Commercialized Vice-The Yoshiwara-An Establishment Therein-Famous Old Geisha-A "Male Geisha"-The Stately Shogi-They Show Us Courtesy-The Merits of the Shogi-Kyoto's Shimabara-The Shogi in Romance-The Tale of the Fair YoshinoSOME Americans are horrified because commercialized vice is officially recognized in Japan. The thought is unpleasant. but I am by no means sure that, since this form of vice does exist everywhere in the world, the policy of recognizing and regulating it is not the best policy.
The Japanese work, apparently, upon the theory that, as this evil cannot be stamped out of existence, the next best thing is to stamp it as far as possible but of the public consciousness. This is done by segregating the women called shogi in certain specified districts, and keeping them off the city streets.
Whatever may be urged for or against this system it enables me to say of Japan what I am not able to say of my own country or any other country I have visited: namely, that in Japan I never saw a street-walker.
The Tokyo district called the Yoshiwara is entered by a wide road spanned by an arch. Within, the streets look much like other Japanese streets, save that they are brightly lighted and that some of the buildings are large and rather ornate. First we went to a teahouse of the Yoshiwara, and I was readily able to perceive that the geisha in this teahouse were of a lower grade than those I had hitherto seen. Their faces were less intelligent, and they lacked the perfect grace and charm of' their more successful sisters.
From the sounds about us it was apparent that a Yoshiwara teahouse is a place for drinking and more or less wild merrymaking.
Proceeding down the street from this teahouse we passed through orderly crowds and presently came to the district's most elaborate establishment. It was a large three-story building of white glazed brick, with an inner courtyard containing a pretty garden. To enter this place was like entering a very fine Japanese hotel.
In the corridor hung a row of lacquered sticks each bearing a number in the Chinese character. There were, I think, about thirty of these sticks, and each represented a shogi. The number-one shogi was the most sought-after; number two ranked next, and so on. We were shown by the proprietress and some maids to a large matted room on the second floor, where saké, cakes and fruit were served to us. Then there appeared three geisha of a most unusual kind. They were women fifty-five or sixty years of age, rather large, with faces genial, amusing, and respectable. These I was told were geisha with a great local reputation for boisterous wit. My Japanese friends were thereafter kept in a continual state of mirth, and though I could not understand what the old geisha were saying, their droll manner was so infectious that I, too, was amused. Presently they were joined by a man with the face of a comedian. He was described to me as a "male geisha." That is, he was an entertainer. He sang, told comic stories and showed real ability as a mimic.
This entertainment lasted for the better part of an hour. Then the mistress of the house came in with the air of one having something important to reveal. At a word from her the entertainers drew back and seated themselves on cushions at one side of the room. There was an impressive silence. Slowly, a sliding screen door of black lacquer and gold paper slipped back, moved by in unseen hand. We watched the open doorway.
Presently appeared the figure of a woman. She did not look in our direction, but moved out into the room as if it had been a stage and she an actress. Her step was slow and stately, and she was arrayed in a brilliant robe of red satin, heavily quilted, and embroidered with large elaborate designs. This was the number-one shogi. Her costume and bearing were magnificent, but her face was expressionless and not at all beautiful.
When she was well within the room the numbertwo shogi, dressed in the same style, moved in behind her, and followed with the same stately tread.
In procession they walked across the room, turned slowly, trailed the hems of their wadded kimonos back across the matting, and made an exit by the door at which they had entered. Then the door slipped shut.
The chatter began once more, but after a few minutes we were again silenced. For the second time the door opened and the two women appeared. They were now arrayed in purple kimonos, quilted and embroidered like the first. Again they made a dignified progress across the room and back; again they disappeared.
That was the end of the inspection. By now we should, in theory, have been entranced with one or the other of the shogi we had seen. It was time to go. But as the Japanese gentleman whom I had asked to bring me to this place was a man of consequence, an especial courtesy was shown us ere we departed. In ordinary circumstances we should not have seen the two women again, but now they unbent so far as to come in and kneel upon the floor beside us-for we had checked our shoes at the entrance, and were seated Japanese-fashion upon silk cushions.
My Japanese friends attempted to chat with the shogi, but evidently the latter did not shine in the arts of conversation. The talk was grave and unmistakably perfunctory, and after a little while the two arose, bowed profoundly, with a sort of grandeur, and trailed their wondrous robes out of the room. It was like seeing in the life a pair of courtesans from a colour-print by Utamaro. As they went I wondered whether, in the beginning, they had striven to be geisha instead of shogi, but had been forced to the Yoshiwara by reason of their lack of talent for music and conversation.
Before we left I was shown some of the other rooms of this huge house, including those of several of the women. The woodwork was like light brown satin and the matting glistened almost as though it were lacquered. There were some kakemono and fine painted screens with old-gold backgrounds, and in the women's rooms were cabinets and dressingstands lacquered red and gold. The dressing-stands were of a height to suit one squatting on the floor. It was as though the top section of one of our dressing tables were set upon the floor-a mirror with small drawers at either side.
