Weird History
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What Sex Was Like in Feudal Japan

Updated July 17, 2019 962.0k views7 items

Representations of feudal Japan are replete in historical works and art, as well as in contemporary fiction and cinema. This historical period is associated with fierce samurai, elegant courtesans, and an ever-present sense of formality in dress and culture. Sex in feudal Japan was often idealized too, but sexuality was a lot less elegant and formal than many realize. This list will explore these harsh realities, and describe what intercourse was like in feudal Japan.

Samurai often got with 12-year-old boys during official apprenticeships. Aristocratic men could have multiple wives and concubines, while their female counterparts were stuck with one husband. In feudal Japan, intimate life was influenced by social standing. Essentially, one’s partner was almost always of a similar social background. Lower class teens in feudal Japan were free to get with whomever they wanted, but upper class youths had to follow strict rules about whom they could see and marry.  

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  • Sex Workers Were Ranked

    Feudal Japan valued hierarchies and social ranking. This was true for people who put out for money, as well. Some brothels were specifically for the upper class, but even in high-end establishments, there was a distinction between simple night workers and elegant courtesans. Middle class workers were called yūjo, while high-status ones were known as oiran, which is short for "oira no tokoro no nee-san” (“the older sisters of our place”). They were also called "play women."

    The oiran were well-trained entertainers, and they had a surprisingly high social status. Potential clients used formal language with these courtesans and, in turn, these women would wear elaborate costumes.

  • Life Was Rough for High-End Courtesans

    Photo: Kunichika Toyohara / Public Domain

    Expensive courtesans called oiran learned how to dance, sing, paint, write haiku, write in calligraphy, and how to perform a proper tea ceremony. To the men who visited them, they perceived these women as polite, relaxed, and happy.

    The women's behavior was just their act, and many of these "lucky" girls were coerced into sleeping with people for money. They were often indebted to their madams after being forced to pay for expensive clothing and makeup. They worked long hours, had poor living conditions, and their training was grueling. These formal courtesans were eventually replaced by the less expensive geishas. 

    The notion and fate of a prostitute living in debt servitude to madams and yakuza so permeated Japanese society that it became a narrative trope in period films and fiction. Many Zatoichi movie use this cultural plot point, and you're bound to find at least one such character, whom a hero is attempting to rescue from her fate. 

  • (Officially) Wives Were Monogamous, Husbands Were Not

    Significant double standards regarding marriage existed in feudal Japan. In the Heian period, court marriages were arranged between the father of the bride-to-be and the prospective husband. These marriages were also frequently polygamous.

    Officially, men could have multiple wives, concubines, and love affairs. On the other hand, women could only have one official husband at a time. With that being said, it was not uncommon for these elite women to carry on their own affairs and doing so did not often come along with much social stigma.