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Niigata

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  • Japanese: 新潟市 (Niigata-shi)

Niigata is the capital city of Niigata prefecture, and has a long history as a significant port town on the Sea of Japan coast. It is situated at the mouth of the Shinano River, and faces Sado Island (Sado-ga-shima) across the Sado Strait.

During the Edo period, Niigata was the chief economic center of Nagaoka han, Echigo province, and a key port along the kitamaebune or nishi mawari kôro ("western sea circuit") trade route connecting Hokkaidô and the Sea of Japan coast to the Inland Sea and Osaka. Primarily a merchant city, Niigata lacked a castle, and a magistrates' office - from which two magistrates and a staff of about a dozen oversaw the city's operations - was the chief site of samurai activity. The city saw much cultural activity, including theater, sumo, and festivals, and emerged as a major site, famous throughout the realm, of prostitution.

As early as the late 17th century, Niigata played a key role in the transportation of rice paid in taxes from Hokuriku and Tôhoku domains to the shogunate storehouses at Osaka. The business of the rice trade fluctuated, and at one time in the 18th century, the port became silted up and too shallow for the large tax-rice ships. However, by the beginning of the 19th century, as many as 2,000 vessels might visit Niigata in a year, carrying not only tax rice, but a wide variety of other goods, including marine products from Ezo, sugar, Chinese medicine, and Ryukyuan red ink. For a number of years in the 1820s to early 1840s, ships sponsored by Satsuma han (including, chiefly, ones run by the Hamazaki family) brought sugar, sweet potatoes, and perhaps various Chinese goods, to Niigata to trade for cinnabar and medicinal goods. Merchants of the city paid taxes to the town office (machi kaisho), which was run by elders known as kendan and chôrô, who then conveyed the tax payments to the domainal authorities in Nagaoka. As in many domains, towards the end of the Edo period, the domain authorities fell into severe debt; in Nagaoka, efforts to alleviate these financial difficulties included forcing merchants to give loans to the authorities, sometimes amounting to as much as tens of thousands of ryô at a time.

The city was home to several competing pleasure districts, including the upper-class Nakamichi yûjo district, and the somewhat lesser Teramachi district, where the girls were called ukimi. Nakamachi attempted to petition in 1730 for a monopoly on prostitution in the city, such as was officially held by the Yoshiwara in Edo, and argued that the ukimi dressed and played shamisen like yûjo, thus diluting their product; the petition was denied, however, as city officials maintained their position of neither banning prostitution nor officially permitting (let alone encouraging) it. Shinbo jôwa, a volume written by one of the town magistrates in or around the 1790s, presents the position that while prostitution is recognized as a societal evil, and while local officials are opposed to it presenting any distraction or problem for local boys/men, it cannot be banned for fear that merchant sailors will bypass Niigata for other more "pleasurable" ports, thus doing great harm to the economic prosperity of the city, and of the domain. By the early 19th century, the sex trade had grown so strong and prevalent in the city - and so essential to the city's economic prosperity - that officials found they could not curb it even if they wanted to. Ultimately, unable to regulate prostitution in any way without risking harming the city's economy, officials eliminated the legal distinction between prostitutes and other women, thus opening the door for individual women, unaffiliated with a brothel, to begin operating as prostitutes independently. Such women, decidedly not working to support their parents as an act of filial piety, but for their own personal livelihood or profit, came to be known as "widows" (goke, 後家). Many had experience working in inns, teahouses, or brothels elsewhere in the realm.

The shogunate, under rôjû Mizuno Tadakuni, seeking to exert greater control over domestic and foreign trade, and over coastal defense, added the port of Niigata and the neighboring village of Niigata-hama to the set of cities under direct shogunate control in 1843. Though domain elders (karô) protested against relinquishing the domain's chief source of economic viability to the shogunate, the Makino clan daimyô of the time, possibly for political reasons, put up little resistance. The shogunal magistrate placed in charge of the city at that time, Kawamura Nagataka, implemented a variety of policies restricting legal or recognized prostitution to certain areas where it was already prevalent, and officially categorized establishments and women in those districts according to categories employed in other shogunal cities.

The conversion of Niigata to a shogunal city set the stage for it to become opened to foreign trade as a treaty port in the 1850s.

References

  • Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 139.
  • Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012), 111-133.

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