Nightless Cities: Timing the Pleasure Quarters in Early Modern Japan

Nightless Cities: Timing the Pleasure Quarters in Early Modern Japan

Angelika Koch-Low, Lecturer in East Asian Languages & Literatures

Thursday, February 23, 2017 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
Sterling Memorial Library, Room 218 See map
120 High Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Lunch will be provided.

Tokugawa Japan’s licensed prostitution quarters have often been described as the anti-thesis of the everyday, a space separate from the normality of life in the cities in terms of mores, as well as physical location. This ‘otherness’ also found expression with regard to time and the rhythms of life in the quarters, which became ‘nightless cities’, where ‘dawn was breaking when the sun set over the city’, as a comic poem from the period would have it. More than that, the pleasure quarters also had their own units of time that applied when costumers engaged women for pleasure, and their ways of measuring these. In fact, certain classes of prostitutes and geisha entertainers were remunerated on a time-based system measured with incense sticks, which provides a rare example of a service being ‘paid by the hour’ in early modern Japan. Drawing on a range of sources including extant price lists, guides to the pleasure quarters and fictional accounts, this talk will explore the pleasure quarters as an early modern ‘timescape’. As such, it seeks to qualify narratives that mainly identify the commodification of time with Japan’s industrialization, modernization and Westernization in the late 19th century, as well as with the dissemination of mechanical clock-time.


Angelika Koch-Low specializes in early modern Japanese language, literature and culture, with a particular focus on genders/sexualities and medicine.

Dr. Koch-Low completed a Master in Japanese Studies and a Bachelor in English Literature at the University of Vienna, with periods of study at Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice and Meiji University in Tokyo. Her Master’s thesis focused on the depiction of male-male same-sex desire in comic literature of the Edo period. She then studied for a PhD in Japanese at the University of Cambridge. Her Ph.D. thesis Sexual Healing. Sexuality, Health and the Body in Early Modern Japan (1600-1868), which she is currently preparing for publication with Cambridge University Press, explored medical views of sex as a health and disease concept in the Edo period.

Moreover, Dr. Koch-Low is also part of the collaborative project Timing Day and Night: ‘Timescapes’ in Pre-modern Japan, which explores time as a set of social practices prior to the introduction of the Western time system. In April 2015, she convened the international conference Timing Day and Night at the University of Cambridge. In September 2016, she was awarded a JSPS Fellowship at Tokyo University to pursue further research for this project in Japan.

Beyond this, her academic and teaching interests extend to modern and contemporary Japan, and she co-edited a volume of research on genders and sexualities (Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy. Studying Japanese Gender at Cambridge, LIT 2013).

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Japan