Courtesans were ranked and graded from the top class who excelled in their appearance and artistic accomplishments, to women sold cheaply for ten minutes at a time, called "slice-of-time" whores.
Prostitution and Public Authority
in early modern Japan
Basho’s twelve renku and one haiku on “play-women” are crucial documents in the history of the struggle against male exploitation of woman's body. One hundred years before Vindication of the Rights of Women, Basho spoke out for the woman’s point of view on prostitution. I pray that women who were trafficked and exploited, and those working to stops these crimes against humanity, will find inspiration and empowerment in these verses.
Most “play-women” in this era were young village girls indentured to a brothel to save the family from financial ruin. Brokers went to areas struck by famine, searching for “bargains.” Historian Mikiso Hane
describes how girls were told they were going to the City to be maids or waitresses, but then were forced, from age 12 or 13, to have sex, sometimes with brutal or insulting men, every night of the week, and
were beaten if they refused or tried to escape.
“Play-women,” despite their gorgeous kimono and make-up, were prisoners. Although some did enjoy this life, and managed to rise in the “profession” to become comfortable or even rich, and some were purchased by a wealthy customer, MOST either died young, often from syphilis —the average age of death in the play-quarters of Edo has been calculated as 22 years — or grew old working on the “fringes of the sex and alcohol trade.” Such is the world in which the following renku stanza pair occurs:
Basho's follower Rotsu, a beggar, states reality: young village girls were sold to the brothel for a money loan –the system set up so she can never pay off the loan, and will remain in slavery till her death – which, with no defense against venereal diseases, might be painful and soon. Basho gives her a message she wishes to send in a letter – and renku scholar Miyawaki notes that this may be to her guy back in the village, the boy she knew since childhood and just began to love when she was taken away. She has no way to get her letter out without the brothel seeing it, so she asks the man polishing her mirror if he will post it outside (without telling his employer).
The mirror in Japan has been for a thousand years associated with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Being round and shiny, a mirror was considered a ‘child of the sun.’ Shinto teaches that sin is not original or ingrained. We are clear inside, but accumulate sins like dust on a mirror. To restore the original purity, all we must do is wipe the dust from the mirror.
In Basho’s day, mirrors were bronze-plated with an amalgam of mercury (as in the dental fillings of my childhood). In time the plating got cloudy. Mirror polishers were craftsmen who grinded the surface
on a whetstone, and polished with mildly acidic fruit juice, to restore the original clarity – so we see him as
a servant of the Sun Goddess, one who can be trusted with a woman’s private message. Every time she looks into the mirror he polished to do her hair or make-up, she will see him, the carrier of her message; she will see her beloved reading the letter, and she will see the holy Sun shining with Hope.
Here is Basho’s genius in all fullness, his deepest penetration into the vulnerable heart: “Can I trust you?” – the question women ask silently every day.
The magnificence of renku poetry occurs in the interaction of two separate minds. In this stanza-pair, Basho explores inside Rotsu’s words and Rotsu’s mind, to find a path he will follow; he uses Rotsu’s words to build something of his own. In the next pair, the same two poets go in reverse: Basho leading off and Rotsu following.
Basho’s stanza is spoken with the gleeful excitement of a young woman. I am surprised to meet you on the street, a girl who grew up together with me in my hometown, after so many years have passed. Oh my
dear, one so close to me that you know the affectionate name my mother or nurse called me while I suckled and later as a child. Basho’s rhetorical question takes us both back to that paradise of innocence in
our shared childhood.
Rotsu jumps ahead fifteen years to see where those years have brought “your flower face” -- to the misery of slavery in a brothel near a harbor where you have to deal with especially rough, dirty men. You, the sweet little girl I knew as a baby, now as I look into your face, still lovely but fading, I see how often and much you cry.
Basho lays the foundation of intimacy, then Rotsu builds the house.
The third stanza portrays the misery of a young girl from a backward village in the Deep North sold to a brothel in a harbor town where she is forced to have sex “on a pillow of waves” with the scum that comes off boats. The second stanza tells us how she got there: her stepmother, while father was away, sold her,
an innocent child, to a brothel – although at first only to be a waitress or maid. In the context of the stanzas that followed, Basho’s “mountains burned and grass painted with blood” depicts the aftermath of the violent rape of an innocent virgin who now realizes that such loveless sexual encounters will be her grief every night for the rest of her life.
In Japan men and women treated their hair with camellia oil to hold the customary styles. This woman at a roadside inn cooks for travelers and also provides sex. She hates the greasy smell customers leave on her
pillow. She also hates the degrading pretence of false vows made to satisfy him with no possibility of becoming true love, since she is indentured and can never leave, and this hatred burns hot enough to
roast the sardines she prepares for him.
