This book traces the social history of early modern Japan’s sex trade, from its beginnings in seventeenth-century cities to its apotheosis in the nineteenth-century countryside. Drawing on legal codes, diaries, town registers, petitions, and criminal records, it describes how the work of “selling women” transformed communities across the archipelago. By focusing on the social implications of prostitutes’ economic behavior, this study offers a new understanding of how and why women who work in the sex trade are marginalized. It also demonstrates how the patriarchal order of the early modern state was undermined by the emergence of the market economy, which changed the places of women in their households and the realm at large.
Selling Women Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan
Adulterous Prostitutes, Pawned Wives, and Purchased Women
Female Bodies as Currency
Kokane ran away with a man named Sōdayū in 1614, leaving behind her husband and her home in the remote mining town of Innai Ginzan in Akita domain. She was taking her life in her hands. It was illegal for a married woman to leave town without her husband's permission, and it was also extremely dangerous. Although the major military engagements of the Sengoku, or Warring States, era had come to an end, this corner of the archipelago was far from peaceful. Even the newly appointed lord of the domain (daimyō), Satake Yoshinobu (1570-1633), a fearsome warrior in his own right, found it difficult to impose order. While he ensconced himself in the fortified castle town of Kubota, the area along the domain's southern border remained ungoverned. Bandits hid out in the mountains, ready to ambush those who dared to traverse their territory. For a woman, even one accompanied by a male companion, the journey over the steep and thickly forested terrain would have been perilous.
Kokane must have had a good reason for breaking the law and risking her life. The record of her disappearance offers an explanation for her reckless escape attempt: her husband, Tahei, had been hiring her out as a prostitute (keisei). There is very little information offered about her accomplice Sōdayū, who could have been her lover, a procurer who promised her a job in another city, or a guide she paid to lead her through the mountains. In any case, it made little difference to Akita domain officials. Regardless of the circumstances, the couple had committed a serious crime by absconding. Since the domain had a financial interest in retaining Innai's population of laborers, who extracted silver for the government's coffers, officials imposed the death penalty on those who left the mine without special permission. Some absconders were able to argue their way into more lenient punishments, but Sōdayū had compounded his offense by stealing another man's wife. Clearly, he deserved the harshest possible sanction.
Because Sōdayū's crime was so straightforward (and so egregious), domain officials knew exactly what to do with him when they apprehended the couple in the mountains east of the mine: they beheaded him on the spot. But they could not reach an immediate decision in Kokane's case, which was unprecedented in Akita domain's short history. What was the appropriate punishment for a married prostitute who ran away with another man? At a loss, they gave her Sōdayū's head and sent her back to the settlement at Innai.
The decision about Kokane's fate was left to the domain's general mine magistrate (sō yama bugyō), Umezu Masakage (1581-1633). In a terse account of his deliberations, sketched out in a few sentences in his diary, he stated that Kokane deserved the same punishment as Sōdayū. But then he seemed to reconsider. In the next line, he mentioned that her husband, Tahei, had invested a large sum of money in her. By juxtaposing these concerns, he suggested the contours of his dilemma: he could not execute Kokane without unfairly depriving her husband of his property, but he could not pardon a married woman who had absconded with another man. Because she was simultaneously a wife and a prostitute, a person and a possession, the magistrate puzzled over the correct response to her transgression. Stolen property would be returned, but an adulteress, particularly one who had compounded her crime by absconding, might deserve to be executed.
While he struggled with the implications of Kokane's multiple identities, Masakage never condemned Tahei for sending his wife out to work as a prostitute. In Kokane's situation, the categories of "wife" and "prostitute" had come into conflict, but only because she had absconded without her husband's permission and forced the magistrate to make a decision about her punishment. The idea that the roles of "wife" and "prostitute" were inherently contradictory, that a woman whose sexual body was available to multiple men belonged in a fundamentally different category from a woman whose sexual body was available only to her husband, did not enter into his deliberations. From Masakage's perspective, his task was not to disaggregate two mutually exclusive categories of women, but to decide on a penalty that was appropriate for someone who belonged within both at once.
