Dancers of Medieval Japan

In medieval Japan of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, women could become popular and respected entertainers, dancers, acrobats and performers. The world of entertainment blurred into the world of the courtesan and, at her choice, the female performer could enter into a commercial sexual relationship with one or more of her audience who would be predominantly male. Some dancer-prostitutes obtained high office later in their lives and some had children who achieved high office in their own right: Prime Minister Tokudaiji Sanemoto and Grand Minister Saionji Sanefu were both sons of women in this profession and found it no bar in their careers.

There were three main types of job. The asobime were performers on water; that is, they would go about on boats and offer entertainments to those wished to come on board or watch from the shore of the lake or river. Asobime were noted for their expensive and fashionable clothes, which were often compared favourably with those of leading ladies of the court. Kugutsume were performers who resided in road side inns and offered entertainment to travellers going between towns and cities. Some resided permanently in one place while others moved from inn to inn. Again, their work was primarily entertaining by song, dance, puppet play and localgirls for man other activities but they could also sell sexual services if they wished generally, dancers would apply to local authorities to guarantee protection and safety, probably paying a fee or percentage of their earnings to do so. Presumably some abusive relationships existed but these were not the norm.

The third type of dancer-prostitute was the shiryaboshi, who were known as high-class courtesans who typically wore boys clothing. Shiryaboshi were available for hire as entertainers and would visit the homes of their customers to do so. The highest nobles of Kamakura paid shiryaboshi to come to entertain them and, in some cases, the women were installed as permanent members of the household.

Japanese society from the medieval period onwards has been organised on a class and social basis. This had some benefits in that it made clear what were the duties and responsibilities of each individual within society and who would receive protection and support from whom. Of course, many people lived outside this ordered society and were bandits, vagrants or just disaffected. Generally, the structures of society assisted the role and status of women by defining their position and their status. The presence of the dancer-prostitutes was not a threat to the status of married women or their children because their position was known and accepted. Even so, it is likely that some men may have lost their heads for a pretty and accomplished dancer.

Souyri, Pierre-Franois, The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society (London: Pimlico, 2002), translated by Kthe Roth.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University, April 2007