the translation of yūjo 遊女

Question raised by Janine Beichman

Discussants: Royall Tyler, Janet Goodwin, Janine Beichman, Kendon Stubbs, David Pollack, Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, Richard Bowring, Ivo Smits, Gaye Rowley, John Schmitt-Weigand, Jordi Escurriola

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From: Janine Beichman
Date: Mon, 04 Oct 1999 21:41:29 +0900
Subject: translating 'yuujo'

How do you translate the word 'yuujo' [遊女], written play woman? I have heard 'courtesan,' 'prostitute', 'woman of pleasure'. Perhaps the word is too broad in meaning to be covered by one English word; in this case, I need it to describe the authors of kinsei kayou (another term I wonder how to translate: Edo period popular song? Folksong doesn't seem quite right. ) Any suggestions or corrections welcomed! I wish Frank Hoff were on this list, he could help!

From: Royall Tyler
Date: Tue, 5 Oct 1999 06:47:43 +1000

I've also used "singing girl," I think. That might do. Not "prostitute," certainly. "Woman of pleasure" is pretty close to the original, though not what you want. (Fascinating how hopeless "party girl" would be!)
From: Janet R. Goodwin
Date: Mon, 4 Oct 1999 22:38:27 -0700 (PDT)

Dear Janine,

If you want to use a single term without an extended sociological analysis, I'd suggest 'courtesan' for the Edo-period yuujo, since they traded in sex but were also known for their entertainment and their conversational skills.

From: Janine Beichman
Date: Tue, 05 Oct 1999 23:23:03 +0900

Thanks for your advice; right now, I think I am going to go with 'courtesan' as per Janet, although I have since discovered that kinsei kayou actually means Azuchi-Momoyama, which I take as late 16th century. OED defines courtesan, when applied to women, as "a court-mistress; a woman of the town, a prostitute. (A somewhat euphemistic appellation)" I wonder if court-mistress or woman of the town could be thought to include women who sang and danced for a living. I can't figure out what 'court-mistress' is, though, and the OED doesn't have a separate entry for it. Could 'woman of the town' be rather like a female "man about town"? Or would it be more like a wicked woman of the city as opposed to the putatively pure daughters of the family-centered countryside?

This is the poem in case anyone's interested, though I'm afraid there will be complaints about having turned four lines into six and also about having translated the last line too freely.

鳥と鐘とは            Tori to kane to wa
思ひのたねよ        omoi no tane yo
とは思えども        to wa omoedomo
人により候            hito ni yori soro

隆達小歌                 Ryuutatsu Kouta

Birds and bells--
they're seeds of gloom
or so I thought--
but it all depends on who
you've lately
lain with
Ryuutatsu Song

Janine Beichman

From: Royall Tyler
Date: Wed, 6 Oct 1999 06:28:57 +1000

Yes, certainly "courtesan" is a cute euphemism, and a "woman of the town" is no doubt roughly equivalent to "streetwalker." "Court-mistress" sounds as intentionally fuzzy as "intellectually challenged" or "me no fujiyuu na hito." I much prefer "singing girl," which seems only mildly euphemistic and which carries none of the horrid baggage listed by Richard Bowring. But what can you do?

From: Kendon Stubbs
Date: Tue, 5 Oct 1999 18:01:00 -0400

The OED includes "court-mistress" far down in the entry for "court" with various "court-" combinations, between "court-milliner" and "court-odour." There is no definition, but this quotation from Wycherley: "Common court-friends, like common court-mistresses, ruin those they profess to love, by their embraces and friendship." "Court-mistress" seems not to appear elsewhere in English poetry or drama (at least before 1900), except in a few Restoration dramas. Examples: Cary's _The Mariage Night_ (1664), where De Flame insults the Duke by saying, "Then Claudilla was your Court Mistresse, Duke | 'twere prophanation to say whore." Or Brome's _The City Wit_ (1653), where a wife whose husband is having an affair is pitied for having "her Jewells prig'd away, to bestow on a Court Mistresse."

"Court-mistress" appears to be another term laden with opprobrium in historical usage.

From: David Pollack
Date: Tue, 5 Oct 1999 18:14:25 -0400 (EDT)

Might I propose, with great diffidence, "geisha" as a translation for yuujo? After all, most people don't have the slightest idea exactly what a geisha (pron geesha) is or does anyhow, except that it might possibly have something to do with sex and seems somewhat glamorous. The fact that geisha and jorou are two different things doesn't really matter when, in the foreign mind, the word can conjure up anything from a woman who sings and dances to a grande horizontale, all of which seems entirely approriate for a yuujo.

From: Richard Bowring
Date: Tue, 5 Oct 1999 18:46:21 -0700

Dear Janine,
Yuujo is impossible to translate properly because of differing attitudes to sex. Look up courtesan in Roget and you will find that sex as 'asobi' only seems to apply to men in English. Every word referring to the female of the species is laden with opprobium: whore, wench, trollop, slut etc. You have a real problem. Even something like 'woman of easy virtue' is miles away from yuujo. I have real difficulty with 'courtesan' which smacks to me of high society: Zola's Nana for example. That is why OED says that its usage re a prostitute is euphemistic. You ask what 'court-mistress' means. Sei Shonagon may have recognized herself as one from time to time. No?

From: Ivo Smits
Date: Wed, 6 Oct 99 11:15:45 +0200

Let us muddle the issue somewhat and jump back to the Heian and early Kamakura periods. I realize that the Edo yuujo is not the same thing as the Heian asobi (or asobime), but would like to pose Royall Tyler the question whether he wishes to distinguish between the Heian terms 'asobi' (or 'yuujo'-- already then their Sinified name) and 'gijo' 妓女 (GI: onna-hen with eda [Radical 66] )? 'Gijo" is also often translated as 'singing girl', although old and non-PC dictionaries of Chinese may give you (yes yes) 'harlot' and 'courtesan.' I also realize that 'gijo' is essentially a Chinese term, not really much in use in Japan, but nevertheless an anthology such as the "Wakan roueishuu" does distinguish between the two and even has a waka on the subject (no. 718). Then there also is the term 'kugutsu(me)' [傀儡(女)], for which, I believe, everyone has more or less given up trying to think of translations; most will simply use the Japanese word. But perhaps Janet Goodwin has a solution here? It seems to me that Heian Japanese did not always bother to make much of a distinction between such categories; certainly an author such as Ooe no Masafusa occasionally makes fun of our present attempts to categorize so neatly. Of course, they did not have such subtle ranking mechanisms as in Edo Yoshiwara either. Perhaps we may lump all these women together under a generic name? Since some of these women put in an appearance in the Genji, I am curious to know how Royall Tyler translates the term(s), if we are allowed a preview of his translation. 'Singing girl,' after all?

The question of how to translate asobi may have its bearings on Janine Beichman's questions. There are some similarities between the Heian and Edo asobi/yuujo. Both were valued for their skills as performers of song (and dance, to an extent in the Heian period), but both also catered in sex, When Heian courtiers got into 'the little boats' with asobi at the end of a party where they had performed to cruise around through the reeds, my bet is that they did more than talk poetry.

Ivo Smits

From: Gaye Rowley
Date: Wed, 6 Oct 1999 12:06:34 +0100
Subject: Translating yuujo as geisha?

Forgive me for intruding from the sidelines here, but it's my impression that most people have a pretty good idea what geisha do, and that they've known what they do for a long time. In the exhibition catalogue "Japan and Britain: An Aesthetic Dialogue 1850-1930" (ed. Tomoko Sato and Toshio Watanabe), the cover page of a piece of sheet music from 1896 is reproduced (p.41/item no.217). Entitled 'The Geisha', the chorus of the song goes: "...I've made things hum a bit you know since I became a Geisha Japanesey, free and easy Tea house girl!"

