Amy Stanley, "Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan" (U California Press, 2012)


With prose that is as elegant as the argument is clear, Amy Stanley's new book tells a social, cultural, and economic history of Tokugawa Japan through the prism of prostitution. Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan (University of California Press, 2012 ) undermines our assumptions about seemingly basic categories like marriage, freedom, and sex. It also maps the ways that the spaces of prostitution in early modern Japan transformed together with the rise of a market economy, leading us from major cities like Edo and Nagasaki, through mining towns and ports, to pilgrim sites in the Inland Sea. While the increasing commercialization of the Tokugawa economy was liberating for some, creating new opportunities for travel and leisure, Stanley shows that this new "freedom" was actually oppressive for many women. Initially understood as filial daughters embedded in families and communities that they worked to support, by the 19th century women who worked in the sex trade were increasingly seen as autonomous economic actors. As their bodies became commodities, prostitutes became symbols of the destructive influences of urban culture in the villages to which they increasingly came to work. Stanley's book introduces these women and their world in a book that is rich with case studies that bring us into the lives of individual prostitutes, their families and employers, and the fascinating documents that allow us a glimpse into their stories.

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