Basho employs words as an art. His stanza contains only four words: iwashi, “sardines” – a specific, physical image of dead fish; kari no, “temporary” as a modifier for chigiri, “vows” – which is a contradiction,
since vows are defined as permanent – and the tangible verb yakaruru, “to be roasted.” Although Basho composed this in 1677, the theme of vows will reoccur in Basho’s mind and poetry numerous times in the 17
years remaining in his life.
For instance, we see vows in this stanza-pair composed by Sora and Basho in 1688:
The emperor has ordered troops to subjugate the rebels; the samurai gather, and when morning comes, leave camp with strict, solemn military precision. Someone is going to get it! Meanwhile, the commander of the rebels (Han Solo) has spent the night in a brothel, and when morning comes makes a hasty departure so he can prepare his army. Before he leaves, since he is not likely to need cash ever again, he gives all he has to his partner in one night’s “temporary” vow of love. (Military commanders carry considerable funds).
Here we have a play-woman who got lucky. Now she can purchase her freedom, return to her home village, a hero because she saved her family from ruin, marry that boy she loves, and have children.
Taking off from Sora’s masculine military stanza, Basho creates a blessing for the female. Though the woman is not mentioned in any word, if we look into the link between the two stanzas, we discover her,
one who has endured year after year of degradation in solemn dignity, and from her years of misery we leap to the wonder of her good fortune; yet along with the joy she feels for what he – this powerful man she has had sex with and slept with – has given her, comes the grief of knowing why he is giving away all his cash.
Basho writes about vows in his famous travel journey A Narrow Path in the Heartlands about his journey to the Deep North in 1689. First he speaks of the pledge of the goddess Tree Blossom Princess to be
faithful to her husband, the grandson of the Sun Goddess; second he presents a haiku by his traveling companion Sora about the constancy of vows in osprey, birds which are pair-bonded and absolutely
committed to faithfulness:
These fish hawks usually build their nest in trees, but this rock among the waves stands high enough that the birds feel it safe for their nest, and in that safe place they vow their commitment to each other and to their young.
Finally he presents his account of meeting two play-women from Niigata, women who were prostitutes in the play-quarters of Niigata but now are pilgrims on a spiritual journey. At first he only hears the two women through the wall of his inn for thenight; one of them laments:
Basho, unlike most men, listens to women and records their speech. The lament gives voice to all the women throughout the ages who have been ‘reduced to misery’ by the sex trade. David Barnhill says,
“this entire passage has given rise to voluminous and varied commentary,” however I note that in much of this commentary little attention is given to the play-women’s lament. Male scholars avert their eyes from the misery of prostitution, preferring to imagine that women are happy to provide sex the way men like it, without commitment. Ueda describes Basho’s haiku (below) about the women as a “light-hearted, even humorous poem about two pretty courtesans who happen to lodge at the same inn.” Ueda says nothing about their misery, while Basho says nothing about them being “pretty.”
The haiku Basho wrote about these two women is his one well-known verse about prostitution:
In the sadness of autumn, tiny purple petals of bush clover form in countless multitudes on the bush, live out their brief lives, then scatter to the ground. The two women have walked many miles to get to this inn. The day-long exertion and anxiety comes to rest in the haiku. All are sleeping peacefully under the moon shining on the roof of the inn.
I find it strange that many translators think the middle segment means “we slept with prostitutes” -- as if Basho were making a school-boy joke about sleeping in the same building with women who do IT for a living. Ha-ha. Actually there is no ‘I’ or ‘we’, no male person, anywhere in the verse; the only subject is ‘play-women.’ Just because some men insist upon seeing themselves and their fantasies in every scene, we do not have to join them.
Also, netari means ‘to sleep’ without sexual connotations; just to sleep, with peaceful dreams. To androcentric thinking, women have no role but to serve or please men – so if these women are merely sleeping, they may as well not exist. We remind the men that these women are NOT, now on this trip, prostitutes. They are pilgrims and they are women. They walk miles and miles every day, through the heat and humidity, the way Basho does, so they need their sleep. Let us not bother them with sex jokes.
Robert Aitken notes that some commentators assume that Basho equates himself with the moon, serene and aloft, sailing through the sky, while putting the play-women on a level with the unfortunate bush cover, living out their brief existence below.
Aitken disagrees and so do I. Basho has no conceit; he would never see himself “above” anyone else. Pre-eminent Basho scholar Kon Eizo sees it exactly the opposite: Basho is the low, humble one while the play-women are gorgeous like the moon. (though, remember, that at the time of this haiku, Basho has not even seen the women, but only heard their voices. Basho always seeks to see the unseen). Comparison and judgment - characterizing complex human beings in simple terms of higher or lower – is NOT what is going on in this verse. Aitken remarks, “Comparisons are odious.”
Rather than comparison, the point of this verse is Unity. These women are icons, symbols of humanity. ALL of us, no matter what we do or have, are tiny petals soon to scatter in the wind. Everyone in the inn – ordinary travelers as well as wandering poets and women on spiritual pilgrimages, and the innkeeper’s family as well – will soon pass away while the moon keeps on shining and preceding through its monthly cycle. When we watch someone fast asleep—alive without consciousness – we feel he or she exists on a separate plane, closer to the divine. The moonlight shining on the roof makes the inn a sort of shrine, and the bush-clover decorates this holy place. Under that roof are two courageous women, asleep with the kamisama.
