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Changing Times for Japanese Sex Workers

Changing Times for Japanese Sex Workers

In medieval Japan, sexual entertainers and their customers enjoyed great freedoms until a growing orthodoxy stifled their trade, Janet Goodwin tells a UCLA audience.

By Ayub Khattak

An early Heian period painting shows three women in a boat rowing alongside a larger boat carrying male passengers, some dressed richly and some ascetically—aristocrats and monks. The kimono-clad women were asobi, or sexual entertainers, singing their siren song to lure the aristocrats to some temporary pleasure shack.

With the monks in the rear, explained an independent scholar, Janet Goodwin, Jan. 9 at UCLA, the large boat was probably on its return from some chartered pilgrimage to a sacred site. The asobi knew well the sea lanes for pilgrims who were ready to unburden themselves of their journey’s abstinence. Goodwin, who spoke at a colloquium sponsored by the Center for Japanese Studies, observed that weaker pilgrims might have looked for the asobi even on the way to sacred sites.

How did this libertine activity stand, so laden with irony? Goodwin said that in fact it did not, that once liberal perceptions towards sexuality would give way to a conservative sexual orthodoxy in both the Heian (794–1185) and the Kamakura periods (1185–1333).

Entertainments provided by the asobi were not exclusively sexual. The women's high-priced services included folk songs, sometimes lyrically composed of Buddhist sutras, and traditional dances, Goodwin said.

Goodwin drew on such sources as courtier and courtesan diaries, records of judicial cases involving the asobi, and divorce settlements to argue that the Japanese embraced a very liberal attitude towards sex in the early Heian period. Men were polygamous, women serially monogamous, widows sexually active, and divorce common. Prostitution was merely risqué, not shameful, according to Goodwin.

But as time went on, Goodwin said, people began to look on the asobi with distrusting eyes. Celibate monks, their chastity perhaps threatened, began to decry the women as a wicked bunch out to distract and corrupt Buddhist men.

One story Goodwin cited was that of a Buddhist monk who recounted seeing a beautiful, naked woman when a sudden stir of wind lifted the wispy curtain that hid her from the street. The sight inspired such burning lust in the monk that he prayed fervently to be reincarnated as an Oni, or devil, that would possess the right to rape the maiden.

Castle Topplers

Beyond temptations and conflicts, social considerations began to prompt change, Goodwin argued. With the emergence of the shogunate during the Heian period, greater emphasis was placed on a strict patrilinear system. Penalties for adultery grew more strict, in part to prevent feuds among legitimate as well as illegitimate offspring.

Women who seduced high-level aristocrats came to be known as keisei, or "castle topplers," after one lady was sent by one lord specifically to enslave a rival through seduction, finally coaxing him into giving up his holdings.

Meanwhile, the asobi were gaining a reputation as a public nuisance because of their itinerancy. Although some settled in “pleasure districts," they were largely nomadic, drifting about in search of work. "They live in animal-hair tents and drift from place to place in pursuit of food and water, just like the northern barbarians," wrote a twelfth-century observer, Ôe Masafusa, in a sharp departure from the tone he had adopted in an earlier description of the asobi. ("Their voices halt the clouds floating through the valleys, and their tones drift with the wind blowing over the water. Passers-by cannot help but forget their families," Ôe had written.)

Gradually, and as the asobi came under harsh scrutiny from a ministry set up to regulate prostitution, the stigma attached to sexual entertainment prevented many aristocrats from indulging in it.

The sexual orthodoxy that reigned in the asobi had broader consequences for the liberties of Japanese women, Goodwin said. Divorce was increasingly frowned upon, and widows were expected to remain unattached and to pray for their dead husbands, perhaps entering a nunnery. Attitudes changed not merely towards physical acts, Goodwin suggested, but towards gender roles, affecting especially the lives of women.

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies