Episode 25 – Dr. Amy Stanley (Northwestern)

Originally published on April 20, 2018
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Amy Stanley, Associate Professor in the Department of History at Northwestern University. Most recently, Dr. Stanley is the author of “Maidservants’ Tales: Narrating Domestic and Global History in Eurasia, 1600-1900” in the April 2016 issue of The American Historical Review. Dr. Stanley, thank you so much for talking to me today.

Amy Stanley: Oh thank you for having me on.

TG: In your work, you’ve talked about prostitution in the early modern period, and more recently, you’ve talked about geisha even into the Meiji period, and also “Maidservants’ Tales” going throughout the early modern and modern period. So, when talking about prostitution, not only female but also male prostitution, what is happening around the time of the Meiji Restoration? And what is the place of the Restoration in this topic?

AS: That’s a good question. I think in order to understand what happens in the wake of the Meiji Restoration, it’s important to know how prostitution was practiced and how it was organized in the Edo period, so the period that came directly before, which is what the bulk of my work has been about. Sometimes when people talk about prostitution in the Edo period, they have these images like the ones we see often in woodblock prints of these very beautiful courtesans with these glamorous silk robes and bristling gold hair ornaments, and that’s become an iconic image of Japanese culture. And so, people often have this conception that prostitution in the Edo period was something very glamorous, that urban men, particularly merchants, who were very wealthy went to an urban “pleasure quarter” such as Yoshiwara, the most famous one, and spent an enormous sum of money for a woman who was practically unattainable and enjoyed a night of exquisite artistic entertainment as well as sex.

What I concentrated on in my research was the world of prostitution that lay outside that perimeter. I talked a little bit about Yoshiwara, but the point that I wanted to make was that prostitution was an economic enterprise and a labour relationship, and that throughout the business, whether you were a really high-ranking Yoshiwara prostitute or you were somebody who was indentured to a post station along a little tiny road in the mountains, women worked according to indentured contracts. That meant that their father usually or their guardian (who could be an uncle, grandfather, mother or brother) received a set amount of money up front in return for a certain number of years for her labour. The woman usually had to consent to this, and that was written into the contract, but the meaning of consent is very blurry when the person involved in the contract is a poor girl with no other choices, often underaged. This contract would be signed by her guardian, would be signed by the intermediary, would ultimately be signed by the brothel keeper, and it would send her to a brothel to work in prostitution, to see clients for a set number of years until her contract expired and she was “liberated” if she didn’t die first of abuse or venereal disease or starvation.

So, you can get the picture that this is not exactly a glamorous endeavour. This was how prostitution was generally organized in the Edo period, and it was sanctioned by the shogunate and by various domains, and, in fact, often promoted because brothels sent tax money to the town, post station, or sometimes to the harbour magistrate. So, prostitution was a very important money-making endeavour, and this is one of the reasons why the government sanctioned it. It was also sanctioned for the reason that it was a business that allowed poor women to sacrifice themselves and their labour on behalf of (usually) their fathers. It was bolstering the household system and patriarchal authority in general, and also because there was a widespread belief that men needed access to women specifically in order to pursue sexual pleasure and that these brothels provided a kind of service to the population.

In the Meiji period, that logic started to break down, and there were heavy criticisms of prostitution since the Edo period focusing on the oppression of women and the exploitation of poor families. Usually though, the commentators would say: “Well, there’s nothing to really be done about this. This is kind of a necessary evil. What else are these women going to do?” In the Meiji period, these critiques gained force from the influence of Western ideas about freedom and liberation and also Western ideas about Christianity and the sanctity of the body and the idea that women who engaged in promiscuous behaviour were morally wrong. That had never been part of the Edo period discourse on prostitution. In fact, prostitutes were often valorized (because they had sacrificed themselves) rather than being condemned because they were promiscuous per se.

This kind of critique collided with an important legal innovation in 1872, in which there was a law that “liberated” prostitutes and geisha. And that meant that it cancelled all of the indentured contracts, and it set women free from the brothels, and a later law declared that they did not have to pay back any of their indentured money. They were free to go. So, that was the moment at which the system that had organized prostitution in the Edo period broke down completely, and there were reports from the “pleasure quarter” in Yoshiwara of women streaming out of the district carrying all of their possessions, and it seemed that women really did take advantage of this moment of liberation.

