Polygamy is practiced in some countries around the world. Many countries in the Near and Middle East, for instance, legally permit polygamy because it is authorized by Islam. Polygamy is also openly practiced for non-religious reasons in some regions in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Japan, however, men are forbidden by law from taking multiple women as their wives simultaneously. While some men might commit adultery with one or more lovers, these lovers cannot be legally recognized as “wives”.
However, things were somewhat different in the past. In the Edo period it was not unheard of for men from samurai families to have multiple wives. Indeed, sometimes this was simply expected.
The shogun often had not just a seishitsu (“legal wife”) who was recognized as his primary spouse, but also several sokushitsu (concubines). Besides these concubines, there were also mistresses called mekake. However, other men besides the shogun could have mekake, and some from the commoner class did.
Seishitsu and sokushitsu
During the time of the Edo-period shogunate, the ruling Tokugawa family placed paramount importance on its bloodline. If that bloodline was interrupted, the family would lose the right to govern Japan.
The shogun would father as many children as possible to ensure that he would not die without heirs. Medical science at the time was such that even children who were born healthy often died not long after.
One legal wife was not enough for a shogun who wanted enough children to ensure that at least some would live to adulthood. That is why shoguns kept many concubines, and fathered children upon them as well.
Of all the historical shoguns, only two were the children of legal wives: the third shogun Iemitsu, and the fifteenth shogun Yoshinobu. All other shoguns were children of their father’s concubines.
From this alone, we know that concubines were essential for the rulers of the Edo period.
The mekake system
Mekake (mistresses) were women whose position was somewhat similar to that of the concubines. Like a concubine, a mistress is a woman who is not a man’s legal wife. However, there are some slight differences between the two.
Concubines were women whose purpose was to ensure the continuity of the ruling family’s bloodline. Mistresses, by contrast, tended to be kept for purely sexual purposes.
During the Edo period, the heads of wealthy chōja families (prosperous merchants, landowners and the like) would invite a mistress to stay in their house as their lover. This arrangement was different from present-day adultery, which usually involves two people who get involved with each other because they have a good personal relationship. In the Edo period, being a mistress was a job that involved a contractual relationship with an “employer”.
Every mistress signed a proper contract when she was hired, and for the duration of her employment, she received financial compensation for her work.
Being a mistress was a popular occupation among women of the time. Mistresses were left mostly to their own devices outside of the times the master of the house came calling. They were guaranteed a roof over their heads and regular meals. However, all this reportedly depended on the character of the man involved.
For instance, an 1825 shunbon (erotic book) called Shukugen ironaoshi describes a lawsuit filed against a man by a mistress he had employed.
The man who took on this mistress seems to have called upon her sexual services multiple times every night, because he was under the impression that he “deserved to get his money’s worth” out of her. This story is from an erotic book, so while it may have had some basis in actual events, it is just as possible that the author made it up entirely. However, the work of a mistress may have been more arduous than it sounds like.
On a side note, it is interesting to note that Japanese people did not eat meat at this time in history, meaning that they suffered from a chronic animal protein insufficiency. That means that frequent ejaculation would have been a useless waste of nutrients that led to the weakening of a man’s body. For that reason, men who somehow retained their vigor no matter how often they ejaculated were called jinbari, which can be loosely translated as “men with kidneys of steel”. They were objects of considerable respect.
The practice of keeping a mistress is no longer in vogue today. However, some might say that the mistress system had its advantages, especially in the light of some contemporary marriage problems in Japan – the increasing number of couples who divorce after decades of marriage, for instance, or the number of married couples who no longer have sex. There may be some value in rediscovering parts of this lost relationship culture.