>From World War II, we have the memoirs of Admiral I.J. Galantin, U.S.N. (Ret.), entitled _Take Her Deep! A Submarine Against Japan in World War II_. Apparently the submarine crew produced a ship's paper in their spare time. Galantin, who'd never been to Japan, contributed a poem entitled "Nai-o-be from Kobe" to the paper. It begins: "In that far off island nation, lives a girl of reputation. Famed for figure and for features, she is fairest of all creatures. Queen of Geishas is her title, she is nothing if not vital. It's terrific, cataclysmic, but in fact it's always rhythmic, When Nai-o-be shakes her obi down in Kobe."

Galantin seems to know that most geisha were recruited from the rural poor: "Men have conquered nature's forces, tapping all her vast resources, Save this child of humble peasants, laden down with pearls and presents."

The poem continues in this vein, and concludes with the following verse that perhaps indicates some knowledge of Japanese prostitutes in South East Asia: "Now there's culture, joy in Asia, even down to hot Malaysia. Tariffs, duties, all abolished, customs now are far more polished; Trade and commerce, how they've flourished, in that ancient art she nourished, For the spirit of Bushido has been matched with her libido, Since Nai-o-be shook her obi down in Kobe."

This seems to me too precise a knowledge amongst members of the general public to warrant using "geisha" as a smokescreen translation for "yuujo".

Gaye Rowley

From: Janine Beichman
Date: Wed, 06 Oct 1999 22:01:21 +0900
Subject: Re: Translating yuujo as geisha?

Gaye, trust you to come up with something as funny as that --I just love that last line
>When Nai-o-be shakes her obi down in Kobe."
But: to get to the nitty-gritty--are you proposing that there is no difference between a geisha who sells her favors only to selected men and a prostitute who services almost anyone? I had thought, as David suggested, of geisha, too. I suspect that they are descendants of yuujo. But I didn't think of it for long because it seemed so anachronistic that it would be bound to set everyone's teeth on edge except for a very general audience. I wonder if the Japanese critics who use the word now have a really clear idea of what it means themselves. Perhaps the best way to approach this would be to learn enough about the history of yuujo and their various incarnations before and after Azuchi-Momoyama (which is what 'kinsei' turns out to be for kayou, not Edo as I originally thought), and then become able to give a short, one-paragraph description of them in a glossary and then just use the word itself without translating (this train of thought inspired by Richard's flat out assertion that it is untranslatable which I at first resisted then thought well, if it is....)--as we do now with daimyo, for example, or shogun. The idea of a female entertainer who also trades in sex is not unknown in the West --but that it would be an occupation in itself, which more or less openly links the two, does seem quite different from anything in Western societies, excepting perhaps classical Greece and Rome and perhaps others of that time? Pop stars today do link entertainment and sex but the sex is all in fantasy, right, so it's a different sort of link --one can't buy Madonna herself for the night, only her CD. Well, these are just my musings, in response to everyone's wonderful postings.

Janine Beichman

From: Esperanza R-Christensen
Date: Wed, 6 Oct 1999 13:44:10 -0400 (EDT)

Royall, I've been reading the chat about yuujo with growing interest, since I too find it difficult to find a suitable English rendering; "singing girl" would be appropriate, I think, for the Ashigarayama passage in Sarashina nikki, where "asobi mitari izuko yori to mo naku idekitari," and one was 50, another around 20, and the third 14 or 15 years; the older woman is probably what would now be called the group's
"mama-san." The asobi troupes of the time were apparently female-headed households, an interesting distinction from later periods. In the "Miotsukushi" chapter of the Genji, as you know, the same word "asobi" appears and Seidensticker translates it as "women of pleasure." It is more accurate than "courtesan" in this context, since these were women seen along the Naniwa shore, one of their favored venues then, as also confirmed in Sarashina, where the asobi sings that "Naniwa watari ni kurabureba," they are better (implicit, the author does not quote the complete song).

