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Brothels in 1300s Japan
creativityspren wrote in little_details

The question I'm trying to figure out is this: What were brothels like during the 1300s in Japan? Things like how might they have been run, was there any sort of system like there was later, what might the prospects have been for the women there (miserable, I'm sure)? I know that they didn't really exist until the Kamakura period, and what they were like from the 1600s on.

My story is a historical fiction, set in Japan. A major part of Part I of the book takes place in a brothel in/around Kyoto, from roughly 1288-1373 CE. The main character is a prostitute. I have a good idea of what prostitution was like in the periods preceding and following this, but the histories I've managed to find leave the Muromachi period a big white blank.

Most of my current portrayal of the character's situation and the brothel has come from inferring backwards, taking the information available for the later periods and projecting back to what that might have come from. I'm personally not satisfied with doing that for a whole section of the book.

I've read all the posts under the "Prostitution" and "Japan - History" tags here on Little-Details to try and glean an answer. Some were very helpful, but I was hoping someone might have even speculation or a resource that I don't.

I've been researching, or trying to research brothels in this time period in Japan for upwards of two years, and have come up largely empty. I've all but stopped perusing the internet, out of frustration and a consistent lack of results, and turned to university libraries, journals, and databases.

The works I own and/or have referenced extensively trying to answer this question are:

A Handbook to Daily Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan
Selling Songs And Smiles: The Sex Trade in Heian and Kamakura Japan
The Nightless City
Women of the Pleasure Quarters
The Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work
Pinning Down the Floating World
Selling Women
Shadows of Transgression - Heian and Kamakura Constructions of Prostitution (dissertation)
She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not - Shinju and Shikido Okagami
Fertility and Pleasure: Ritual and Sexual Values in Tokugawa Japan
Tsumi - Offence and Retribution in Early Japan
Writing Margins: The Textual Construction of Gender in Heian and Kamakura Japan
A number of books on prostitutes as a whole, and a number of books on Kamakura and Muromachi politics and history.

I'm currently trying to find a copy of Flowers in Salt on a recommendation.

Any theories, speculation, information, books - whatever - anyone has would be of great help to me.

Thank you very much for your time.


You might want to have a look at Moyocco Anno's critically acclaimed manga "Sakuran" (English translation available from Vertical Press), the rather "All About Eve"-ish saga of the career of a woman who is sold to a brothel as a maid as a child and rises to be one of their star courtesans. Unfortunately, this is also set much later than the period you're writing about.* But it might be of interest for its attempt to portray the courtesans' own attitudes and points of view--not to mention the frequently combative rivalries between the women (e.g., an older co-worker who is helping the protagonist prepare for an important debut-type appearance subtly sabotages her newbie competitor by giving her a laughably outmoded hairstyle).

*When interviewed at a comics convention in New York a couple of years ago, Anno said that her main source of information about what life was like at the brothels was an old collection of humorous poems by brothel patrons on that subject that her husband had found in a used bookstore. It sounded as if she was talking about something published in the nineteenth or possibly early twentieth century.

That's a great recommendation! Thanks! I actually think I may have read it at some point a few years ago, but I'll go back and reread it (and analyze the heck out of it).

Ooh, I'll see if I can figure out what the collection might be that she refers to (I'm sure I can at least get a title if I hunt long enough)! I wasn't aware of the interview - thanks a lot for cluing me in.

There's actually a slightly more detailed description of the book and Anno's research process in Part 2 of my article about Moyocco Anno at New York Comic-Con in the November 12, 2012 issue of the feminist comics and pop culture webzine *Sequential Tart.* The title of the article is "New York Comic-Con 2012: Moyocco Anno on Clueless Boys, Career Women, and Courtesans," by Margaret O'Connell. (I'd include the url, but that usually seems to result in LiveJournal's categorizing the post as spam.)

Great, thanks! I'll go read it right away.

Handbooks and all are well, but I think you should read japanese novels which takes place in that kind of places. Like some works of Nagai Kafu, or Jirô Taniguchi. Lots of authors of the early 20th century, in Japan, loved to pass time in those places and ejoyed themselves very much there.. and wrote a lot about it !

It's not 1300, but it's almost the same I guess : tea houses as brothels in red quarters, etc. Thoses places are from veru ancient traditions ^^
May be you'll find some intels in other japanese historical novels (jidai shôsetsu) which takes place in 1300. :)

I will if I can find any, certainly. The main problem I have with those kinds of books (which I do love reading, for any country/culture) is finding translated copies. ^^; Ooh, I haven't heard of those authors, but thanks for the suggestions! I'll see what I can find.

Hm, I'll look around for jidai shosetsu as well (something else I haven't heard of). I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I somehow completely missed that category of novels, but thanks for bringing them to my attention. :)

Something else that bugs me (although it may just be me): a lot of the historical record on prostitutes (down to books of songs) were written by men in power, often outside observers or those who used the men and women involved. Which means that it's kind of censored, in a way, and filtered through their lens as opposed to being the words of the women themselves. Both in Japan and elsewhere. Trying to sort through what's legitimate and what's a self-serving interpretation by the men recording the things is...frustrating. It means I have to take almost nothing at face-value, or at least with a grain of salt. It's a point that Goodwin makes in her Selling Songs and Smiles book early on, and many other anthropologists, historians, and social commentators have noticed it as well. Across cultures and time periods, I mean.

This is not directly about your topic, but Japanese Garden Design by Marc Keane gives an overview of how Japanese gardens and aesthetics have changed over the past 2000 years. The aesthetics and designs from the various time periods are all different from each other. It might be a good source for when you want to describe the surroundings.

Thank you - I'll check it out as soon as I get back to school. It would certainly be helpful knowledge to have.