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Reviewed by:
  • Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan by Amy Stanley
  • David Eason
Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan. By Amy Stanley. University of California Press, 2012. 282pages. Hardcover $52.95/£36.95.

In 1806, a resident of the castle town of Hamada in Iwami province petitioned that his older sister Kinu be removed from their family registry due to her disappearance together with a man named Tokubei. Yet nearly eight years later, both of them suddenly returned. Asked about their unexplained absence, Kinu related that Tokubei had initially convinced her to accompany him to Osaka with the promise they would marry. In her testimony (kōjō-oboe), which was submitted to domain officials within a few weeks of her return, Kinu provided a detailed account of the many events that had transpired thereafter.1

To begin with, upon arriving at Tokubei’s residence, Kinu quickly discovered that he was already married. After a short stay in separate lodgings, she was sold for five ryō to work at an establishment in the city’s licensed quarters (yūsho). Almost six months later, Tokubei again visited Kinu, this time to take her to a Kyoto middleman through whom he had arranged for her sale to an interested party in Edo. Because the move required Kinu’s endorsement (tsume-in) and she expressed strong reservations about making the journey alone, Tokubei agreed to escort her. Even so, his role as chaperone lasted only as far as their entrance into Edo’s Yoshiwara district, at which point Tokubei furtively negotiated Kinu’s sale to a local brothel owner and promptly absconded with a profit of thirty ryō. Left with no other choice (itashikata kore naku), Kinu continued to work as a prostitute (yujō) until, later that same year, her contract was bought out by a man from Kawagoe with whom she then cohabited for the next seven years.

Following the man’s death, Kinu grew lonely (kokorobosoku zonjitatematsuru) and longed to see her mother back in Hamada. She therefore sought out the assistance of relatives living in Edo and through their intervention acquired permission to join the entourage of a warrior from her native domain who was just then departing for home. Travel proceeded smoothly until the group passed through Osaka, where Kinu parted ways with these companions and an old associate cajoled her into meeting with Tokubei once more. Despite avowing to have learned her lesson (tegori) from the events of recent years, Kinu nevertheless consented to speak with Tokubei and even accepted his offer to schedule and pay for the remainder of her trip. That night, however, while feigning sleep (sorane iri), Kinu chanced to overhear a conversation between Tokubei and his wife in which they discussed plans to sell her into service in one of the many port towns that dotted the Honshu and Shikoku coastlines of the [End Page 278] Seto Inland Sea. A few days later Kinu attempted to escape, but she was soon caught by Tokubei and beaten severely. Undeterred, Kinu apologized repeatedly (iroiro wabi-goto itasu) and pleaded for permission to visit her family, if only briefly. Tokubei ultimately relented and brought Kinu back to Hamada on the fourteenth day of the tenth month of 1813.

This is a rich and perplexing record on any number of levels. But why share a summarized version here, given that the account is nowhere taken up in the book under review? I do so in order to help illustrate the scope of Amy Stanley’s achievement. Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan is a masterful work, and one, moreover, that I was fortunate enough to read just days after having first encountered this record of Kinu’s testimony. Neither a familiarity with Edo-period texts nor many years’ worth of experience teaching women’s history courses had prevented me from being thoroughly baffled by various aspects of her account. How was it that a marriage proposal had led to terms of service in the licensed quarters of Osaka and then Edo, and what of the apparent ease with which she was transferred from one...


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