In the end, Masakage ordered an unusual, and rather spectacular, punishment: he forced Kokane to parade around the mine holding Sōdayū's head. Apparently, the magistrate believed that the sight of a woman carrying a severed head (which was by then a few days old) would serve as a disincentive to others who might be tempted to commit similar crimes. After she had completed this humiliating task, he returned her to Tahei. This compromise reconciled Masakage's desire to punish Kokane with his unwillingness to deprive her husband of his property. Yet it did nothing to settle the larger question about her legal status. She remained both a wife and a prostitute.
An Unsettled Age
Masakage's dilemma might have seemed irrelevant only a few decades earlier, before the Tokugawa peace had granted samurai administrators like him the luxury of considering the appropriate penalty for a married runaway prostitute. During the constant strife of the Sengoku era (1467-1568), warlords had considered themselves to be lawgivers, and they understood that the security of their domains depended on managing conflict within the ranks of fighting men. However, they were far more concerned with ensuring military preparedness than dictating the terms on which common people related to one another. As long as peasants continued to bring in the harvest and pay their taxes, they were usually permitted to fend for themselves. But in the late sixteenth century, the hegemon Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98) broke with precedent by pursuing a radically ambitious agenda of social reform. Through conquest as well as legislation, he worked to implement his vision of a realm that did not yet exist: a federation of peaceful domains in which warrior magistrates would administer a docile and productive population from their headquarters in castle towns. He forced samurai to abandon the countryside and compelled peasants to relinquish their weapons. By promulgating a series of edicts outlawing violent quarrels among commoners (kenka chōji rei), he signaled his intention to extend his rule to all levels of society, from the warriors guarding newly fortified castles to the peasants toiling in carefully surveyed fields.
Hideyoshi died before his vision could be fully realized. But his successors, the Tokugawa shoguns, presided over an initially tenuous and ultimately lasting peace, which gave them the opportunity to extend his project of creating order out of wartime chaos. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) and his heirs worked to bolster their authority through a series of policies meant to stabilize and control both the samurai and commoner populations. This task was complicated because the shogunal household directly administered less than a third of the territory in the Japanese archipelago; the rest was parceled out among over two hundred and fifty daimyō. Hideyoshi had allowed them to remain largely autonomous as long as they recognized his preeminence, and the early Tokugawa shoguns elected to continue this strategy. They relocated certain domainal lords whom they considered untrustworthy, but they permitted the daimyō to collect and retain their own tax revenue and to promulgate and enforce their own laws (within certain limits). However, the Tokugawa imposed a strict requirement during the reign of the third shogun, Iemitsu (1604-51): daimyō were obliged to leave their wives and heirs as hostages in Edo and to spend one out of every two years there attending on the shogun. This policy of "alternate attendance" (sankin kōtai) ultimately acted as a form of taxation, straining the daimyō's finances and siphoning money into the new capital.
Early Tokugawa policies also imposed obligations on ordinary people. In the first decades of the seventeenth century, the shogunate formalized a system of organizing society in which each household was assigned a status (mibun) and placed within a social unit, which John Hall memorably called a "container." These containers-households (ie) of samurai or nobles, villages (mura) of peasants, city wards (chō) of townsmen, sects (shū) of Buddhist clergy, and so on-had originated in self-governing communities that took shape amid the violence and uncertainty of the Sengoku period. They were given legal force by the Tokugawa shogunate, which assigned each a distinct responsibility to the state. A household's position in one of these containers determined its place of residence along with its tax burden and corvée labor obligations, and it also established its members' legal standing relative to those who belonged in other containers-a samurai, for example, was considered superior to a peasant, who ranked higher than an outcast. Ideally, every household was headed by a man, and his dependents would take on his status designation.
Eventually, the effects of this project of social reform were felt in villages, port cities, and castle towns all over Japan. But this process took time, and in the first decades of the new era, the status system had not yet been institutionalized across the archipelago. Demarcations of status had no bearing on social life in Innai, where the major divisions were not between samurai, peasants, and townspeople, but between the wealthy prospectors (yamashi) who controlled mining operations and the masses of manual laborers and petty shopkeepers. This type of variation was typical of the unsettled early seventeenth century. Elsewhere along the Japan Sea coast, even Hideyoshi's land surveys were not implemented until the middle of the century, and historians have estimated that the iconic Tokugawa village took several decades to develop. Although Innai was isolated deep in the mountains, it was like many other places in that the social order was still quite fluid and administrators were just beginning to assess how best to pacify an unruly population.
According to legend, the settlement at Innai was founded when four masterless samurai (rōnin) who had fought on the losing side of the battle of Sekigahara discovered silver in the mountains of Akita and asked the daimyō for permission to begin mining. Eager to exploit this new source of revenue, in 1608, the domain appointed silver mine magistrates (ginzan bugyō) to oversee the unruly prospectors. Under their watch, the mine proved to be extraordinarily productive, yielding about five thousand kan of silver per year at its peak. The proceeds were forwarded to the castle town of Kubota, where they were used to finance Yoshinobu's fledgling administration.
As the mine grew, Innai's population increased dramatically, reaching seven or eight thousand in only a few years. A later account dismissed the immigrants to the mine as "lonely people who had suffered in the war and chaos of recent years, along with hicks and bumpkins who only yesterday were covered in mud." But in reality, the settlers were a much more diverse and sophisticated group. Skilled miners arrived from Chūgoku, where mining technology was the most advanced, and refiners and metalworkers streamed in from the great cities of Kansai, where the demand for their craft had been highest. Prosperous merchants and down-and-out samurai from all over the realm came as speculators, lured by the promise of easy money during the silver boom, and soon they were trailed by administrators eager to tax their discoveries. Only the unskilled laborers, the men who hauled rocks and dug holes, were local people. Aside from these workers, some of them farmers who worked in the mines during the agricultural off-season, very few of the newcomers arrived with their wives and families. They were unattached young men, just like those who built castle towns during the same period.
Demographically unstable, Innai also faced problems unique to its function and location. Mountain bandits often raided the mine and then fled over the border to Yamagata domain, where it was nearly impossible to apprehend them. Criminals from within the settlement also terrorized local residents, and samurai administrators resorted to violence to pacify their dominion. Herman Ooms's description of the Tokugawa state as a "regime of conquest" aptly characterizes the situation in Innai, where the powerful wielded weapons to mark and subjugate the populace. A mid-seventeenth-century chronicle of the town's history says of these tumultuous early years: "Day after day, the fights and arguments never ceased, and there was no respite from violent, injurious thefts and robberies. Officials carefully examined the harshness of fines, and they designated a place for beheadings, crucifixions, and burning people alive. They piled up mountains of skeletons, and red waves ran over the grasses and trees."
Once their supremacy was established, however tenuously, warriors sought to discover the productive capacity of their conquered lands. As Ooms has written, "power needed knowledge rather than the sword to carry on." Innai was not a rice-producing area, so cadastral surveys were fairly unimportant, but the daimyō Yoshinobu pursued other types of information about the mining town. He needed to measure the kan of silver produced from the mine, tally the tax revenue produced by various levies on the townspeople, and count the population. He selected his trusted retainer, Umezu Masakage, to take charge of these tasks. Along with his older brother Noritada, Masakage had begun his career as a lowly masterless samurai. When the highly educated and cultivated Noritada gained a position as Yoshinobu's tea server, Masakage joined him in the daimyō's service. He cemented his place as one of the lord's closest advisers by assassinating a treasonous domain elder (karō), and eventually he distinguished himself as an able administrator with a certain amount of technical expertise in the area of mining. When the daimyō appointed him to the post of mine magistrate in 1612, he could be certain that he had chosen a man who would govern with brutal efficiency.
Masakage lived up to his lord's expectations. Realizing that Innai's primary function was to provide income for the domain, he dedicated himself to ensuring that the business of silver mining functioned smoothly. His style of administration reflected this priority: he wielded violence to punish thieves and extort tax payments, but he did not bother to issue many ordinances about where the townspeople could live and what they could wear. Economic productivity concerned him far more than any abstract idea of order. In contrast, officials in political centers-Edo first and foremost among them-focused on their jurisdictions' military preparedness, which depended on a high degree of social organization. Their cities housed thousands of samurai, who needed to be fed, clothed, and disciplined. In order to prevent violent infighting and ensure adequate provisioning of these standing armies, castle town administrators worked to construct and secure a hierarchical order that could withstand challenges from unruly warriors and townspeople. Meanwhile, Masakage was free to make his judgments on a case-by-case basis, never losing sight of his ultimate goal: extracting revenue.