However, a lot of them soon realized that they weren’t able to do anything else, that their families still couldn’t feed them if they returned to their families. So, they started to return to the brothels in a new type of system in which their labour was re-organized and given a new legal framework. After this liberation edict when the women returned to the brothels, they had to say that they were entering prostitution out of their own free will, their own volition, their own consent, which was different from the old contract system. And so, while it was still the case that they were held to contracts where they had to serve out a certain amount of time, now it was required that they had said that they had chosen this. This had actually opened up, as my work has shown, a new critique of women who had worked in prostitution as self-interested and immoral actors, women who had chosen to do something that was degrading.

TG: You mentioned that in the early Meiji period, there are all these reforms, but there are inconsistencies to these early reforms and what we think of as these very progressive idealists in the early Meiji period. Itō Hirobumi comes to mind as this great champion of progressivism, but he was also reportedly a frequent client of the geisha quarters, is that right?

AS: Yes. Many of these Meiji statesmen were, and I don’t think that is at all surprising. Brothels were a site of male (almost) social activity, bonding you might say, where they had their drinks and conducted their business, and this was true for people who were lower class samurai if they had enough money to frequent brothels. It was true for merchants, and it was true even sometimes for peasant sons who lived near post stations where they can frequent a brothel and get a drink. This was a style of entertainment, a style of socializing, that men in that era were accustomed to, and had not been taught to think of as problematic. They might have thought they felt sorry for the individual women involved, or felt terrible that such a world existed in which people would be so poor that they had to sell their daughters, but the morality of a man frequenting a prostitute and paying for sex was not something that was at issue.

Many of the people who were progressive reformers such as one of the early mayors of Kyoto City, Makimura Masanao, were frequent visitors to the geisha houses and brothels. And people did not find that to be necessarily a contradiction. In fact, brothel house proprietors (and one of the examples that I give is a geisha house proprietor, teahouse proprietor in Kyoto’s Gion district named Sugira who was a proprietor of the famous Ichiriki teahouse) were often quite invested in what we would think of as progressive reforms. So, regarding those things that we think of now as a contradiction (either you’re progressive and you’re interested in the liberation of women and equality of the sexes, or you’re conservative and you’re not), those categories don’t map neatly onto Meiji thinkers or even ordinary people.

TG: And over time during the Meiji period, there is this moral movement or almost a moral suasion movement against prostitution. I mean, who are the agents of this? I know in some cases, it’s upper class Japanese women who are promoting marriage as a way to end concubinage. But are the geisha themselves active at all in re-imaginations of prostitution?

AS: Yes. So here, the difference between geisha and prostitutes becomes very important. In the early modern period, the first geisha were actually men, and they worked in the designated districts in big cities such as Yoshiwara and Edo. They were primarily entertainers. Over the course of the 18th century, women started calling themselves geisha, and taking on some of the costumes and the artistic endeavours of the men who had called themselves geisha earlier. So, these women were entertainers, and the brothel keepers in Yoshiwara who wanted to keep their monopoly on their business set out rules that stated that women who called themselves geisha were entertainers, and they were not allowed to sell sex. But outside those districts, in places like post stations or other areas of the city of Edo, port cities like Niigata, the distinction between geisha and prostitutes was never quite so clear.

Geisha were usually (geiko as they were called) more artistically accomplished, and they did sell time and they did sell art, but often, they also engaged in sex with their clients. Depending on where you were, that distinction could be clearer or blurrier. I think one of the anxieties that geisha and their geisha house proprietors must have felt in the early Meiji era was over how to define a geisha and imagine geisha as this coherent group of people when in fact, they never have been in the Edo period. And so, I think that geisha house proprietors were very conscious of wanting to avoid what had become the stigmatized activity of prostitution. Prostitution had been associated with venereal disease, and the prominence of prostitution in Japan had attracted criticism from Western visitors (particularly from Christians), and increasingly, from many reform-minded people (particularly women in Japan). And so, geisha needed to be able to distinguish themselves in some way from prostitutes for political reasons, essentially.

Geisha house proprietors focused on things like their contributions to the civic good. So, you see early geisha house proprietors, particularly in the city of Kyoto, investing in and actually becoming the principal of one of Japan’s first elementary schools. And they also continued their practice of giving money. They used to give money in the form of tax revenue to create theatres or to build bridges and now, they donate their money to elementary schools and to hospitals and to facilities for retraining poor people in “respectable” occupations. You can see, as I argue, in the city of Kyoto real good effort on the part of geisha house proprietors to make themselves respectable through their civic engagement and through the way that they spend money.

