The honor-driven codes of Japanese society in the Edo period were not without its vices. Prostitution was rampant at the city’s capital of Edo, and houses of ill-repute were established to provide pleasure services to those with deep pockets. The women who provided these services done so under circumstances such as debt, deceit, or even kidnapping. Many entered the trade due to false pretenses such as promises of improvement in way-of-life for women living in lower-classes, or even entered unknowingly, initially under the impression of being adopted into a higher class as a child.
Due to these practices of deceit, ‘fair-playing’ proprietors of these pleasure quarters pursued for more just regulation of prostitution, in order to minimize the corruption, while maximizing profit at the same time. As a result, pleasure districts were created, and all forms of prostitution would be centralized around these areas in order to be managed more closely by the ruling government.
As such, these districts were societies all on their own, even to the extent of physical separation from the rest of Edo city life. One such example was Yoshiwara, a famous sex district that was literally walled from the rest of society, and even protected by way of moat. Entrance to the district was by a wooden bridge, through the main gate, directly into the district’s Main Street equivalent, Naka-no-cho. Within it was a collection of establishments related to not only sex, but boisterous night-life entertainment through gambling, kabuki, teahouses, and geisha.
The women involved in the night-life of Yoshiwara were ranked according to experience, and moved up through their ranks through mentor-student relationships between experienced courtesans and fledgling whores. Yoshiwara was an established district with a number of different brothels that varied in the rigidity of this order between women. Some houses were simply without repute and charged less money for girls with relinquished rights, including women of respectable background, taking the fall for their husbands who had succumbed to gambling debt or were socially humiliated by the wife’s infidelity; an Edo analogue of the Fallen Woman.
This fallen woman archetype is prevalent in Victorian society, although in a much different light in Edo Japan. Namely, this is because of the differences in the way women were viewed in relation to their rights in society. Victorian women had no home ownership rights, but were viewed as pure, compared to the noble standard set by their monarch. However, women in the Heian period as well as lower-class women in the bafaku were allowed to independently own and manage land. Upper-class women in Japan were less fortunate, as they were subjected to a heavily patrilineal society, ruled by a male Shogunate or Emperor, and were treated with a less pure regard than their European counterparts.
Regardless, Japanese women were treated more or less with some semblance of autonomy and freedom. Although they were under the mercy of their inherited debt, they had the opportunities to rise up in the hierarchy by becoming a courtesan’s apprentice, or simply by being bought out by richer men to be taken in as their mistresses.
In the steampanku universe, the role of technology provides another route of freedom for more romantic cases, worthy of storytelling. In my manuscript of Guardian, for example, the character Yuki is a strong, free-thinking woman sold to sex slavery by her husband, who had fallen from grace due to alcoholism and gambling debt. She has no qualms about her situation, and simply wishes for her husband’s redemption while she is far away from him. In the meantime, she is sent to Nagasaki, the center of the steam-powered technological boom in Japan. She is enlisted into a brothel under the ownership of Zakeda, the leader of Nagasaki’s prominent Yakuza group.
However, despite her immense debt, she is unable to make back the money she is owed, due to the existence of automata, capable of providing the same pleasures of the flesh, without the actual amorality of defiling actual feminine flesh. She is often spared from prostitution, but at the cost of further perpetuating her lack of freedom.
As a result, she takes action, and throughout the events of Guardian, she will do what it takes to earn back her freedom, without sullying her name or her fallen husband’s. And she will do so with the help of the other two main characters.
I am very excited to have initially written Guardian with minimal amounts of research necessary to fill in necessary details to further progress the plot, but further research into the subject of the role of women in Edo has left me even more excited to re-write and edit the manuscript, with intentions of making Yuki even more powerful as a character than before.