Wednesday 14 February 2018

Deconstructing Love - by Lesley Downer

Valentine’s Day comes round again and we spend a day or two thinking about love. But what exactly is it? Is it a feeling as specific as hunger or pain, common to people the world over?

‘Love - whatever that means.’

In Japan until the late nineteenth century, there was no word that matched our western conception of love. There was koshoku, meaning ‘desire’, ‘lust’, ‘passionate physical love’, the madness that sweeps you off your feet when you’re least expecting it. But there was no word for romantic love - the love that inspired a gentleman to woo a lady then drop to one knee and propose marriage, that sent couples fleeing to Gretna Green in defiance of their parents’ wishes. Love and marriage didn’t go together like a horse and carriage.

Nor was there anything akin to the courtly love of the troubadours, the pure love of chivalrous knights who put a lady on a pedestal, suffered torments of undeclared passion, rode into battle with her scented glove tucked into his breast plate and would never have dreamt of sullying her with anything as vile as carnal thoughts.
Manami as a geisha

Love and marriage

Falling in love wasn’t something you wistfully hoped would happen. No one expected to meet the perfect person and live happily ever after.

Once they reached adolescence, boys and girls seldom met. The only men a young woman of good family would ever meet would be her brothers and other family members. People assumed their parents would arrange a marriage for them and trusted them to find a suitable husband or wife.
'Wives dressed demurely'
Ex-geisha Manami, now a wife

Once married, love was not something a man expected to feel for his wife. That would have been disrespectful (though sometimes couples who had had an arranged marriage did fall in love.)

Wives did not expect to enjoy sex. That was for procreation and it pretty much stopped once the requisite number of children were born. Respectable women dressed demurely in sombre colours. The women depicted in woodblock prints in flamboyant kimonos, their hair studded with hairpins, are ladies of the night, not respectable women.

It was not that Japanese didn’t fall head over heels in love. But when they did, they knew it was all too likely to end in disaster. And that made it all the more fatally attractive. Love was the forbidden fruit.

Love in the pleasure quarters

In Japan under the shoguns there was a place for everything and everything had its place. The place for love was the pleasure quarters. That was where a man went in search of the love and romance that was missing from his marriage. That was where he went to enjoy recreational, not procreational, sex.
A dream of romance:
tea ceremony in the pleasure quarters

To the government of the day, love was so tempestuous a force that it needed to be kept tightly under control. The pleasure quarters were walled cities of pleasure which grew into centres of culture, where a man could go and enjoy an afternoon of refined entertainment, tea ceremony and so on, before moving on to the more colourful activities of the evening.

There were women for all pockets, tastes and levels of society, from prostitutes who flaunted their wares through the bars of latticed rooms to celebrity courtesans who held salons. A man would have had to be very rich, very interesting and very persistent to have even a chance of bedding one of those, added to which the courtesans often exercised their prerogative of saying ‘No’, which sent their price into the stratosphere. 

And all this took place in a fabulous setting, hung with brocades and kimonos, surrounded by exquisite artefacts .

For men it offered a dream of romance with no strings attached. The pleasure quarters were diametrically opposed in every way to the everyday world of work and family. Courtesans and geisha didn’t cook or clean or do anything that would pollute them with the ‘stink of domesticity’. It was a sort of never never land, where a man could say and do pretty much anything he liked and it would be washed clean the next day.
'Lavish clothes':
Actress dressed as Edo courtesan

The courtesan’s job was to make the customer fall in love with her so that he would visit more and more frequently and spend more and more money. They were beautiful, witty, brilliant, accomplished. They wore lavish clothes. 

They danced, sang, chatted, talked intelligently about politics if the man so wanted. They flattered and flirted, and, if the man ever got the chance to find out, he’d discover they were brilliant in bed - all things that decent women like his wife never did. He would have been horrified if his wife had behaved like that. 

In fact the courtesan was completely out of his league, were it not for the fact he was paying for it. Money would buy this extraordinary woman, her smiles, her caresses, her swooning interest in everything he said. This gorgeous creature would persuade him he was brilliant, handsome, that she was madly in love with him. What man wouldn’t go for that?

Everything was there to enhance a man’s pleasure. The pleasure quarters were where you went to find aphrodisiacs - charred newt, eel, lotus root, dried rings of sea slug to fit over the penis. Grilled viper was also an aphrodisiac, as was the toasted fin of the fugu, the famous blowfish whose liver, kidneys, ovaries and eyes are deadly poisonous. There was always a titillating link between sex and death.
Fugu by Kawahara Keiga (1786-1860)

Courtesans wrote beautiful love letters. Some would offer a lock of their hair or a finger nail as proof of her love. And when the customer left the pleasure quarters in the morning she would escort him to the gates and be wiping away tears as he turned at the Looking Back Willow to feast his eyes one last time.

The key rule for women: never fall in love

The women of course were working. For them the difficult tightrope they had to walk was between playing at love without ever falling in love. But sometimes they did fall in love and it was invariably a disaster. It was always the wrong man, not the rich client who’d become a woman's patron and support her but a poor young clerk or a son whose father had marriage plans for him and who would disown him and disinherit him if he disgraced the family by running away with a courtesan.

When that happened many couples decided that the only way out was to die together, to commit ‘love suicide’, still to this day considered the ultimate demonstration of love. 

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see

Picture at top: 'Lovers walking in Snow' by Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770), courtesy of wikipedia commons. Fugu: courtesy of wikipedia commons. All other pictures by me.