Geisha, on the other hand, have a new opportunity in the Meiji era to market themselves directly in newspapers. So, you have more newspapers cropping up in the early 1870s, and they report on local issues and events. Often, you see geisha showing up in one or two lines about what’s going on around town, and they appear by name, so they have this chance to advertise themselves and to create their own image. You also see many geisha doing enlightened things and calling themselves “enlightenment geisha.” They consume Western food and Western beer or they advertise that they’re teaching themselves English and often, you see them featured in the newspaper for donating money to elementary schools. So, there’s a point in the early 1870s where geisha are very consciously, I think, trying to associate themselves with the ideals of enlightenment, civic virtue and education.

TG: As a way to make themselves more respectable in society?

AS: I think as a way to – on the part of geisha house masters who really are worried about the political impact on their business from this new discourse on prostitution being dirty and immoral and the legal impact on their business of the liberation edict in particular – distinguish their business from prostitution by doing all these kinds of enlightened activities and civic virtue.

I think that the geisha themselves had contradictory and mixed motives that are available for lots of different kinds of interpretations. One is that geisha donated to schools because they hadn’t been allowed that kind of education themselves. Another is that they were trying to distinguish themselves from other geisha as a kind of marketing thing: “Well, I am the studious and enlightened geisha, and these other geisha are just backward and old-fashioned.” “My name is in the newspaper, look at me.” And another interpretation is that they had become known from the Edo period as trendsetters, as people who pursued the latest fashions and actually set expectations for what was appropriate feminine behaviour. In the early 1870s, those were things like learning English, going to school, and being civilized and enlightened.

TG: Speaking of this distinction between geisha and prostitutes, one of the things that always comes up in my class is this very straight line between “prostitute” and “geisha.” I always try to tell the students: “Well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.” Is this a product of this moment in the Meiji period when the women are taking on these more charitable activities?

AS: I don’t think so. I think there is a longer and more complicated history that has to do with, as I said, the distinctions within the quarter of Yoshiwara and Edo, and the fact that shogunal magistrates tended to look at prostitution differently from what they called machi geisha (town geisha, which were girls who were sent out by their parents to go entertain at parties). The magistrates themselves were somewhat concerned about the idea that those girls who were being sent out by their parents to entertain were engaged in prostitution. And if so, they were not working under the contract system. They were being essentially pimped by their own parents, and that would be a form of illegal prostitution. So, the magistrates themselves were confused about the line, but they were interested in making some sort of distinction even if they didn’t quite know where it was. I think that what you see here is a continuity in that there is a gradation between prostitution and working as a geisha in the Edo period and into the early Meiji period.

All kinds of people are interested in drawing a line someplace. They just don’t agree on where that line should go. And it’s in the 1870s around the time of the liberation edict that it becomes much more important for geisha house masters to draw the line and say: “We do not engage in this.” Now, the reality, of course, is that they still did exchange money for sex, and this is something that persisted for a while. I think that this impulse to draw the line continued throughout the 20th century and especially in the wake of World War II, during the Occupation era when servicemen would go home and say that they’d spent time with people that they called “geisha girls” who were not necessarily geisha, not necessarily prostitutes, just Japanese women. We see the importance of drawing this line and saying: “First of all, Japanese women are not all geisha.”

TG: (Laughter)

AS: “Secondly, geisha are this historical phenomenon, and the geisha have these artistic accomplishments. You’re talking about a specific group of people. And third, geisha are not prostitutes.” Drawing those lines became very important, and I think that is when the line’s really hardened. So today, of course, you can say definitively that geisha are not prostitutes, but that in itself is the result of a historical process of drawing boundaries.

TG: Speaking of the soldiers, I’m always reminded of this one photograph of American G.I.’s (who all seem to be photographers) all standing around taking photos of this one woman in a geisha-style outfit. I always put this up in class, and saying: “Here’s an example of the exoticized Asian female.”

AS: Yes, there’s a wonderful book by Naoko Shibusawa called America’s Geisha Ally. It looks at how the image of the geisha was used to domesticate Japan or make it palatable as an ally when it had been an enemy. It’s really a wonderful, in-depth look at how that happened.

TG: I was also reading about this Baby-san magazine.

