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Meshimori onna

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  • Japanese: 飯盛女 (meshimori onna)

Meshimori onna were serving girls employed at post-station inns, many of whom were indentured to the inn and served as prostitutes in addition to the more standard tasks of helping run the inn.

In the 1770s, shogunate policy allowed for 500 such serving girls to operate at inns at Shinagawa-juku, and 150 each at Itabashi and Senju, which were also post-stations on highways leading in/out of Edo. In the 1840s, similarly, there were around 1,000 such meshimori onna seen in official population registers for the areas immediately surrounding the city. Meanwhile, since 1718, the shogunate permitted inns in more rural post-stations to have up to two serving girls per establishment. Inns quickly surpassed this number, and grew relatively prosperous, over those that did not maintain serving girls.

Most suffered difficult conditions. Though provided with food, clothing, and a roof over their heads, these girls had no power to refuse a customer (as mid-to-high-ranking courtesans in the Yoshiwara did), worked every day, and often had to perform a variety of tasks around the house/inn, from waiting tables to cleaning. Young girls under the age of fifteen did only the housework and other menial tasks, as they were not old enough to serve customers in bed, and older women who were unable to attract or satisfy customers often were sent to work in the fields. Many post-stations soon developed humble graveyards for their serving girls, some of which can still be seen today (or which at least have some kind of historical marker noting its former location).

Though their engagement in prostitution was technically illegal, the inns' serving girls were relatively above-board, compared to bathhouse girls and basic streetwalkers, as the serving girls were associated with known places of residence, and known chains of command (i.e. under innkeepers, post-station officials, and post-road magistrates). The authorities thus looked the other way to a certain extent, knowing that their activities helped encourage and support the economic vitality of the post-stations. When the authorities did conduct raids on post-stations that employed an illegal number of serving girls, the apprehended girls were often then "liberated" from their brothel work to be married into local families; this was especially the case in the Kantô, where in many villages men outnumbered women significantly, and there was thus demand for wives.

References

  • Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012), 2, 62, 134-162.
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