Japan’s cherry-blossom, and a second ‘place of evil’

by Stephen Sōshun

The Yoshiwara-quarter: a ghetto entirely dedicated to non-procreational hetero-eros

            Further upstream looms what is, for its thousands of indentured occupants, a vast and beautiful but well-surveillanced concentration-camp. To this walled and moated site the government has relocated those formerly-scattered establishments expensively offering female sex-workers for recreational [ab]use. This is partly to keep members of the ruling warrior-caste from bankruptcy, resulting from becoming besotted with exorbitantly-priced courtesans. While these sex-workers are not free to leave during their spare time, neither are samurai supposed to be allowed in. (Men of the lowly but increasingly financially-powerful merchant-caste, however, are implicitly welcome to impoverish selves and families through such involvements.)

Pursuit of the illusory

The males that come here, to gaze at those unengaged courtesans sitting within display-windows – are pursuing something that is illusory. For these sex-workers are purchased from shit-poor peasant-families with too many daughters, or a desperate need to pay off debts. Hitherto, they have spoken only their natal dialects, which to Edoite ears sound at least uncouth, if not proving incomprehensible. Consequently, each major brothel-group has developed its own artificial patois, to be learned by every potential-courtesan sold into that group. (Use is likewise de rigeur for the two or three apprentice-courtesans under each full-courtesan’s tutelage, and also her little-girl pages.)

A courtesan is, however, very much more than a common whore. These country-girls are additionally trained to deploy a refined but aristocratically-aloof manner and bearing, and taught to read and write. The latter they are required to do stylishly – for dispatching appealingly-ink-brushed love-letters to regular clients is part of their job-description. So is being able to compose impromptu poems in the court-culture register, and demonstrating competence in several elegant artistic accomplishments. And likewise is proving voluptuous in bed, and with whoever, so long as he be wealthy, and generous with funds.

There are two points to be noted here. (1)A full-courtesan was someone entirely remade, into a simulacrum of a society-debutante; and (2),for a courtesan, fertility was disastrous. Given which, the following practice deserves our attention, and some elucidation.

Japan’s cherry-blossom as embodying the acme of inaccessible but also pitiable eros: the courtesan

Come early Spring, down the central boulevard of this bordello-citadel is yearly thrown up a fence-strengthened plinth of soil. This then receives densely-transplanted cherry-trees, beneath which to stage the biggest public ceremony in the courtesans’ decreed yearly round. (Artifice becomes piled upon artifice.) This event is, of course, a blossom-viewing, of which one important part is the ‘Full-courtesans’ Procession In Finest Attire’.

For this, its beautiful young participants could not possibly be made to look more unreal – unreality unmistakably signifying tantalizing quasi-inaccessibility. Along they sway mounted upon tremendously-high lacquered pattens, which they languorously drag with each step, in a demandingly-sinuous, somehow-erotic manner. Their oil-stiffened coiffures, each crowned by a neatly-towering chignon, bristle with symmetrically-inserted sets of large amber hairpins and amber combs. Their layered robes and vast, waterfall-like sashes today figure – dyed, or embroidered and also appliquéd – motifs drawn from Japan’s cherry-blossom. This procession advertises non-procreative involvement with women the price of whose company, and consequent near-unobtainability, is two-thirds of their value. So why insist on importing flowering cherry-trees – doing which is expensive for the always-avaricious body of brothel-keepers?

First of all, because cherry-blossom, appearing on leafless branches, and lingering so briefly, is the ultimate ‘impossible flower’.

Again, one point here being made (to the kami?) is that these beautiful but unhappy young women hope for serious suitors. Such suitors are those that will buy them out of their indentured servitude, marry them, and with them parent children. The brothel-keepers want repaid the debts their courtesans have had to incur, in dressing themselves and attendants in due style. The appeal implicitly directed at the merchants gazing up at them as they stalk haughtily past is perhaps as follows. ‘Come and strive to win me now; tomorrow, who knows what I shall be?  I am but human cherry-blossom.’ Imprisoned pathos is an essential part of a courtesan’s appeal; and the fragility of cherry-blossom points up that pathos.

Cherry-blossom and delicious peril

To samurai that have, nevertheless, had themselves illegally smuggled hither incognito, these elegantly-bedizened, heiress-like paupers will signify quite another matter. That matter is the masochistic allure of disgrace, of honor lost, of financial disaster, and the besmirching of one’s lineage. And what better setting for any so subversive a temptation than a massed vista of Japan’s most profligately-unstable tree-flower?

The significance of Japan’s cherry really has become increasingly up for grabs. And the cruelest of those grabs is outlined in Part Five – which attempts to contextualize the creation of the ‘kami-kazé’.

This article is part of a series:
(use the links below to access other articles)
Part 1: “Cherry-blossom and the spirit of fertility
Part 2: “Causes of Buddhist responses to cherry-blossom
Part 3: “Japan’s cherry-blossom, subversion, and ambiguity
Part 4: “The Yoshiwara-quarter: a ghetto entirely dedicated to non-procreational hetero-eros
Part 5: “Beauty claimed for State-mandated death-in-battle
Articles contributed by Stephen Sōshun

Tyas Sōsen

Tea has become a way of life, and a way of viewing the world we live in. I have learned to be more appreciative of the things we have, respectful towards other people, have more reverence for our natural environment, and am more able to be present in the current moment.

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