AS: Oh yes.

TG: Or the book Baby-san, and all of the images were exactly what we were talking about: all Asian women, all Japanese women being imagined as geisha from the perspective of these male servicemen.

AS: Right, and that’s what makes it such a fraught topic to discuss because there is no doubt that the geisha has been this exoticized, Orientalized and racist image in the minds of Americans. And so, to take geisha as a historical topic, and to think about how that category of geisha was constructed, and who fell into it and who didn’t, and take the women who did that work seriously is necessarily a political project and also a very difficult one because there are so many issues that become entangled in that.

TG: And it’s an image that’s continued to be marketed for tourist materials, right? I mean, if you go onto the Japan Travel Bureau website, of course, the images that you see are bullet trains, there’s always the maiko-san in Kyoto, conveying the message: “Go see the traditional Kyoto, and here is the traditional geisha.”

AS: Yes, and I think that you can also see a continuity there, which is that geisha and geisha houses are performing a civic function, and that they are advertising their city and they are bringing in tourist revenue. That is actually what geisha did during the early Meiji period, and it’s what they did in many places in the Edo period. So, this is a legitimate activity, and this is what the geisha house masters thought that they were doing when they were donating to elementary schools and hospitals. So, I actually see that as something that is incredibly familiar to me.

TG: I noticed that your current project is Stranger in the Shogun’s City, where you’re talking about the urban history of Edo through the perspective of one woman. Do you care to talk about that a little bit?

AS: Yes, this is my current project, so of course I love talking about it. My protagonist is a woman named Tsuneno who was born in the early 1800s, probably around 1803 or 1804. She was the daughter of a temple family, a Buddhist priest’s daughter, in a little village in Echigo Province, which Niigata, and she was brought up in style, actually. The family was fairly wealthy, and she was taught how to read and taught all the traditional feminine accomplishments. She was married off when she was 14 years old to another Buddhist priest in a different province in Dewa, had a completely uneventful marriage, but was divorced after ten years and sent home. And then she was married off two more times, and both times, she was divorced and sent home.

Finally, she had enough. Her family was planning to marry her off for a fourth time to a widower. She decided she did not want to do that, and so she ran away to the city of Edo, which she had always wanted to see. Once she was in Edo, she wrote back to her parents asking them to send her money, send her clothes, telling them all of the things that she needed, and they responded saying: “You’re crazy. You ran away. We’re cutting you off.” And she then had to make a life for herself in the city first working as a maidservant then being an errand-runner for a townsman who was building a residence for his concubine in the theatre district. Then eventually, after going around to various parts of the city and doing these odd jobs, she met a man who she had known from home, who she hadn’t seen in I think it was 24 years, and he was trying to make it as a masterless samurai in Edo. He was looking for employment in a warrior household. She married him, and they had a very difficult time with it because Edo was going through an economic downturn in the wake of the Tenpō Reforms, in which the shogunate really clamped down and tried to micromanage the city’s economy. They really had a very difficult time: they had no money, they had no clothes, but eventually, this last husband of hers found employment with the Edo city magistrate. One of the more famous city magistrates Tōyama Kinshirō, is often on television as a wise magistrate. He’s kind of a folk hero. But he was a real historical person, and Tsuneno’s husband found work with him, and she also found work in his household, and lived the rest of her life in Edo in the service of the city magistrate. So, I am telling Tsuneno’s story, which has all kinds of dramatic turns in it, as a way of introducing the city of Edo and Japanese history in the early 19th century to a general audience of readers who have no idea  about Japan or about Edo or about any of it, so it’s a very different project for me.

TG: I’ve noticed a lot of your work has this broad, multi-century focus. I mean, your recent article in The American Historical Review covers 1600-1900. This book also sounds like it’s going to have almost this longue durée approach. In that perspective, how important is the date 1868? Do you have any thoughts on this? Was 1868 a moment of rupture or are we making too much out of this date?

AS: That’s a good question. So, this book that I’m working on now is very much an early to mid 19th century book. It ends in actually 1853, the year that Tsuneno died, which is also the same year that Perry arrived. So I do think, actually, that there is something about that break (whether you put it in 1853 or 1868) that is really important. I wouldn’t say that we’re making too much of that date itself or that we’re making too much of the transition. I mean, if you study the lives of, for example, prostitutes and geisha, you can see that things didn’t change for them right away, and it didn’t change for all women at the same time. But the political developments that followed the Restoration, which re-organized the terms of their labour, I think did have real consequences for them.

