The bantô-shinzô—literally, head clerk shinzô—was a woman of 20 or more who managed a high-ranking courtesan's entourage, acted as her personal secretary, kept the management apprised of the courtesan's doings, and assisted the courtesan with advice if she needed it. She was an older shinzô who decided she had no future in prostitution, and chose the less well-paying but more secure occupation of a bantô-shinzô instead.
Although a bantô-shinzô worked for a courtesan, she wasn't necessarily subordinate to the courtesan. She can be understood as a sort of minor yarite. Santô Kyôden describes the relationship between a bantô shinzô and her mistress, a 16-year-old courtesan who has only recently debuted:
At this stage of her career, she is still intimidated by the madam [yarite] and the head apprentice courtesan [bantô-shinzô].... [I]t will often happen that the head apprentice courtesan will instruct her, "Tonight, say thus-and-such to the customer and urge him to come on the seasonal festival day"; yet the girl will end up missing the chance to ask him, and the head apprentice courtesan will lie stewing in the next room, eavesdropping on it all from start to finish and fuming. "Ah! Why doesn't she latch on to what he just said and make him agree to do it!" (Santô Kyôden, "The Tender-Loving Technique," from Forty-Eight Techniques for Success with Courtesans, 1790)
The bantô-shinzô was in the next room to overhear her mistress fail to get a client for a major holiday because like the rest of the shinzô who didn't have a client for the night, she slept in the main room of her mistress's apartment. Some bantô-shinzô took clients, particularly if their mistress was low-ranking. However, the bantô-shinzô of a high-ranking courtesan didn't take clients. They had more than enough work to do managing their mistress's large retinue, and their mistress could afford the expense of an entourage member who didn't earn income.
Artistic representations of bantô-shinzô are rare. The few images we do have show why: They weren't nearly as interesting to look at as courtesans and other shinzô.[footnote] They tied their obi in front and dressed their hair like other shinzô, but they dressed quietly, in dull colors and restrained patterns, with fewer hair ornaments. They probably didn't match their clothing to the ensemble outfits worn by the rest of the retinue, indicating that they, like the wakaimono (male servants) following the courtesan, were not part of the grand display. In Utamaro's 1804 print "Cherry Blossoms Along the Nakano-Chô," an entourage dressed in rose and purple, with sophisticated designs of leaves and dappling, is followed by a bantô-shinzô in light grey-blue, with a pattern of flying birds along her hem and the bottoms of her short sleeves, and a dark green obi with a simple floral pattern unlike anything worn by the rest of the entourage.
A courtesan and her entourage promenade along the central boulevard of the Yoshiwara during cherry-blossom season. Heading the procession is a rich patron, flanked by the courtesan's kamuro and followed by his own entourage. The courtesan comes next, flanked by her shinzô and followed by two wakaimono and her bantô-shinzô. The bantô-shinzô doesn't even face the viewer. In other prints in this series, her place in the retinue is taken by the yarite. "Cherry Blossoms Along the Nakano-Chô," by Kitagawa Utamaro. From Annual Events of the Yoshiwara, courtesy of Waseda University.
[footnote] Most ukiyo-e were advertisements of the brothel's wares, which suggests another reason there are few pictures of bantô-shinzô: They weren't for sale, and unlike the kamuro, they didn't make their mistress look good.