Tuesday 14 February 2017

Love, Sex and Romance in Old Japan - Valentine’s Day Special by Lesley Downer

Until the late nineteenth century, there was no word for ‘love’ in Japanese, no equivalent to the western concept of pure, ennobling, platonic love, the courtly love of chivalry. Love was the forbidden fruit. 

Tayu courtesan in Shimabara, Kyoto.
The Japanese acknowledged the strength of love, its power to subvert the existing order, and did all they could to tamp it down. Falling in love was seen as a madness that swept you off your feet, made you go off with someone totally unsuitable. Such folly could only lead to tragedy. Far from expecting to fall in love, as we do, men and women had marriages arranged by their families.

One of Japan’s most emblematic love stories is that of Tokubei and Ohatsu. Tokubei was a clerk, Ohatsu a famous and beautiful courtesan. Tokubei was far too poor to be able to spend a night with Ohatsu, let alone buy her out of servitude. And, as a courtesan, it was Ohatsu’s job to make men fall in love with her but never, never to fall in love herself.

Nevertheless Ohatsu fell for this poor clerk.

Somehow Tokubei managed to beg, borrow or steal the money to pay her ransom. But then he was swindled out of his savings. Realising they could never be together the two decided to run away to Sonezaki Shrine in the wood of Tenjin and kill themselves so they could be together in death. There he stabbed first her, then himself, in the throat.
Cherry blossom time in the
Yoshiwara pleasure quarters.
Utagawa Hiroshige. Los Angeles County Fund

The event caused a sensation. Their story was immortalised by the great playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724). The play was first performed in the bunraku puppet theatre in 1703, the year of their deaths. The lines that the chorus sings as they walk into the forest are some of the most famous and moving in all of Japanese literature:

‘Farewell to this world and to the night farewell.
We who walk the road to death, to what should we be likened?
To the frost by the road that leads to the graveyard,
Vanishing with each step we take ahead:
How sad is this dream of a dream!’

Gravestone of Ohatsu and Tokubei.

The play inspired a spate of copycat suicides and to this day ‘love suicide’ a la Romeo and Juliet is still considered the ultimate romantic act.  

But this was not courtly love. Tokubei was in love with a real woman, not some distant idealised figure, and Ohatsu was equally in love with him.

Geisha, Pontocho, Kyoto
As I said, at the time there was no word in Japanese for pure idealised ‘love’ which has nothing to do with sex. The word koshoku meant both love and lust and everything in between. There was no distinction between the two. Love was not something you felt for your wife. That would have been disrespectful. Respectable married women were taught not to make themselves attractive - not to ‘tart themselves up’, if you like.

Then in the late nineteenth century western literature entered Japan. Translators came across the word and the concept of ‘love’ and realised that it referred to something different from ‘lust’, some pure, noble emotion which didn’t require physical gratification. To begin with they used the English word ‘love’, phonetically transliterated as rabu, and eventually coined a new word - ren’ai.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin
 at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek,
Copenhagen, photographer 
Yair Haklai 2010.

There was also no word for ‘kiss’. When Oda Jun’ichiro translated Edward Bowler Lytton’s Ernest Maltravers into Japanese in 1878, he was stumped by the phrase, ‘I should sleep well if I could get one kiss from those coral lips.’ He finally came up with, ‘if I could get one lick of your red lips’, which Japanese of the time found extremely amusing.

A woman named Sugimoto Inagaki Etsu records in her 1926 memoir, A Daughter of the Samurai, that when she set off for America in 1898, her mother warned her, “I have heard, my daughter, that it is the custom of foreign people to lick each other as dogs do.”

But all this does not mean that love and kissing did not exist in old Japan. They did; but as we have seen they had a different place in the order of things.

Geisha provided an outlet for romantic feelings - though, while a man might have strong feelings for a geisha, he was well aware that she was being paid. Kissing was part of a geisha’s repertoire of exotic sexual techniques. It was not something that decent women did.

Eventually the word ‘kiss’ was transliterated as kissu, the only Japanese word for ‘kiss’ used to this day. When Rodin’s statue The Kiss was erected in Tokyo in the 1930s, it caused a sensation. The kissing heads had to be wrapped in a scarf. There was no problem with the naked bodies.

So, as we have seen, in old Japan love and marriage did not go together ‘like a horse and carriage’. They had very little to do with each other.

Love belonged on the wrong side of the tracks - which made it all the more alluring. The system which the Tokugawa shoguns established and which lasted for more than 250 years, from 1603 to 1868, put a premium on order above all. There was a place for everything and everything in its place. The place for love was the pleasure quarters, where it would not pollute the decent world of work, wife and children.

The most famous of these was the Yoshiwara, a good way outside Edo (now Tokyo), across the marshes. It was a city devoted to pleasure - the pleasure of men. There was every human emotion there - pain and tragedy, romance and love - and everything was heightened and intense. It was a place reserved for all the emotional side of life, so that outside it people could get on with the serious business like having a family and working. It was Las Vegas, it was Hollywood - a glamorous world of fun and fantasy, where whatever a man did had no consequences.

There, if he could afford it, a man might spend night after night with a beautiful courtesan. She no doubt told him she loved and desired him - as she told plenty of other men - and he might well be completely in love with her. It would suit her purposes if he was. In the morning as he left the pleasure quarters he would turn at the Looking Back Willow to take a long last look as she stood waving, wiping away a tear if she was a particularly consummate actress.

But it would be the pinnacle of folly for her to fall in love with him or anyone else - unless she too wanted to walk the road of death along with Tokubei and Ohatsu.

Lesley Downer's new novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is published by Bantam. Find more information on her website, http://www.lesleydowner.com/





Leslie Wilson said...

How interesting! love was regarded as a madness in seventeenth century England too, and I think the comparison with Romeo and Juliet is apt. I was thinking of the Chinese story about the 'Butterfly lovers', not about amateurs of lepidoptera, but about two lovers who committed suicide because they too couldn't be together, and were then changed into butterflies. There's a famous piece of music about them. I loved this blog.

Sue Purkiss said...

Absolutely fascinating!