Nightless Cities: Timing the Pleasure Quarters in Early Modern Japan

In: KronoScope
Angelika Koch Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge

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This article traces the time practices relevant to Edo-period pleasure-quarter life and business in eighteenth and nineteenth century Japan, discussing two time patterns that appeared in pleasure-quarter directories at the time: more long-term, loosely circumscribed stays based around diurnal rhythms of light and darkness, as well as more short-term transactions centered on units of time measured with incense sticks—two aspects of time that were central to the trade plied in the quarters, as I show. I argue that the sex trade is significant in that it provided a rare example of a service “paid by the hour” in early modern Japan, thus crucially also calling us to (re-)consider larger issues regarding the economic value of time within the early modern Japanese world of work and especially also its relationship to modern time and labor. I demonstrate how the exigencies of a certain trade required the elaboration of a set of time units and, where necessary, a system to measure and co-ordinate them, which ultimately points towards the existence of an abstract notion of time that commanded a certain price in early modern Japan. As such, the present paper serves to qualify narratives that mainly identify the commodification of time with Japan’s industrialization, modernization, and Westernization in the late nineteenth century, as well as with the dissemination of mechanical clock-time

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