“Pleasure Work” in Modern Japan


A review of Bodies, Numbers, and Empires: Representing “The Prostitute” in Modern Japan (1850-1912), by ANNE MARIE LYN DAVIS.

“The discursive production of the prostitute often revealed more about the political and social concerns during this era than about the realities of pleasure work during the same period,” writes Ann Marie Davis (pp. 3-4). It is these political and social concerns that Davis seeks to elucidate in Bodies, Numbers, and Empires. To this end, Davis organizes material on pleasure workers into four “chapters/sites,” with each chapter analyzing a media genre (site) that othered the pleasure worker.

The first site comprises late-nineteenth-century woodblock prints, domestically consumed, that depict pleasure workers catering to foreign clients. Davis interprets the prints’ semiotics as positioning the pleasure worker as a buffer between the Japanese viewer and her threateningly foreign client: “Flanked by the recognizable patterns and routines of pleasure, the colorful and whimsical depictions of new and foreign bodies seemed less intimidating and dangerous,” she argues (p. 36).

The second site is the statistical modeling that Meiji officials used to portray the pleasure worker as the wellspring of venereal disease. These numbers were garnered from the medical examinations that the regulatory system imposed on pleasure workers. Inasmuch as pleasure workers were the only group to undergo examination, it is no surprise that their disease rates seemed to be several orders of magnitude higher than those of the general population (including the clients who infected them). In this context, “regulationists” cast the charts and statistics of venereal-disease infection among pleasure workers as metonymic with their supposed moral failings. And by supporting the idea that licensed prostitution quarantined venereal disease in the pleasure worker, regulationists deemed these statistics proof that regulation also isolated moral failure within the brothel. Thus, according Davis’s analysis, statistics were a tactic by which the state legitimated itself as an entity that identified, quantified, and addressed society’s weaknesses. Likewise, this discursive practice of epidemiological-cum-moral threat authorized the government to surveille (and exorbitantly tax) pleasure workers.

The third chapter critiques the Protestant “abolitionist” groups that worked to dismantle prostitution regulation. Davis focuses on abolitionists’ denigration of pleasure workers as an embarrassment to the nation so awful that it threatened Japan’s international standing, and treaty revision along with it. Although these efforts to end legal sanction of the exploitation of pleasure workers at first seem benevolent, Davis argues, the motivations and means of abolitionists were classist, condescending, and statist rather than sympathetic. They vilified pleasure workers as a means to attack some of their most frequent and vigorous patrons by proxy. These clients were none other than Meiji oligarchs. In this vein, abolitionists sought to criticize their fellow elites more than to address the needs of the downtrodden.

The fourth site is A Prostitute’s Story (1913). This memoir by Wada Yoshiko recounts her time as a pleasure worker, which included stints of incarceration in the Yoshiwara’s venereal-disease “lock hospital” specifically designated for infected prostitute women. Davis also includes the advertisements and media treatments that depicted Wada as a “literary prostitute,” thereby establishing her as a legitimate authority on brothel life. Within this context, Wada’s deployment of confessional reflections, essential to the I-novel genre then in vogue, as well as her appropriation of the quantifying practices of scientific authority as she recorded life in the hospital, garnered Wada a certain measure of respect. Yet, according to Davis, this participant-observer stance “simultaneously reinforced, reestablished, and recreated past and present definitions of the prostitute” whenever Wada recounted such episodes as her and her cohort’s refusal to submit to the discipline of the hospital (p. 311).

The reader undoubtedly recognizes by now that Foucault’s History of Sexuality is the epistemological anchor of the dissertation. Complementing this is Davis’s attention to a strong literature on the development of statistics as a vehicle of state power and scientific authority in nineteenth-century Europe. In her analysis of A Prostitute’s Story, Davis invokes scholarship on agency, authenticity, and self-representation in autobiographical fiction (i.e. the I-novel).

In terms of its contribution to future historiography, the dissertation works toward filling a significant gap in English-language scholarship. Although there is 1) a wealth of scholarly material on pleasure work in the Edo period, 2) Frühstück’s and Garon’s work on sexology and moral suasion in the twentieth century, and 3) others’ work on the notorious Comfort Woman issue in the 1930s and 1940s, little has appeared in English on prostitution-regulation in the Meiji and early-Taisho periods, when that system, and activism opposing it, were established.

Furthermore, Davis’s innovations have broad potential for our investigations into the (re)construction of sexuality at the turn of the twentieth century. My use here of “pleasure worker” instead of “sex worker” or “prostitute” follows Davis’s example. This term, she argues, underscores the fact that “many workers in the entertainment zone [i.e. the pleasure quarters] held a broader value to customers who hired them as companions during a variety of social engagements as well as interpersonal encounters” than either of the currently-standard terms hold. I fully agree that this “more expansive” term better describes the cultural significance of the labor that these women performed (pp. 48-49). This improved attention to the meanings-in-context of paid companionship will help scholars better understand the history of sexuality itself.

Craig Colbeck
Harvard University
Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations

Primary Sources

Yokohama woodblock prints (Yokohama-e)
The Temperance Advocate (Fujin kyōfū zasshi)
The Yokohama Daily Newspaper (Yokohama nichi nichi shimbun)
A Prostitute’s Story (Yūjo monogatari)

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles, 2009. 329 pp. Primary Advisor: Sharon Traweek.

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