Someone attending my Sarashina seminar, who was more interested in the social vicissitudes of the yuujo, said how about "sex worker"?! Well, I need not go into all the debates (in the spheres of literature, sociology, politics, economics, aesthetics, translation, not to mention women's studies) that suggested rendering raised. I wonder where Seidensticker got "women of pleasure," though; I mean which English (or European?) fiction language field, 18th century perhaps? What are the exact connotations (forgive the oxymoronic phrase) of the term? And whose "pleasure" is in question here, as the "sex worker" interlocutor (feminist?) would want to know.

I suppose we should just consider the context in which the term occurs (historical, but also with due regard to the author's what, 'feeling values' in using it in that particular passage) and render it accordingly.
Does anyone know of a single work that traces the history of prostitution in Japan--I know I should look it up myself, but what are email networks for (smile--that's one of email's limitations, not having the other's face before one), especially an account that understands the fuzzy boundary between "geinou" and yes, sex work?, pleasure?, the erotics of art?, the commodification (how terrible the theoretical jargon can be) of pleasure--song, dance, sex, as performance. But this is a vast field that
begs to be researched.

This is too long; must go now. I can't keep up with email, so don't be surprised if I disappear again. Thanks for the opportunity to raise questions in a `premodern' virtual field, Mr. Watson. Regards to all.
And, yes, in case anyone is in doubt about my opinion, "sex worker" just won't do in this case. --Esperanza

From: Esperanza R-Christensen
Date: Wed, 6 Oct 1999 14:39:22 -0400 (EDT)

David, speaking of glamorous sex and geisha, you lost me in "grande horizontale," is that from the French erotic practices? I wonder how it might compare with "kubihiki o suru/ nunobiki no taki," which I rendered "Down by Nunobiki Falls/ How madly they pull at the love sash" without understanding exactly what was meant. It's verse 26 from the eighth sequence of Saikaku's Ookukazu. The next verse went "Ei-sara-sa/ mizu ni sekarete/ noborifune," for which I wrote, "With a heave and a ho/ they tug at the boat/ impeded by the fast waters." According to my notes (I translated the first fifty verses for a seminar at Harvard in the late 70s), "kubihiki o suru" refers to "two lovers who sit facing each other and pulling at a kind of sash draped around their necks." So it would be more of a "grande verticale," perhaps.

Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen

From: Kendon Stubbs
Date: Wed, 6 Oct 1999 16:20:51 -0400
Subject: Re: translating 'yuujo'

Like "court-mistress," "woman of pleasure" (and the somewhat more frequent "lady of pleasure") is a term that seems to be found mostly in later 17th and 18th-century English literature. The OED definition for "woman of pleasure" is "man (woman) of pleasure: one who is devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure; a licentious person, a profligate. lady, woman of pleasure: a wanton, a courtesan (obs.)." For "lady of pleasure" the OED has "a kept mistress. lady of pleasure, a courtesan, whore." Connotations of "woman [lady] of pleasure" vary, from Sheridan (1764), who has Mrs. Etherdown describe herself as "a woman, a woman of spirit, a woman of fashion, a woman of pleasure, expence, profusion, luxury!" to Fielding (1735), whose character says, "But I believe, Sir, I shall end yours, when I have put my self to the Blush, by confessing that it was only a Dutch Lady of Pleasure, whom I knew in Amsterdam, that caus'd your Jealousy."

The term "woman of pleasure" came back into prominence in the 1960s with the re-publication and trial for pornography of Cleland's _Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure_ (1749). (The _Memoirs_ are better known by the title of an abridgement by Cleland as _Memoirs of Fanny Hill_.)

Kendon Stubbs

From: Royall Tyler)
Date: Thu, 7 Oct 1999 06:51:34 +1000

I seem to have translated the asobi in "Miotsukushi" (thanks, Ivo, I'd forgotten about them) as singing girls, and that still seems OK to me. I quite agree with Esperanza about the Ashigarayama passage.

