The mid-20th century comic strip Terry and the Pirates, as cringeworthy as its artless racism is, tells us as much about the Americans of the era as it does about the Chinese. In a similar way, the Longstreets’ Geishas and the Floating World is a delightful artifact for seeing Japan through the 1960s American, more especially male, gaze—so ineluctably male, in fact, it can be hard to identify what Ethel’s contributions might have been. Stephen Longstreet is the perfect American to reflect on the Yoshiwara pleasure district. A painter, jazzman, Hollywood screenplay writer, at home in both Saint Germain des Prés’s Tabu and Harlem’s Cotton Club, he instinctively identifies Yoshiwara as the Chrysanthemum Vie de Bohème as he effortlessly conjures the kaleidoscope of senses which Yoshiwara offered its male visitors. Geishas is one of a hundred books Longstreet wrote, so one does not read it for either the literary insight of Donald Keane’s translations or the erudition of Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince.
Yoshiwara, like many other pleasure quarters across Asia, was organized by a government keen on social control and tax revenues. Set in a former marshland far from Edo’s Nihonbashi district, it soon extended over many acres of tea houses, baths, theatres and courtesans’ villas. Over time Yoshiwara became the focal point for artists, actors, artisans as well as the courtesans—the mother lode of Tokugawa-era culture. We can still glimpse the glamor of the era in the splendid woodblock prints of Utamaro.
The floating world, as we are reminded by Timon Screech in a magistral essay“Going to the Courtesans”, in The Courtesan’s Arts, Feldman & Gordon, eds. Oxford 2006, epitomizes the Buddha’s warning that this world is illusion, and that there is nothing more illusory or more fleeting than pleasure. Melancholy pervades the floating world, and gives birth to a poetic voice that the oirans channeled in their artful songs and dances. The sad notes of the shamisen provided the perfect accompaniment.
Longstreet’s description of the floating world focuses mainly on sex. Below the haughty oirans and their aristocratic protectors, a chorus of soubrettes sought paying patrons for a night, or for even shorter engagements. He emphasises how Yoshiwara became a prison for many of these women, trapped by debt, and how it became their tomb, killing them with alcohol or syphilis. This reviewer admits having been chastened by this description of the sordid reality of Yoshiwara. It is the other side of the coin which the glamorous prints of Utamaro obscures.
The image of Yoshiwara as mainly a sex factory behind satin curtains is a reflection of Longstreet’s late 19th century and early 20th century sources. Following the 1859 opening of Japan, traditional Tokugowa culture declined rapidly. The daimyo, or feudal lords, who had patronized the distinguished, erudite and exquisitely trained oirans, went into eclipse. The genro, or notables of the Meiji restoration, kept their cultivated mistresses in private villas, as their counterparts did in London or Paris. So merchants and salarymen remained the only patrons of Yoshiwara, and as happened in other Asian pleasure quarters, the relative lack of culture of the newly affluent encouraged them to settle for sake and sex. Longstreet comes too late to the party to understand what had been lost culturally, though he does point that the American marines roaming the town did not contribute to raising the tone.
In the 1960s, the American reader still needed to exorcise the ghost of Freud from their sex-lives. Japan’s frank and uncomplicated relationship to pleasure offered them an attractive alternative. Many of Longstreet’s sources document the unease of the American Dante guided through this erotic Purgatory by laid-back Japanese Virgil. It is fun to speculate what a 113-year old Longstreet would want to tell us now about the bubble baths of Tokyo, the disinterest of Japan’s younger generation in la chose, and whether American visitors to Japan are reconciled to their Dionysian side. As it is, we have an ode to sex and Japan by a friend of Matisse, Count Bassie and Paul Robeson, with all the charm and mental baggage which that entails.
David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↩||“Going to the Courtesans”, in The Courtesan’s Arts, Feldman & Gordon, eds. Oxford 2006|