This did not mean that Innai was an outlier, or that Masakage's methods were atypical of his time. Although the early seventeenth century is often regarded as the age of the castle town in Japan, it was also an age of mines. In fact, the two types of settlement were inextricably connected, since mines produced revenue that supported the erection of castles and the building of barracks: unprecedented construction depended on unprecedented resource extraction. In Akita domain, Kubota's ability to function as the domain's capital depended on economic support from Innai, just as Innai's ability to function as a mine depended on administrative support from Kubota. In that sense, both cities-the remarkably orderly castle town and the unusually chaotic mining town-were equally representative (and unrepresentative) of their historical moment. They existed on opposite ends of a spectrum of approaches to urban administration, in which officials weighted their priorities either toward ensuring social stability or guaranteeing economic productivity.
In each type of place, this balance of priorities determined the type of records magistrates left behind. Those in castle towns left a legacy of exhortations, evidence of their drive to control and regulate urban spaces and the people who lived in them. As the next chapter will show, these edicts evoked the kind of society the shogunate wished to create, in which people belonged in "containers." Ultimately, this paradigm would prevail across the archipelago. But during his years in Akita domain's administration, Masakage produced a different kind of documentary record. He left behind a personal diary, in which he wrote of his daily struggles to collect taxes and settle violent disputes, and a register of crimes and punishments, in which he made note of the harsh penalties he imposed on men and women who disrupted the functioning of the mine. His writings had no coherent ideological agenda; they did not set out any grand principles for organizing society. Instead, they represented a series of practical responses to the difficulties of managing a conflict-ridden, violent, and deeply divided community.
From his appointment as mine magistrate in 1612 until his death in 1633, Masakage wrote about his deliberations on hundreds of cases involving men and women from all walks of life and all but two of Japan's sixty-eight provinces. Prominent merchants as well as itinerant laborers petitioned his office to solve problems ranging from petty theft to murder, or they were called before the magistrate after committing crimes or failing to pay their taxes. Dozens of these cases concerned women. Most were the objects of custody or property disputes between men, but some were apprehended as criminals and a few were petitioners themselves. By hearing their testimony and settling their suits, Masakage addressed the question of what, if anything, in the new era distinguished a woman from a possession, a wife from a prostitute, or marriage from human trafficking.
Wives for Sale and Daughters in Hock
Innai's robust traffic in wives, daughter, prostitutes, and maidservants was shaped by the Tokugawa peace, but it also had medieval precedents. In the centuries preceding the battle of Sekigahara, there had been little distinction between familial authority and ownership: a household's hereditary servants (fudai genin) could be purchased, sold, and deeded in wills. Occasionally, they were even used as pawns to settle blood disputes. When a member of a warrior's household committed murder, the victim's relatives often demanded revenge. In order to placate them, the perpetrator's family could respond by dispatching a hereditary servant as a surrogate (geshunin) whose life would be sacrificed in place of the murderer's. This strategy was costly, but it had the advantage of preventing a feud that could last for generations.
A household head's wives and children occupied a different social stratum from hereditary servants, but in certain situations they too were counted among a household's possessions. During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), women were permitted to inherit, possess, and amass property. They could keep their own lands separate from their husbands' holdings, and they exercised authority over their own hereditary servants. But the shogunate's law codes considered women's bodies to be part of their husbands' or fathers' estates, treating violent crimes against women as violations of their household heads' property rights. For example, a man who raped a married woman owed compensation not to her but to her husband; the logic was that the rapist had damaged another man's possession. For this reason, Hitomi Tonomura has described the Kamakura period as one in which women could "both have and be property."
