Today Susan Spann, author of the just-released historical mystery CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur), discusses the women of the "floating world," entertainers who led independent lives outside medieval Japan's standard class structure.
Subversion or Submersion: The Women of Japan's
by Susan Spann
Medieval Japanese culture split along class-based lines, with the samurai nobility at the top of the social structure and the “untouchable” eta (tanners, executioners, and people who dealt with the dead) at the bottom. Farmers and merchants filled the middle rungs of the social ladder.
But there was another social group, largely composed of women, which stood outside the standard class structure altogether: the entertainers and business people of Japan’s pleasure districts, also known as the “floating world.”
Ukiyo, usually translated “floating world,” was a Japanese sub-culture that existed outside the everyday patterns and social rules. The very word “ukiyo” conjured images of an impermanent but lovely world filled with fleeting beauty and entertainments which allowed a participant or observer (usually male) the chance to shed his day-to-day responsibilities and cares.
Most of the entertainers who worked in this world were female, and most of the businesses there were owned by women. Famous geishas often purchased teahouses upon retirement, and those who could not afford a teahouse usually became dance or music teachers—and, therefore, small business owners.
These businesses were unique because, unlike the women who worked in their husbands’ shops or labored on family farms, the women of the floating world owned their business directly, usually with no male supervision.
Patrons of the entertainment districts were overwhelmingly male and usually, though not always, well-to-do. Their wives and female relatives lived very different lives from the savvy women of the entertainment districts, and yet, to the medieval Japanese male, this presented no problem or conflict because a wife and an entertainer filled very different social roles.
In Medieval Japan, a wife’s duty was bearing children and managing her husband’s household. Most upper-class women were literate, a necessity because women often kept the books of account in families of the merchant and samurai classes.
Samurai women often trained with at least one weapon, usually either the naginata (a bladed staff similar to the European glaive) or the kaiken (a kind of dagger). Although women didn’t usually join their husbands in battle, a samurai woman was expected to have the skills to defend herself and her house with lethal force if necessary. In rare occasions, samurai women did become warriors, known as onna-bugeisha.
Merchants’ wives often helped in the family shop, either selling goods or working “behind the scenes” in various ways. Like samurai women, females of the merchant class were literate, but secondary to husbands (and sons) in the family hierarchy.
But the primary role of women in any social class was taking care of her home, her husband, and her children. Women outside the floating world rarely owned property, or businesses, and though a wife could inherit her husband’s property on his death it was far more common for a man to leave his estate to his son (with the expectation, usually followed, that the heir would take care of his mother as long as she lived).
Men went to the entertainment districts to enjoy performances and companionship, which sometimes included sexual encounters, but not always. Contrary to popular belief, most geishas were not prostitutes. They were specialists in song, dance and conversation. Most of the time, their visitors spent the evening drinking tea, discussing art or politics, and watching as the women sang or danced. In contrast to a wife, whose role was focused on family, an entertainer’s job was to offer an interesting performance or conversation.
Ironically, an entertainer’s independence was part of her allure.
The sexism and lack of equality which characterized medieval Europe definitely existed in Japan. Women as a whole were considered inferior to men, and the wife/entertainer dichotomy reinforced traditional, male-dominated gender roles. That said, medieval Japanese women were not without power or opportunities on an individual level.
And within the floating world, the women called the shots.
Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. CLAWS OF THE CAT, her debut shinobi mystery featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori, released on July 16, 2013, from Minotaur Books (for more information visit: http://us.macmillan.com/clawsofthecat/SusanSpann). Susan has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and horseback riding, and she keeps a marine aquarium where she raises seahorses and rare corals. You can find Susan online at http://www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann.