knowing the prostitute. In replicating historic modes of viewing the prostitute, Wada thus carved out a new role for modern sex workers as legitimate agents of new and useful knowledge.

Defining Assumptions: Pleasure Work and the Production of Knowledge

Before considering Wada’s books directly, this section expands on some of the assumptions and theories upon which my analysis builds its claims. First, I use the term “pleasure work” deliberately, to limit the topic of prostitution to the history of Japanese licensed pleasure quarters. The reason for limiting this study to the licensed district is simply that Wada herself did so; in invoking the past, Wada’s writing often referenced earlier texts that celebrated routines and rituals that took place within the boundaries of the licensed world. Conversely, the term “pleasure work” also allows for a more expansive discussion of the broad range of meanings that have been connected to the labor of Edo- and Meiji-period prostitutes, or “women of play” (yūjo). As Wada demonstrates, licensed prostitution was not confined to selling sex but also involved performance: companionship, romance, and artistry were all important elements of the professional repertoire of the pleasure worker. Moreover, from the late Edo period on, licensed work came to include submitting to regular...