I would like to pose Royall Tyler the question whether he wishes to distinguish between the Heian terms 'asobi' (or 'yuujo'-- already then their Sinified name) and 'gijo' (GI: onna-hen with eda [Radical 66])?

Well, no, I don't think so, not particularly. As far as I can tell, the kanji "yuujo" are the ones you are most likely to find in a written document, but you still don't know whether the writer might have read them "asobime" or "asobi," or whether the writer in speaking about them to someone else might not have used an entirely different word. In any case, yuujo is obviously a broad category that could include women of many different ages, degrees of accomplishment in music, etc., degrees of (comment dire?) easy horizontality, and so on. I remember how surprised I was--and then not surprised at all--to discover than in chuusei "yuujo" and "ama" could be taken as synonymous. (How about "fisher girls," Janine?) I suppose the main thing is to recognize that sex and entertainment (song, dance, and so on, which display the woman in a culture in which "nice" women are not on view) have always been linked and that the balance between the two has always fluctuated; and then to choose a translation that as much as possible does not demean the yuujo to whom you refer. (Romanizing yuujo does not help and would leave an impression of quite false precision.)

And thanks to Gaye Rowley for that wonderful poem.

Royall Tyler

From: Gaye Rowley
Date: Thu, 7 Oct 1999 14:52:28 +0100

Colleagues interested in reading more about the history of yuujo might like to consult a book by Saeki Junko entitled _Yuujo no bunkashi: hare no onna_. First published in 1987, the book is (I think) still available in the Chuukou Shinsho series, no. 853. ISBN 4-12-100853-7. I haven't read it yet, but it looks fascinating.

From: David Pollack
Date: Thu, 7 Oct 1999 10:25:16 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: hare no onna

Which brings up yet another problem -- how to translate "hare no onna." The only usage of "public woman" in English is prostitute (for fun think of the phrase "public man," a man who is in the eye of the public), and we have nothing along the lines of "ceremonial woman," which might be taken for priestess. Perhaps someone who has read the work could offer a synopsis of Saeki's thesis?

From: Janet R. Goodwin
Date: Thu, 7 Oct 1999 11:26:04 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Re: translating 'yuujo'

I don't have an English equivalent for kugutsu, although at one time I tried <minstrel>, but it didn't seem to work. Of course we can always use the Japanese terms for kugutsu and yuujo/asobi, but this requires explanation, and can be a turn-off for a non-specialist audience. Sometimes it's useful to refer to various women in the entertainment-sex professions in the aggregate--their contemporaries did sometimes, as do Japanese scholars today--but there's nothing that quite fits.

Some sources in the Heian and Kamakura periods depict asobi and kugutsu in terms that make <prostitute> not such a bad translation, while others emphasize their functions as entertainers. But many sources are explicit about the sexual aspect of the asobi and kugutsu professions. In Shinsarugakki, for instance, Fujiwara Akihira tells us the sexual positions that a particular asobi used. (I don't like the term singing girl because it says nothing about sex, and girl is inappropriate to refer to grown women.)

The question of an appropriate translation of yuujo raises larger issues of just how we should translate terms for which there is no adequate equivalent in English. For example, what do we do about tennou, except wait for a James Clavell to put the Japanese word into our English vocabulary?

Janet Goodwin

From: John Schmitt-Weigand
Date: Fri, 08 Oct 1999 11:17:45 +0900
Subject: Re: History of yuujo

For those of you who are familiar with the German language I would like to recommend a fascinating study that treats the socio-historical and cultural backgrounds of "pre-modern" entertainment business & prostitution in Japan in extenso.

Michael STEIN, "Japans Kurtisanen. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Meisterinnen der Unterhaltungskunst und Erotik aus zwoelf Jahrhunderten" Munich: Iudicium, 1997 ISBN 3-89129-314-3

John Schmitt-Weigand

From: Janine Beichman
Date: Fri, 08 Oct 1999 15:56:33 +0900
Subject: Re: translating 'yuujo'

>The question of an appropriate translation of yuujo raises larger issues of just how we should translate terms for which there is no adequate equivalent in English. For example, what do we do about tennou, except wait for a James Clavell to put the Japanese word into our English vocabulary?

