Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Mount TBR #3

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Nightless City: Geisha and Courtesan Life in Old Tokyo - J.E. de Becker

Originally published in 1899, this is a compendium of detailed information on the history and activities of the Yoshiwara red-light district of Edo (later Tokyo), illustrated with charts, tables and drawings.

This early work of serious ethnography gives a little information about everything to do with The Life: attracting johns, paying and tipping, fashion, hairstyles, futon bedding, rooms, brothel employees, and ancillary trades such as peddlars, hawkers, and beggars. It also covers health care, relevant laws, and policing. The information is presented in short sections that can be skimmed and scanned at ease.

The famous Yoshiwara district of Edo (later Tokyo) originated in the early seventeenth century as a result of a deal between the shogun’s government and leading brothel keepers. All governments must deal with the world’s oldest social problem for the sake of public order. In order to regulate prostitution and social ills that go with it, Japanese officials made deals with brothel keepers who sought to suppress competition. Restricting the brothels to a regulated quarter would facilitate the control over customers' access, the prevention of human trafficking and scamming into prostitution, and (most importantly perhaps) the surveillance of wandering samurai and other malcontents. Although its location moved, de Becker points out that the Yoshiwara remained open through shifts in government policy between strict morals regulation, general tolerance of vice, and being totally asleep at the regulatory switches (the shogunate government was really poor at governance near its end).

As we would expect of a Victorian,de Becker feels appalled at the fact that thousands of girls or women were sold into sexual slavery. He even quotes Japanese sources as to the misfortune of this bondage. This, from Record of Ancient Tombs in the Eastern Capital:

In these burial places are to be found many graves courtesans who committed suicide with their paramours. On the tomb-stones are to be found engraved the descriptions of the swords with which they killed themselves, as well their names and ages. There is something so weird and uncanny about these horribly pitiless records on the grey lichen-covered monuments that the blood of a sightseer runs cold and he becomes so nervous that he leaves the gloomy spot with the intention of never visiting it again

I know the topic is unspeakably sad, but to my mind the book is worth reading for readers seriously into Japan. For instance, de Becker was a magpie of a scholar. That is, he collected and presented information that he thought was quite interesting for those readers – like us lovers of lore and superstition – as further proof that human beings will believe anything:

How to fix a toothache with a charm
Stand, with the feet together, upon a piece of white paper placed on the floor and draw a line (which will resemble the outline of a human face) around the outside of them. Within this line draw eyes, a nose, and a mouth containing a full set of teeth, making the offending tooth quite black, and the two teeth at its sides slightly black. Then fold the paper in eight folds, drive a nail through it, and finally throw it into a running stream.

Indeed, when there is nothing but indifferent medical care, what recourse but old wives tales?

Anyway, I highly recommend this strange, melancholy book to readers who are interested in research of the Tokugawa and Meiji periods. I read it straight through, which is probably not the way most readers would read such an odd assemblage of out-of-the-way knowledge. But I’m a book glutton that can relish down material that would choke most readers.

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