In subsequent centuries, the development of a commercial sex trade contributed to the emergence of a wider market in female bodies. Janet Goodwin has shown that until the fourteenth century, there was no clear distinction between women who made a living selling sex and those who did not. In part, this was because the early medieval economy was in a state of transition: many types of services were still being exchanged for barter goods, and there was no meaningful difference between a gift from a lover and a payment from a client. Relatively permissive sexual norms added to the confusion. It was not unusual for women to have sex with several partners or to enter temporary relationships that entailed some degree of compensation. At the same time, professional providers of sexual services, asobi and kugutsu, were not easily categorized as prostitutes, because they were also highly trained entertainers. As was typical of the Kamakura period, asobi's labor arrangements did not distinguish between kinship and ownership. While many who entered the profession were the biological or adopted daughters of senior women, other so-called daughters were purchased outright.
By the late medieval period, however, patterns of work in the sex trade had changed. In 1500, lists of prostitutes referred to women who sold sex as their sole occupation, such as the "madame stander" (tachigimi) and the "madame person of a narrow alley" (zushigimi). These designations reflected the increasingly urban and commercial nature of the business. Sex had become a commodity sold to commoners in city streets and alleys, as well as to aristocrats stationed at court or traveling through the countryside. While groups of sexual entertainers had once been led by women overseeing "families" of "daughters," more and more prostitutes came under the control of male pimps, who confiscated their earnings. In urban areas, at least, there was an increasingly clear distinction between prostitutes, who offered sex to a variety of men in return for payment, and other women, who contributed sexual and domestic labor to their households.
But in other areas, the civil wars of the sixteenth century rendered such finely grained social distinctions meaningless. Girls and women from warrior families were torn from their households when conquerors seized their vanquished enemies' female relatives. Some were held as hostages and eventually ransomed, while others were taken as wives and concubines. Meanwhile, rampaging armies destroyed villages, creating a vulnerable population of war widows and dislocated peasants willing to sell their sons and daughters in return for food. In the midst of this chaos, European traders, who first arrived in Japan in the mid-sixteenth century, began purchasing Japanese slaves and transporting them overseas. In this international slave trade, as in domestic trafficking, sex and ownership were closely related. Officials at the Vatican professed their horror that Portuguese merchants were acquiring Japanese slave girls for sinful purposes.
Meanwhile, Japanese traffickers were conducting their own overseas trade. During Hideyoshi's two invasions of Korea in the 1590s, they bought or seized as many as 60,000 people and sent them to Japan as slaves. A Japanese Buddhist priest who witnessed the second Korean campaign described their work: "Among the many kinds of merchants who have come over from Japan are traders in human beings, who follow in the train of the troops and buy up men and women, young and old alike. Having tied these people together with ropes about the neck, they drive them along before them; those who can no longer walk are made to run with prods or blows of the stick from behind." The fate of these slaves is difficult to trace, but it is likely that many of the women were marketed as prostitutes or concubines.
Although Hideyoshi was indifferent to the plight of Korean slaves transported to Japan, he was alarmed at reports of Japanese peasants being sold and sent overseas. The spectacle of foreign traders in Kyushu hauling away men and women in chains made a mockery of the peace he was trying to establish, and the export of peasants imperiled his revenue stream by depriving the countryside of agricultural laborers. Domestic trafficking was also a problem, since it allowed rival daimyō to poach one another's workers. Moreover, the domestic and international trades were related: Portuguese argued that they could not prevent their merchants from buying slaves as long as Japanese traders were offering them for sale. Frustrated, Hideyoshi wrote to the Jesuit vice-provincial in 1587 complaining about the "Portuguese, Siamese, and Cambodians" who bought Japanese slaves. He demanded, rather quixotically, that all his countrymen be set free and returned to their homeland. Days later, he promulgated an ordinance forbidding both domestic trafficking and the sale and export of Japanese people.This was the first of many proclamations outlawing the practice of "buying and selling people" (jinshin baibai).
