The Life of a Courtesan
A Snapshot of a Small Pleasure Quarter in 1860
The town of Naoetsu (直江津), in snowy Echigo Province, was small, with just under 6,000 people in 1860. Normally such a little town would never be able to support a pleasure quarter, but Naoetsu was a seaport at the mouth of the Sekagawa River. As a result, it had a pleasure quarter with perhaps 12 brothels and a small collection of teahouses and inns, employing perhaps one to two hundred girls and women at a time. (For comparison, the Yoshiwara employed over 8,600.)
These young women wouldn't have been exceptionally talented in art and dance, wouldn't be renowned for their calligraphy, wouldn't be dressed in fine silks, with brocade obi and crowns of tortoiseshell hairpins. They wouldn't be any artist's muse; the demimonde didn't gather in their parlors, great lords didn't come visiting with a kerchief tied under their noses to hide their faces. No one would ask them to tear off a fingernail to prove their eternal love. They entertained travelers day in and day out, rarely seeing the same guest twice, missing out on all the passionate theatrics of pleasure-quarter love affairs but also missing out on the bloody love pledges and even bloodier murder-suicides that went along with courtesan romance. If they did have regular customers, they were local boys spending more than they could afford—not as exciting as a daimyō, unlikely to buy the woman out of her contract, but much, much more likely to marry her once her term was up. The women of Naoetsu's pleasure quarter were daughters of poor families spending their term in a rural rest stop before either marrying a man of their own class, or moving on to another, less desirable watering hole.
An excerpt of Naotsu's 1860 population registry appears in Tsunoda Bun'ei's book Nihon no joseimei : rekishiteki tenbō. It gives the names and ages of all the inmates of of ten brothels (80 people) and two geisha establishments (17 people).1 For the moment I'll omit the geisha, because their listings leave out a rare piece of information that the brothel listings provide: the names and ages of women who recently started work. The record sorts the women and girls employed by the brothels into three categories:
- Yūjo (遊女): Prostitute.
- Yūjo, revised from an employed girl named _____ (抱小女___改遊女): A prostitute who appeared in last year's register as an "employed girl" by thus-and-such a name. I refer to these women as "recently promoted prostitutes."
- Employed girl (抱小女): The record-keepers' term for kamuro.
Because of the quirks of the registry, we can know transitions and departures, but not arrivals. If any of the women were new hires who didn't pass through the kamuro stage, that information was recorded elsewhere. But we do know how many kamuro were promoted per year, and at what age; and we have a list of women who began work as prostitutes within the previous year.
These are the results when the women are sorted by age and status. The ages are all in the original Japanese reckoning. Bear in mind that in 1860, the minimum legal age to be licensed as a prostitute was 16:2
|Status||Age||Age 13||Age 14||Age 15||Age 16||Age 17||Age 18||Age 19||Age 20||Age 22||Status||Age|
|Kamuro||6||Kamuro||Kamuro||Kamuro||Kamuro||Recently promoted prostitute||Recently promoted prostitute||Recently promoted prostitute||Kamuro[?]||Prostitute||Prostitute||23|
|Kamuro||11||Kamuro||Recently promoted prostitute||Kamuro||Kamuro||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||25|
|Kamuro||11||Kamuro||Recently promoted prostitute||Kamuro||Recently promoted prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||25|
|Kamuro||12||Kamuro||Prostitute||Kamuro||Recently promoted prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||25|
|Kamuro||12||Kamuro||Prostitute||Recently promoted prostitute||Recently promoted prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Kamuro[?]||29|
|Recently promoted prostitute||Prostitute||Recently promoted prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute||29|
|Prostitute||Prostitute||Recently promoted prostitute||Prostitute||Prostitute|
[?] It's unclear why two adult women were included in a group that otherwise consisted of girls aged 6 to 16. Adult servants weren't routinely listed under "employed young girls" (which can also be read "employed maids"), because if that were the case, there would be quite a few more adults in the group. The 20-year-old could conceivably be a very late starter who was going through a brief training period before debuting as a prostitute, but the 29-year-old was over the hill.
A pattern emerges. Girls began transitioning from kamuro to prostitute at 13, a few at a time. By 14, a significant percentage were working as prostitutes. 14- and 15-year-olds were about as likely to be prostitutes as to be kamuro, but by 16, any girl who hadn't made the transition yet was hurried into her debut. The three debutantes in their late teens may have been late developers, or they may have been hired as kamuro for a year of training before they debuted.
Now change the ages to Western reckoning. The census was taken early in the year, when everyone had just added another year to their age, meaning ages were even more likely than usual to be inflated. A few girls transitioned from kamuro to prostitute as early as 11 or just-barely-12. 12- through 14-year-olds were at the midpoint, just as likely to be promoted as not, but late 14/early 15 was the moment of truth.
It's tempting to propose that girls were promoted as they reached puberty, but that's unlikely. The average age of menarche was late—what poor data we have3 suggests it was a few months before or after a girl's fifteenth birthday. Girls were promoted years before they reached puberty, with the arrival of puberty signaling the final days of kamurohood for any girl who had not yet debuted. Jippensha Ikku's late 18th-century description of a newly promoted shinzō is less romantic than accurate:
She has grown up to be an innocent child prostitute with a price tag. She's been called a little mouse who does not yet know the claws of a cat, and still prefers storytellers' funny tales to handsome young men.4
1 Tsunoda Bun'ei. Nihon no joseimei : rekishiteki tenbō (Japanese Female Names: A Historical Perspective). In Rekishi shinsho, Nihon shi, vol. 43. Tokyo: Kyoikusha, 1988. Pp. 464-474.
This may be the entire population of the pleasure quarter at the time; the source doesn't give enough context to say for certain. The numbers suggest that the population registry excerpt may account for all the geisha and yūjo in the quarter, but that it omits the rest of the staff and any women who worked as teahouse waitresses or meshimori-onna. If that's true, the excerpt isn't a complete view of all the women who worked in the Naoetsu sex industry, but it's a complete picture of all the women indentured to brothels or geisha establishments.
2 De Becker, J. E. The Nightless City, or, The History of the Yoshiwara Yūkwaku. Z. P. Maruya & Co., Ltd., Yokohama: 1899. p. 423.
3 Novak, Emil. Menstruation and Its Disorders. D. Appleton: New York, 1921. Pp. 103-104.
4 Jippensha Ikku, translated by Cecilia Segawa Seigle on p. 86 of Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan.