It is in Yoshiwara (吉 原), during the Edo period, that everything happens. In this district devoted to entertainment, the windows of prostitutes follow one another, exposed to the fantasies of passers-by. A few pennies in one’s pocket are enough to afford the services of the latter: very young girls in cages, whose fate is, in reality, sadly numbered. Indeed, beyond the many diseases that threaten them and their great fatigue, the misery of their profession subjects them to malnutrition interspersed with periods of dreadful deprivation. The research of historian Yuriko Yokoyama has made it possible to bring up an edifying archive on this subject: a diary in which one of these girls lists her meager daily diet. Back to this amazing discovery.

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From the extreme codification of Edo to the disinhibition of the kuruwa (曲 輪).

Edo era, located between 1603 to 1868, remains sometimes depicted as parenthesis, certainly abundantly regulated and hierarchical, but all the same prosperous and prolific. The national art having been strongly privileged by a Japan in fold on itself, many representations which reached us cultivate a magnified vision of Edo. Reigned there, however, great misery.

The main gate of the Yoshiwara district, by Torii Kiyotada (print) @ChicagoMuseum

While obviously no culture escapes the idealization of its history, each rewrites its past in the light of unique – and instructive – circumstances. As it happens, the specific ennobling of Edo is explained, for its part, quite easily: it turns out that the period was born at the end of long centuries of feudal wars and died at the dawn of a brutal expansionist industrialization which plunged the archipelago into the heart of serious global conflicts. Also, understood as the only moment of respite before the atrocities of WWII, could Edo only embody an interval of grandeur and peace in the Japanese past. A heritage romanticized to cushion the difficult present and the uncertain future, isn’t this what every country adorns itself with? Of course, the Edo era carried a prestigious dimension. But, in fact, the fact remains that this meanwhile retains a significant batch of disasters and scorned lives. A somewhat negligible reality.

Yoshiwara, the pleasure district, by Hishikawa Moronobu (print) @ National Museum of Tokyo

Where could we cross this reality? The kuruwa, districts delimited by ramparts, then shelter a large part of these unfortunates. Supervised and supervised, these towns within the town smile on whom holds some money to spend. They thus offer, with the agreement of the authorities, a unbridled parallel society, where the rigid social classification is attenuated in favor of anonymizing financial assets. Artists, courtesans, commoners or samurai they often come together there. However, these speakers remain mostly popular for their vast prostitution rings. The most important of them are nestled in the centers of a well-known city trio : Edo (current Tokyo) thus sees the birth Yoshiwara known as “the plain of reeds”, to Kyoto emerges the district of Shimabara (“The island of roses”) and Osaka welcomes Shinmachi (“The new city”). In these haunts of cashless debauchery, a whole world swarms, preserved codes and looks. An arrangement that does not benefit everyone …

Yoshiwara and the plight of prostitutes

Prostitutes in the Yoshiwara window (1841 – 1934)

Inside the walls of Yoshiwara, the pleasures of some are the misfortune of others. If one suspects quite easily that brothels conceal a lot of suffering, can we even imagine the extent of what is going on inside? An archive has recently been discovered which allows us, in any case, to get a more precise idea of ​​the fate of these young girls. The historian Yuriko Yokoyama was able to reveal, within the framework of a Japanese exhibition on gender inequality, the nature of this document, here relayed by @kusikurage: a notebook dating from 1850 in which a prostitute from Yoshiwara inventoried daily what she ate and, above all, did not eat. The content of the list is sadly telling :

“3-7 Morning: Rotten pickles and ochazuke [riz avec du thé vert versé dessus]
Evening: Rice porridge with head of salmon
3-8 Morning: Hot rice with rotten pickles
Evening: Did not eat
3-9 Morning: Rice porridge with green vegetables
Evening: Pickles and ochazuke
3-10 Morning: No mention
Evening: Without mention
3-11 Morning: Pickles and ochazuke
Evening: Clam stew
3-12 Morning: Pickles and ochazuke
Evening: Bad pickles and ochazuke
3-13 Morning: Rice porridge
Evening: Roasted Celery Mitsuba
3-14 Morning: Rice porridge
Evening: Without mention
3-15 Morning: Did not eat
Evening: Did not eat
3-16 Morning: Did not eat
Evening: Did not eat
3-17 Morning: Rice porridge with dried daikon leaves
Evening: Did not eat, secretly had roasted beans and sake
3-18 Morning: Pickles and ochazuke
Evening: Pickles and ochazuke
3-19 Morning: Did not eat (shiodachi fasting[practiceofnoteatingtoreceiveablessing)[pratiqueconsistantànepasmangerpourrecevoirunebénédiction)
Evening: Pickles and ochazuke
3-20 Morning: Pickles and rotten ochazuke
Evening: Clam and rice soup
3-21 Morning: Asleep
Evening: Clam soup and hot rice
3-22 Morning: Asleep
Evening: Pickles and ochazuke
3-23 Morning: Rice porridge and pickles
Evening: Rice porridge and pickles
3-24 Morning: Potato soup and hot rice
Evening: Potato rice porridge, did not receive pickles
3-25 Morning: No mention
Evening: Pickles and ochazuke
3-26 Morning: Rice porridge with potato
Evening: Pickles and ochazuke
3-27 Morning: Hot rice and pickles
Evening: Ochazuke
3-28 Morning: Pickles and ochazuke
Evening: Had the right to eat two sardines. Drank sake
3-29 Morning: Asleep
Evening: Rice porridge
3-30 Morning: Hot rice and pickles
Evening: Ochazuke
4-1 Morning: Daikon radish sliced ​​soup and hot rice
Evening: Rice porridge
4-2 Morning: Pickles and ochazuke
Evening: Pickles and ochazuke
4-3 Morning: Pickles and ochazuke
Evening: Pickles and ochazuke
4-4 Morning: Pickles and ochazuke
Evening: Pickles and ochazuke
4-5 Morning: Crushed barley soup
Evening: Pickles and ochazuke
4 – 6 Morning: Crushed barley soup, clams
Evening: Without mention “

The young woman notes that she feeds mainly on expired rice and pickles. These are dishes that we imagine common in the 19th century, including in modest households. Rice is then much more present in proportion than today and it is rarely accompanied by meat or fresh fish. These small portions are therefore not suitable for the diet of women prostitutes. The newspaper also reveals that eating “hot” rice is rare enough to be emphasized by the author. Tools for reheating food not being common material goods in 1850, it is again quite ordinary. However, the young woman writes that except for rice, she also eats daikon tops, a white radish, instead of the root vegetable itself, as well as a salmon head and not other more digestible and nutritious parts of the fish. Other information: one evening, she specifies that she stole some beans and sake, suggesting a common kitchen and the responsibility of the brothel in these very low rations …

Daikon, Japanese drawing

But what remains the most striking is the significant share of deprivation. Several times the girl notes that she did not eat at all, sometimes for several days! Not to mention the times she misses her meal because she fell asleep. We can easily imagine that the exhaustion of yesterday’s work, an essentially nocturnal work, led her to prolong her sleep. It’s the vicious circle assured: lack of energy to get up prevents it from feeding itself and, therefore, from recovering nutrient strength. His deficient body is thus doomed to go from bad to worse. An inscription even indicates that the worker, from March 15 to 17, swallowed absolutely nothing.

@kusikurage, at the origin of the tweet disseminating the extract from this newspaper, recalls that the average life expectancy of prostitutes in the Edo era rarely exceeds 20 years. Of course, at that time, we did not live much more overall: the longevity of the Japanese being around 32 years. But the death of these workers remains relatively premature. Poverty, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, working conditions and health realities are initially for many. Now a discontinuous feeding, repeated fasting and a non-existent food balance certainly did not help save the lives of these teenage girls who will barely lose their lives in adulthood. At least, of this one. Indeed, it should be noted that even prostitutes are socially classified and registered by the Tokugawa regime who, under the guise of surveillance, guarantee themselves tax revenues in this way. Consequence on these women? The less fortunate receive less careful treatment and “lower rank” clients.

Mirror of Yoshiwara’s Beauties (Seiro Bijin Awase Sugata Kagami)

Conclusion: we learn little by victory, a lot by defeat.

Between the XVIIth century and the XIXth century, Japan has amply developed in many fields: literature, painting, poetry, philosophy… Our time also inherits from indisputable remains from these unique times. However, the attachment that inspires us to a country, a culture or an era should always be maintained at the level of complex and heterogeneous realities that cross them. What much better to honor them. Thanks to the in-depth research of historians, the mysteries of bygone ages come to us in part, shedding light on the constructions of the past and, thus, on those of our present.

Sharon H.

For go further, reread our dossier: The astonishing organization of prostitution under the Edo era

Source: The depressing diet of a Tokyo prostitute during Japan’s Edo period, Casey Baseel, Dec 1, 2020.

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