The Green Houses of Japan

Modern Woman: Her Intentions The Green Houses of Japan

This chapter deals with the subject of prostitution from the point of view of public health, so that the nervous reader had better skip it.

Edmond de Goncourt has written some charming chapters in his book about Outamaro, the Japanese artist, on the courtesans who live within the walls of Yoshiwara. He describes the quarter as containing fifty green houses within the walls and a hundred without the walls. They were established by the Emperor of Japan in the eighth century for the use of foreign princes, ambassadors, and wealthy merchants. The present walls were built in the seventeenth century. The girls, from all parts, are brought up like princesses, and taught writing, the arts, music, and the archaic language spoken by the court in the seventh and eighth centuries, which is now the language of the poets. The formalities of the suitors are three visits of ceremony, each with its ritual of good manners. A green house contains twenty first-class beauties and sixty second-class beauties. They sing, play, and write verses. These are a few translations which give some idea of their feelings:—

“It is only when both of us are looking at it that the moon is beautiful; when I am alone it makes me feel too sad.”

“This evening who will share the sweetness of life, this floating body in the passing world?“

“Oh, that the moonlight might shine brightly in the waters of this life [the courtesan’s], but the autumn moon on the other side of the clouds makes me long for it” [wifehood].

“Although I am nothing here, the moon lights up my heart with a ray of consolation.”

“How often do I part from one whose shadow I shall never see again under the moon of dawn!“

These little moon-women are not the only members of the sisterhood in Tokio. There are the geishas who dance and sing, and there are the old and abandoned; but the horrible sordidness of the red blinds and the draggled torn lace curtains one sees in the streets Charles Booth has coloured red in his maps of London, is absent.

This question is not a mere matter of sentiment, it is one in urgent need of immediate attention. The pitiless contempt of married women for prostitution is bringing a terrible punishment, which is ruining the physique of nearly every civilized race. It is now certain that the diseases called contagious can be cured with the greatest certainty if they are taken in hand in the earliest stages, but if they are neglected they bring in their train every scourge that the flesh is capable of enduring. It cannot be repeated too often that if women do not wish to contract diseases themselves in the intercourse of ordinary life, they must bring themselves to protect those who in the intercourse of passional life are ignorantly or malignantly spreading the diseases. There might be a trade union for women on the streets. In the cause of public health, which is, in this matter, the cause of future generations, family cannot separate itself from family, innocent from guilty, moral from immoral. We can no longer say : Let those who practise promiscuity suffer for their incontinence, let them encounter the dangers they choose to face, “let their sin find them out.” We know now that from this particular scourge of contagious disease the pure suffer far more severely than the impure; and the races who have never known the disease are the first to die when, by accident, they finally come in contact with it.

So the clean, healthy youth from some remote country place is in greater danger than the sophisticated townsman. And mothers do not realize the dangers they and their young children run every day when, in their ignorance of danger, they entrust their households to the care of women servants who may be carrying contagion without even knowing it.

The contempt that is shown towards prostitutes makes it impossible for them to insist upon proper sanitation in the quarters where they congregate. They are hunted from street to street, and, as they get poorer and poorer, their condition becomes more and more of a danger to the rest of the town.

I cannot make any suggestions as to the methods that should be used to make the danger less terribly imminent than it is at present, but I do suggest that the women who are uppermost should face the fact that they themselves are in danger because the lower prostitutes have no civil rights, no trade union, no means of redressing the wrongs they surfer from.

M. Brieux has written a play called Les Avariés, dealing with this important subject in all its aspects. One incident is that of a young girl on the streets who is infected by a man. She is furious and in despair, but before she goes into hospital she, in her turn, revenges herself on as many men as she can, for the wrong done to her by one.

Can we wonder that a woman who is treated as street walkers are treated should feel this wild anti-social rage against the society that has first made use of her and then treated her as an outcast?

It is becoming more and more difficult to say anything definite about the moral standards of women. Thirty years ago the chorus-girl drank champagne and “went to the bad,” now she drinks milk and marries a peer. Girls with beauty are finding out that prudence pays exceedingly well. On the other hand, we have girls with brains deliberately resolving that they will not marry. They refuse to run the risk of living with a man whose love has become a mere habit. They boldly say that they do not care enough for love to perform its rites, unless they are animated with the ardour of love. Passion served up with cold sauce as in the Shaw-Barker school of sex revolts them. Enthusiastic love is the only excuse in their eyes for going through the rather ungraceful gestures of love.

Bloch has asked the question if we can ever do away with the menace to public health which promiscuity entails? He seems to think from the evidence of history and psychiatry that men certainly, and women probably, are not naturally unitarian in their affections; therefore the sooner we seriously wrestle with the realities and leave off hoping for the “something to change nature,” the better. Above all, it is most important for women to realize at once that the most innocent contact with the unmentioned diseases— the contact, say, of a cut finger or a chapped lip—is enough to endanger the health, unless it is attended to at once.

As for the aspect of the prostitution question entailed in taking money, the sale of virginity and so forth, it comes under the general consideration whether it is right for any woman to become the property of a man in exchange for money. A woman who loves does naturally become the property of the man she loves for the time being. The wiser she is, the less she will let him know it. The money bargain I cannot help regarding as a device invented by unattractive men whom no woman would voluntarily look at. Again, as to women whose love affairs are numerous, I do not think they would care to practise promiscuity unless they were intoxicated. On the other hand, I think most women are capable of several love affairs. I said before that their love ebbed and flowed with the sweep of a tide, while men’s love glittered and dulled like the shaken silver of the waves; still, there are more tides than one in many women’s experience. We cannot read the autobiographies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries without observing that.

That love becomes very stale in time is a regrettable fact. Many women distract their thoughts with work or amusements. But the greatest amusement of all is flirtation. It is an amusement peculiarly fitted to the English. In the Latin countries flirtation is admittedly not only an amusement, but a vital part of women’s lives. It cannot be denied that, after a time, a childless wife, or a wife who is not absorbed in her children, begins to feel like a withered rose tree, and a flirtation comes to her like springtime after winter. I do not think it is often her sensual nature, but her emotional nature, that makes a woman unfaithful to a husband of whom she has really been passionately fond. Unfortunately there is a charm about the first steps of a love affair, in the half-admissions and the uncertainties, which it is almost impossible to feel after a year of married life. The truth is that to feel a charm we must be in a state of emotional exultation which is above the average exultations of daily life. The great question for the race is what this feeling of charm means, and whether it is of value to the race, and to be encouraged? Or even then whether the destruction of our present fixed social arrangements is too great a sacrifice to make for the vital improvement of mankind? In the meantime, until this question of changing charm versus habitual love can be settled, and the value of emotion as a factor in race improvement be proved by careful inquiry into the experiences of the parents of conspicuous children, I reiterate what I have said. Marrying women owe it to themselves and to their children to do all they can to make the conditions of prostitutes sanitary. Above all, they should remember the green houses of Japan, and recognize that if women are degraded it is generally because they have been treated with contempt, and not because they are essentially any more contemptible than the rest of us.

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