Sex was experienced very differently in ancient Japan than it is today, and the history of Japanese sexuality is fascinating. Japanese people historically saw not just sex, but many other aspects of society through a very different lens than they do today. This resulted in some behavior that seems quite bizarre by today’s standards.
By the time the Edo period rolled around, sensibilities were already quite close to those held by Japanese people today. However, there were still many differences.
Let us take a look at how women of the time had their first sexual experience. First of all, it is important to note that women’s first sexual experience was generally very different depending on what kind of family they were born into.
The first sexual experience of common women
When we talk about “commoners” during the Edo period, we are speaking of farmers, artisans, and merchants. Members of the samurai class were not considered commoners, and neither were members of the very lowest classes – the eta and hinin.
In other words, “commoners” includes many people with very different circumstances, making it difficult to generalize among the group. However, we can say that at the time, the age of marriage was generally set at 15 or 16 years.
We can surmise that most women would have had their first sexual experience before that age. After all, the value system of the Edo period did not include any taboos surrounding premarital sex.
In this way, the Edo period rather resembles present-day Japan. Few women in today’s society absolutely avoid having sex before they get married. This close resemblance between Edo-period values and modern values feels rather bizarre for many people. There is a very common misconception that women were somehow more “virtuous” in the past.
However, it was actually not until the Meiji period (1868-1912) that chastity became something that people thought should apply to common women. Around this time, Japan was influenced by Christian schools of thought that placed a high value on female chastity.
In a way, sexual morality in present-day Japan has circled back to its state during the Edo period.
The first sexual experience of women born into wealthy families
Women who were born into commoner families with a lot of economic power (called chōja at the time) tended to have a very sheltered upbringing. For these families, lineage was an important tool with which to strengthen the ties between other wealthy families. For that reason, daughters were not permitted to have risky premarital sex.
Naturally, daughters of wealthy families were always accompanied by a chaperone when they left the house. That left them with almost no way to freely form any kind of romantic connection with a man. This meant that their first sexual experience was usually on their wedding night and with the man that their parents had selected for them. This was very different from the experiences of less wealthy common women.
Of course there were also women who developed a desire for romance after they got married, and carried on with lovers under the nose of their husbands.
The first sexual experience of women from samurai families
Of all women in the Edo period, daughters of samurai families had the least sexual freedom.
For samurai families, the legitimacy of their bloodline was the source of their authority. That means that they took the protection of that bloodline even more seriously than wealthy common families. Long before the advent of Christian thought in Japan, it was already commonplace to consider chastity an important virtue for women from samurai families.
It goes without saying that these women had virtually no freedom of movement and that their first sexual experience was usually with a bridegroom they had only just met.
The first sexual experience of women in yūkaku (pleasure quarters)
The yūkaku of the Edo period were precursors of today’s red light districts. Girls born in these yūkaku were almost predestined to work in the sex trade as yūjo (“women of pleasure”) or oiran (“courtesans”).
The girls did odd jobs around the yūkaku until they turned 15. At this age, they attained the status of tsukidashi (literally “appetizers”) and began receiving clients. Most of them had their first sexual experience with a client.
In many ways, sexual morality during the Edo period was remarkably close to present-day sensibilities. The one significant difference is that in the Edo period, the family a woman was born into had a much stronger influence upon the degree of sexual virtue that was expected of her. Commoner women, even poor women, had a fairly large degree of freedom. Daughters of wealthy chōja families and samurai families had to watch their steps at all times. Which would have been happier? We can only guess.