When we see the women as the center of Basho’s verse, alive and by themselves, with no male presence, the poem becomes an ode to the silence and harmony of the woman's spirit in sleep.
No one ever sees her cry, yet when she is alone she mourns for the love she might have experienced if…Ordinarily a woman, unless she works on a boat, would not ride on one – so we get that this one is indentured to a tour boat. Every night she has sex with different men, while only in sleep can she dream of true love – but the rocking of the boat wakes her to reality, her life as a sex slave on this floating brothel.
Basho pays attention to women, without judgments, without men.
After thirty years
Yoshiwara no / misoji o oi no / tsukumo-gami
Neya no hashira ni / nembutsu kaite oku
The average age of death for play-women was 22, so a woman still in the Yoshiwara play quarters after thirty years is most unusual. If she was brought here as a teenager, now she is in her forties, but the misery and degradation of brothel slavery has ‘gone to her hair’ and aged it five decades beyond this. .
Different cultures and religions believe hair can reflect your inner-most emotions and traits, retaining its own unique spiritual power and energy….Native cultures, distinguished by their gender–neutral long locks, believe that hair is an extension of our thoughts, feelings and current life situation, indicating everything from age to relationship status to happiness.
The nembutsu prayer for salvation from the bodhisattva Amida is usually chanted everyday by Buddhists of the Pure Land Sects who believe that simple recitation, without knowledge of scriptures or meditation, will bring a person to the holy land of Amida – but this woman wanted a more permanent prayer. From Basho’s stanza, we cannot tell whether she is still alive or dead and gone – but we feel her hope.
Talking with the brothel’s customer in bed, I realize that this man is my cousin; probably we have never met, but he spoke of a relative who is my relative. Basho then takes an amazing leap into improbable coincidence, al la Dickens: this cousin also was the one arranged to marry me, but something happened and my family needed money, so they sold me to a brothel. And now here he is, in bed with me, only for one night.
A rich and powerful man in the Capital has paid off a play-woman’s loan, so now he owns her. He keeps her in a shack with a low door that can hardly open because of all the thorns. He does not want the neighbors to know she is here. (Even if she did escape, where could she go? Here she has shelter and food.) “Seven miles from the Capital” is close enough so he can visit her without too much trouble, but far enough – in the 17th century -- that no rumor of her will reach his wife, his colleagues, and the media.
This courtesan fulfills the jobs the brothel assigns to her: 1) to make her customer feel like he is the most important fellow in the world, and 2) order lots of expensive sake. He is willing even to die for such a love – yet we must keep in mind that this is all pretense and acting. She no more loves him than she will love tomorrow’s customer. In fact, she pities his gullibility and hates having to play these stupid games with a fool so gullible he believes she will destroy an extravagant kimono for him.
“You” are a brothel prostitute and “I” am your client for the night; because I can only afford inexpensive ‘new-sake’ which has not been aged for a year to gain the taste drinkers prefer, I must be young and inexperienced in brothel behavior. This is probably my first time having sex. To understand what is going on here, we must recognize the significance of shame or bashfulness in the Japanese mind.
We sit on the floor at a low table facing each other, with two tiny sake cups and a porcelain bottle of the intoxicating fluid. You fill my cup, which obliges me to drink and fill your cup which obliges you to drink and fill mine, and so on and on. We actually do speak, but say nothing significant; just “please go ahead and drink” and “oh, thank you, now you drink one too.” The more drunk we get, the more incapable we become of escaping from the mutual bind of obligation. Eventually we fall asleep at the table facing each other, and dawn comes without me getting laid. Mia says, "I like the first-person; it really conveys the ‘voice of youth’"
The brothel loaned money to the father with the daughter as surety on the loan, then she was expected to pay off the loan from the money she received from each customer after the brothel took its share.
The system was set up by the brothel to insure that few women gathered enough money to purchase freedom.
Here is a haiku by Lady Chiyo, born ten years after Basho's death, which conveys the play-women’s experience of mi-agari, when she pays the brothel her fee for one night, so tonight her “customer” is herself:
She wanted this one night to herself, to gather her inner resources, the resources she needs to go on with this life – but with no warm body alongside, the sudden drop in temperature after midnight in late autumn awakens her. Unable to get back to sleep, she lies there wondering: how will she ever earn her freedom when she takes nights off and has to pay for them? Wondering: What is karma? And what is syphilis?
The wonder of Chiyo’s haiku is how it contains three worlds – economics, the oppression of women, and seasonal awareness – all these between the upper and lower futons. She learned Basho’s art,
and in this haiku she does what he so often did: produce a word-portrait of female humanity.