The relationship between Edo-period post towns and the serving girls (prostitutes) who worked there

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Although Japan is an island nation, it has historically been difficult for its inhabitants to move between different regions of the country. The reason is made clear with one look at Japan’s geography: the terrain is extremely mountainous, and throughout most of history it would have been very difficult to move across so many mountains in order to reach other areas.

However, by the Edo period (1603-1868), transport links in Japan had begun to improve. The main mode of transportation was still walking, but because road infrastructure was improved, movement of people between different regions became very common.

However, traveling on foot made for very long journeys. That is why halfway stations called post towns began to grow at important points on the highways.

Large numbers of travellers passed through these post towns, turning them into bustling settlements. These hives of activity also attracted many unlicensed prostitutes. These prostitutes were commonly called meshimori onna (serving girls at inns who also worked as prostitutes) or shukuba jorō (“post town prostitutes”).

Their existence fell into a legal gray zone at the time. However, these women had a strong influence on the development of post towns, and their contribution to the maintenance of public order in society was very significant.

The most important post towns

Post towns dotted the highways along their most important points. The Five Highways that radiated from the capital, Edo (present-day Tōkyō), boasted a particularly large number of post towns.

Because the highways connected large towns and cities, traffic on these roads was extremely busy. It will come as no surprise that post towns along the very busiest highways were also the most prosperous throughout history.

Among the Five Highways, the most prosperous road for post towns was the Tōkaidō. This road ran through Suruga (present-day Shizuoka Prefecture) to connect Edo with the Kinki region, home to the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara. Many post towns that flourished along the Tōkaidō are large and busy cities today: Shinagawa, Hiratsuka, Hamamatsu, etc.

Another prosperous post town was Naitō Shinjuku, which lay on the road that ran towards Ōme (today a town on the western outskirts of Tokyo), and further on in the direction of Kōshū. This post town grew into present-day Shinjuku, one of the busiest neighborhoods in Tokyo.

Serving girls and the post towns

In the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate did not permit yūjo (women of pleasure) to operate outside of designated yūkaku (pleasure quarters). That means that the meshimori onna who plied their trade in post towns were technically on the wrong side of the law.

However, the women were still valued highly for the services they provided to weary travellers.

Meshimori onna essentially provided escort services – what is called “delivery health” in present-day Japan. Reportedly, they took themselves to the hatago (inn) where their client was staying and provided the necessary services there.

Some were also employed by restaurants or amusement establishments to approach clients there. This may be where the word meshimori onna came from: it literally means “food assortment woman”.

The cooperation between private detectives and meshimori onna

Why did the shogunate, which forbade unlicensed prostitution, tolerate the activities of these meshimori onna? The answer is that the women were part of a crime control network through their cooperation with private detectives. In the Edo period, a “private detective” was someone who worked as an extension of public authority. Their role was similar to that of constables within today’s police forces.

Because so many travellers passed through the restaurants and amusement establishments of the post towns, these places were goldmines of information for the authorities. More often than not, this information was related to some form of criminal activity.

The nature of a meshimori onna’s work enabled her to smoothly gather or disseminate information. The information-gathering potential of meshimori onna was considered very useful by private detectives, leading them to establish a kind of mutually beneficial partnership with the women.

Now we know that there were many prostitutes living in the post towns, and why. By the way, the influence of the meshimori onna is still felt in Japan today: some present-day red light districts stem from certain post towns.