Despite these injunctions, the domestic traffic in people, particularly women, was still thriving during the fragile peace of the early seventeenth century. As men flooded into newly established cities and castle towns to work as warriors, artisans, or menial laborers, they created an intense demand for female bodies to serve their sexual needs. Traffickers seeking to supply this new market found that their activities were barely restricted. As long as the male productive population was not disrupted, daimyō were reluctant to penalize men who traded women among themselves. The resulting feminization of human trafficking left traces in the documentary record. Maki Hidemasa's examination of seventeenth-century slavery contracts reveals that almost all the slaves mentioned in these agreements were women. Meanwhile, Daniel Botsman points out that enslavement (yakkō or nuhikei) was a penalty reserved for female offenders until it was abolished in the mid-eighteenth century.
In Innai, human trafficking was also gendered female, although perhaps not as starkly as in other areas. Men as well as women worked in the mine as unfree menial laborers. Many were former peasants who had been forced off their land after defaulting on loans. Sometimes their labor arrangements resembled debt peonage, while in other cases they had been sold to prospectors or foremen (kanako) who employed them as porters (horiko) or miners (daiku). However, the mine magistrate's diary indicates that women were bought, sold, and traded more frequently than men. This pattern might have been attributable to the skewed sex ratio in the mining town-there were many male laborers, all of whom demanded women to serve their needs at various times-but it also reflected the magistrate's assumption that female bodies should circulate, while male workers stayed in place. Masakage procured women as part of his job: just as he traveled to markets to buy horses and hawks for the lord of the domain, he also went on errands to purchase "bought women" (baijo) to serve as maids in Kubota castle, securing a lifetime of their labor with a single payment. But Masakage never bought adult men, who were more valuable to the domain as miners, prospectors, and taxpayers. Masakage's conception of men as essential laborers was reflected in his survey of the mine's productive population: he counted adult men, but excluded women along with children, old people, and monks.
Masakage treated male heads of household as autonomous social actors, capable of fulfilling responsibilities to the domain, but he viewed their wives and children as assets that could be liquidated if the need arose. When townsmen defaulted on their taxes, he frequently commanded them to sell all their belongings-including family members as well as inanimate objects such as clothing and furniture-to compensate the domain. In one case, Masakage refused a petition for debt forgiveness, arguing that the townsmen involved would have enough money to pay their outstanding tax balances if they sold their wives and children. When debtors refused to liquidate their wives and children, Masakage seized them; in his estimation, the financial needs of the domain overrode the household head's authority to make decisions about the fate of his dependents. In 1612, Masakage recorded that the master of an establishment called the Kyō-no-shio-ya owed several kan in outstanding taxes. Like many men in Innai, Kyō-no-shio-ya had multiple business interests: in addition to working as a prospector in charge of a mineshaft, he was also running a brothel. But he had fallen on hard times, so he left the mine and returned to his birthplace of Kyoto, ostensibly to raise money to pay his debt. Masakage predicted that he would never be able to compel the prospector to return, so he drew up a list of his assets and decided to hold his residence, his wife and child, and his five maidservants as collateral on unpaid taxes. When Kyō-no-shio-ya failed to deliver the money, Masakage sold the maidservants and sent word to the prospector's in-laws informing them that their daughter had been detained in Innai. He held her for the next six years, until her relatives finally arrived to pay ransom.
Innai's townsmen also treated their wives' bodies as assets, exchanging them for money and using them to settle debts. Sometimes Masakage employed the terms "buy" (kau), "sell" (uru), and "pawn" (shichi ni ireru) for these transactions, implying that ownership of the women had been transferred. At other points, he referred to women being "employed" (yatoi ni oru), which suggested that they were indentured for discrete periods of time. In either case, these arrangements allowed husbands to capitalize on their marital relationships to raise money in the short term. For example, in 1612, Masakage reported that a hairdresser named Sakuzō had "employed" his wife Osen in order to finance a trip to his home province. In another case, Masakage reported that a man had pawned his wife to raise money for his indebted father-in-law.
Because female bodies were commonly understood as assets, moneylenders could claim them as payment on loans. During Masakage's first year in the mine, a man pawned a woman named Yaya, who died shortly after she was delivered into the pawnbroker's custody. Convinced he had been cheated, the pawnbroker demanded compensation in the form of Yaya's former master's wife. The aggrieved husband complained to the mine administration, but Masakage ruled that he owed the pawnbroker a debt. If he could not come up with cash, he would have to relinquish his wife.