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Reviewed by:
  • Imagining Prostitution in Modern Japan, 1850–1913 by Ann Marie L. Davis
  • Caroline Norma RMIT
Imagining Prostitution in Modern Japan, 1850–1913. By Ann Marie L. Davis (Lanham, Lexington Books, 2019) 237 pp. $95.00

Davis’ book fits seamlessly and snugly into a body of scholarship describing prostitution in modern history. She writes specifically about prostitution in the second half of the nineteenth century, but Imagining Prostitution in Modern Japan aligns with a cluster of books in English, such as those about Japan by Mihalopoulos and Stanley, and those about other countries by Walkowitz, Hershatter, and Levine.1 Their similarity arises less from shared subject matter than an epistemological perspective that is reflected in Davis’ stated aim of tracing “the symbol of the prostitute as a project of nation and empire building,” and thus “untangle how ideas about pleasure work intersected with Japan’s transformation into a civilized and modern nation” (6). In other words, although it might be its topic, prostitution is not ultimately the unit of analysis of the historical scholarship into which Davis’ book snugly fits.

Prostitution (or “sex work,” “pleasure work,” “pleasure and play,” and “pleasure industry” in Davis’ words) symbolizes, represents, or metaphorically reveals broader (and presumably more important) political and social changes underway in a historical era. According to the scholarship into which Davis’ book fits, prostitution is an analytical vehicle that facilitates comprehension of macro-level historical developments.

This understanding is achieved not through assessing politico- economic factors like sex-industry profits or dead women but through analysis of circulating “discourses.” Davis analyzes four forms of public discussion about prostitution that emerged from 1850 to 1913, including artistic representations of the “Yokohama pleasure zone” (Chapter 2), venereal-disease statistics for licensed districts released from the 1880s onward (Chapter 3), abolitionist writings (Chapter 4), and two memoirs written in the 1910s by a prostitution survivor (Chapter 5). Examining these materials, Davis concludes that prostitution in Japan’s modern history functioned as a means of “inspiring cooperation and trust with foreigners,” and “the figure of the prostitute also fostered a sense of progress and transformation” (204). She therefore finds positive outcomes arising from the sex trade in women and children in Japanese history, even while reflecting in her final page that “meanings that we continue to attribute to the prostitute will likely reveal more about our societies, our purposes, and our agendas than they do about the women . . . they purport to represent” (210).

As self-serving as this approach may seem, it is shared in some Japanese-language histories—for example, that of Fujime.2 But more [End Page 180] common in Japan are historians who are epistemologically opposed in their alternative understanding of the sex trade as directly shaping important (negative) aspects of Japanese society, like Fujino and Yoshimi, and even shaping the Japanese polity, like Shimoju.3 In their work, the prostitution of women does not symbolically reflect historical change but, conversely, drives it. Davis does not engage much with this work, understandably given its wholly different premise. She mentions only in passing the subject matter to which it devotes its entire focus—that is, the prostitution industry and its profiteers, exploiters, and customers, as well as its military and bureaucratic backers. This alternative view construes prostitution in Japanese history as having arranged the sexual enslavement of women and girls, which gave rise to political effects that continue to damage Japanese society today.

Two sets of literatures with such differing epistemological perspectives cannot exist in harmony, and their fatal contradiction arises when Davis broaches the topic of abolitionism in Japanese history. Groups and individuals attempting to dismantle the legalized prostitution industry in pre-war Japan are depicted in Chapter 4 as wholly self-serving, harboring hidden agendas not ultimately concerned with the manumission of women from sexual enslavement. Davis sees the anti-prostitution writings of these abolitionists as merely operating “as a technology of power that articulated and bolstered the social status of their new noble class” (130). Disparaging activists and intellectuals who campaigned against pimps and their customers in the late nineteenth century is a popular pursuit of historians writing in English—Biancani, for one. Hayashi’s monograph of 2017...


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pp. 180-181
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