That was exactly my point: for some terms, there are no translations because we do not have the same social cast of characters in any English-speaking society. That is a fact (or at least it seems so to me, but perhaps someone will show me that it isn't!), but where we go from there --somehow nurturing it along as an English word, until it enters Webster's and we can use it easily --or else struggling, as we are now, translating it differently depending on context and just hoping it works -- about that, we have choices. Here is where the glossary, and other tools come in, tools that are sometimes of use and sometimes not, depending on who you think your readers may be. But what this discussion has shown me is that I really need to learn more about who the yuujo were and the history of the link between sex and performance in Japan. So I am especially grateful to the people who are writing in with sources.

Janine Beichman

From: Jordi Escurriola
Date: Fri, 8 Oct 1999 17:21:45 +0200

Perhaps this book might help you about the vicissitudes of yuujoo, oiran, keisei, ukareme, shishoo...... although it restricts itself to the Edo period it is of interest :

Author : Watanabe Kenji Title : Edo Yuuri Seisui-ki
ISBN : 4-06-149224-1 C0221 P650E (0)
Publisher : Kodansha - (Gendai shinsho - No. 1224 (P650)

Jordi Escurriola

From: Esperanza R-Christensen
Date: Sun, 10 Oct 1999 01:39:11 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Re: History of yuujo

Thanks very much, Gaye Rowley, the title sounds promising; "hare no onna" in particular is very nice. Does anyone know of a good place on the web to order this? I've lost touch with my bookseller in Kanagawa. Best regards. -Esperanza

On Thu, 7 Oct 1999, Gaye Rowley wrote:
> Colleagues interested in reading more about the history of yuujo might like
> to consult a book by Saeki Junko entitled _Yuujo no bunkashi: hare no
> onna_. First published in 1987, the book is (I think) still available in
> the Chuukou Shinsho series, no. 853. ISBN 4-12-100853-7. I haven't read it
> yet, but it looks fascinating.

[ A number of sites were suggested, including
This sub-topic archived as booksellers.]

From: Esperanza R-Christensen
Date: Sun, 10 Oct 1999
Subject: Re: hare no onna

[in response to David Pollack ]
David, I agree. It's also interesting that the term seems to imply that women are not supposed to be seen, and so those deliberately on display, performing in banquets or other ceremonies, are "hare no onna."

From: Esperanza R-Christensen
Date: Sun, 10 Oct 1999
Subject: Re: History of yuujo

Thanks, John Schmitt-Weigand, it does sound like a fascinating study; will keep the title for future reference. What, if you would be so kind, is "Unterhaltungskunst"?

From: Ivo Smits
Date: 11 Oct 1999

See also the recent review in _Monumenta Nipponica_ (54: 2 [1999], pp. 267-269) of Stein's book by Klaus Vollmer, who points out --not unjustly-- that although the book is a very convenient and elaborate (695 pages) description of developments in the history of courtesans (Kurstisanen) and makes ample us of primary sources, it also lacks a discussion of recent insights and debates concerning the yuujo (Stein
lists very few articles and books from the last fifteen years or so), nor does Stein expand on his use of the term "courtesan" and how that affects his and our understanding of the role these women played in different periods and different social settings.

"Unterhaltungskunst" might be translated as "[the art of] entertainment," but perhaps a native spreaker on this list (Klaus?) might want to improve on that.

Ivo Smits

From: Esperanza R-Christensen
Date: Mon, 18 Oct 1999 17:39:22 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Re: History of yuujo

Thanks, Ivo, and also for the excellent capsule review. No doubt you're right about "Unterhaltungskunst," I should have remembered the Danish "underholdning" from "underholde, to amuse, entertain." --Esperanza R-C

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