The mistress and her maids accompanied us to the street door when we departed. They made profound obeisances, and the mistress declared her appreciation of the great honour we had paid her by visiting her establishment. My Japanese friends replied in kind. The whole affair was conducted with a fine sense of ceremony.
As for the three elderly geisha, they took another way of complimenting us. Instead of making ceremonious speeches they continued to be gay and amusing, but they did something which, when geisha do it, is considered a mark of high respect. They left the place with us, accompanying us as far as the gate of the Yoshiwara. One of them, a jolly old creature, with a fine, strong humorous face, linked arms with me as we walked along, and conversed with me in English. Perhaps the word "conversed" implies too much. Her entire English vocabulary consisted of the words: "All right," but she repeated the expression frequently and with changing intonations which gave a sort of variety.
It was a strange evening, and the strangest part of it was the absence of vulgarity. I had seen nothing that the most fastidious woman could not have seen.
As to what treatment is accorded the shogi themselves I cannot say. Certainly they did not have the air of being happy. Almost all of them are there because of poverty, and it is said that all live in the hope that some man will become fond of them and buy them out of the life of the joroya. This I believe occasionally happens. It should be added that, under the Japanese law, contracts by which women sell themselves, or are sold by others into this life, are not valid. It may further be added that all authorities on Japan seem to be in accord with Chamberlain who says that "the fallen women of Japan are, as a class, much less vicious than their representatives in Western lands, being neither drunken nor foul-mouthed." They also have a high reputation for honesty.
The name Yoshiwara is not a generic term, though strangers sometimes use it as if it were, speaking of "a Yoshiwara." Similar districts in other cities are known by other names-as, for example, the historic Shimabara, in Kyoto, which dates back about four centuries.
Like the Yoshiwara, the Shimabara has been moved from time to time, with a view to keeping it away from the heart of the city. History records that Hideyoshi caused the district to be uprooted and transplanted, and Ieyasu, the first Tokugowa shogun, did the same, on the ground that it was too near the palace and the business centre.
I find some odd items in a book giving the history of the Shimabara. It is said that in the old days only ronin-samurai acknowledging no overlord-were given charters to operate resorts in the Shimabara, and that court gentlemen visiting this quarter were required to wear white garments. There is also the story of a city official who used to meet now and then upon the streets of Kyoto a beautiful woman riding in a palanquin. It was his custom to salute her respectfully, for he thought her a court lady. But one day, upon inquiry, he learned that she was a courtesan, whereupon he became indignant, and caused the Shimabara quarter to be again removed, placing it still farther away from the city's heart.
There is some evidence that in feudal Japan the most admired courtesans were persons of more consequence than those of to-day. In olden times, for example, the Shimabara women were considered to rank above geisha, whereas now the situation is decidedly the reverse.
The stories of certain famous women of the ancient Shimabara are still remembered, and are favourites with writers of romances. One quaint tale tells of a beautiful girl named Tokuko, the daughter of a ronin. When her father and her mother died, leaving her penniless, she went into the Shimabara. Here, because of her grace, she became known as Uki-fune "floating ship." But she wrote a poem about the cherry blossoms at Mt. Yoshino, in Yamato Province, a place which for more than ten centuries has been noted for these blooms, and her poem was so much admired that she herself came to be called Yoshino.
A rich man's son fell in love with this girl and married her, but when his father learned what had been her occupation he disowned the youth. The young couple were however courageous. In a tiny cottage they lived a happy and romantic life.
One day it happened that the father, caught in a heavy rainstorm, asked shelter in a little house at the roadside. Here he found a beautiful young woman playing exquisitely upon the harp-like musical instrument called the koto. She welcomed him charmingly, made him comfortable, served him tea. When the storm had passed the old man thanked her for her hospitality and departed. But he had been so struck with her beauty and grace that he made inquiries about her.
"Ah," exclaimed the one of whom he asked, "she is none other than Yoshino, wife of your disinherited son!"
Upon hearing this the father relented. He sent for the young couple, took them to live in his own mansion, and directed the daughter-in-law to resume her original name, Tokuko-which means "virtue."
However, I have noticed that in Japan and all other lands, romantic stories making heroines of courtesans have to be dated pretty far back. The living courtesan is but rarely regarded as a romantic figure. She is like a piece of common glass.
But a piece of common glass, buried long enough in certain kinds of soil, acquires iridescence. This iridescence is not actually in the glass, but exists in a patine which gradually adheres to it. Under a little handling it will flake off.
I suspect that it is much the same with famous courtesans the world over. When, after having been buried for a hundred years or so, they are, so to speak, dug up by novelists and playwrights, there adheres to them a beautiful iridescent patine.
It is best, perhaps, to refrain from scratching the patine lest we find out what is really underneath.