Now in my other work, I wrote an article that you just referred to about maidservants in global history. I’ve argued that often, if you take the work and the lives of lower class women seriously, you see more continuity over space and time than historians who work on men or more conventional political subjects might recognize. And I think that’s true in the case of maidservants. I argued in that article that the story of the girl who leaves the countryside for the city and works in maid service and then gets married and stays in the city for the rest of her life is a common one, and that you can see it in Venice in the 16th century, in London in the 17th century, in Paris in the 18th century and in Edo in the 19th century.

That story in its broadest outlines is shared across space and across time, and it doesn’t really start to change until the 20th century. So I think that I’m trying to say two things: I do think that this period does mark a rupture in Japanese history. I also think that it depends on who you look at, how clearly you can see that break. So, if you’re looking at maidservants and lower class women, you might not see that date as being absolute or that rupture as being so immediate, but I think it caused other changes that became more evident in their lives over time.

I think it’s also always an important thing to think about when you’re thinking about periodization, which is really what this debate is about, is not only where you’re talking about (1868’s really important in Japan and not necessarily so important to other places), but also who you’re talking about. It’s really important to, for example, samurai in Aizu (because 1868-69), but maybe not so important for a maidservant in the city of Edo.

And so, all of these dates are necessarily historical inventions and constructions that allow us to make some arguments very clearly and prevent us from making others. I do think it’s important. If you’re a resident, for example, at the city of Kyoto, the fact that the Restoration happens and the emperor moves is catastrophic for people there. I mean, the city lost a huge portion of its population, so I wouldn’t say that it is absolutely a change that’s felt by everybody in the archipelago in the same way at the same time. It really is a consequential date.

TG: If we could pivot now to your classroom teaching, what kind of themes do you use when you talk about the Meiji period to your students?

AS: Oh wow, that’s a really good question. I haven’t taught my Meiji course in a really long time. I try in general (because I come from women’s history, and gender history is my primary interest) to talk about women and their experiences as much as possible. Luckily, that’s really easy in the Meiji period because women’s lives often changed dramatically over the course of that era. So of course, I talk about geisha, I talk about women who worked in factories, I talk about changing fashion for some women and not for others. And I always use this wonderful book Makiko’s Diary in which a (I think) pharmacist’s wife in Kyoto describes her daily life around 1911, and it’s a really wonderful source because you can see what really hasn’t changed very much: the role of the daughter-in-law in the family, but yet her husband is going out and trying new types of food and he’s involved in a Western painting society. So it really helps students think about how gender and class and location really were these filters that determined how the changes of that era reached into her life.

TG: I use the same book. You’re absolutely right. It’s a fascinating diary because she remarks: “Oh, we got our first electric light bulb. It’s so bright.”

AS: (Laughter)

TG: Or: “I finally rode around in one of those new rickshaws with rubber tires. It’s so much smoother.”

AS: Yes, yes. It’s wonderful.

TG: So, you can see those modern implements that come in, and they are remarkable for these people. Some of these introductions of new things really are remarkable to the point where they’re writing them down in the diary. I also always thought it’d be fun to go back and try out some of the recipes.

AS: (Laughter) Oh yes, there’s that wonderful scene where she’s trying to make frozen tofu.

TG: (Laughter) Absolutely. (Laughter) I actually used to ask that as a question for an in-class quiz: “Where do you make frozen tofu?” You had to put it on the roof.

AS: Absolutely. But it’s funny because I don’t think that my strategy for Meiji history, when I teach that, is much different from my strategy for global history, which I also teach. I teach global history from 1500-1850, and what I really try to do as much as possible is focus on ordinary people and their lives, and how their lives were shaped by and in turn shaped this kind of grand historical narrative. I think that’s really what’s closest to my research interests, and I think it actually engages the students too because this is when they’re coming of age. My students are traditional college-age students. They’re trying to think about how their lives are intertwined with the world that they live in and how they’re going to be able to shape the world going forward even though they themselves are probably going to be insignificant people, and then how the time that they live in is going to shape the course of their lives. And so, I think that focusing on the very human dimensions of history or that kind of human scale is really important.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode:

Amy Stanley, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, April 20, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-25-dr-amy-stanley-northwestern/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.