The Courtesan and the Samurai by Lesley Downer

Book Reviewthe courtesan and the samurai

Title: The Courtesan and the Samurai

Author: Lesley Downer

Genre: Romance/Cultural/Historical

Rating: ****

Review: “The Courtesan and the Samurai” is the second book in a series of historical fiction by Lesley Downer set in 1860s Japan. This novel is set in 1868-9, a particularly turbulent year, covering the civil war between the shogunate forces, or “northerners,” and the imperial Japanese forces, or “southerners” as the two sides are simply called in the novel. This period is usually known as the Meiji Restoration.

Written from the point of the losing side in the civil war, the protagonist here is Hana, a 17-year-old daughter of a samurai married to one of the fiercest commanders of the ex-shogun’s forces of the Northern Alliance. The last shogun, Yoshinobu had resigned at the end of 1867, under duress from the Mikado’s councillors and the Southern clans.

Hana’s marriage is based on Confucian patriarchal ideals. She is expected to obey her husband as she would a father, or even a sovereign. Her husband is not expected to love her, or to particularly treat her kindly. But, like a good samurai, she is trained to fight. While her husband goes to rally forces for the Northern Alliance, she is given the task of being the sole defender of her household in Edo. And when the southerners come to the gates of her residence, she promptly kills one of them with a halberd and escapes at the behest of her servants across the river towards Nihonbashi, or Japan Bridge. There she is sold by a procuress to become a courtesan in Edo’s licensed quarters, the “five streets” of the Yoshiwara.

Hana has read about these quarters in the romantic fiction, ‘The Plum Calendar’ but she has never yet visited. Downer’s descriptions of life in the walled enclave of the Yoshiwara (established by the shogunate as a way of controlling prostitution), are a tour de force of literary dramatisation. Downer has previously written about the Yoshiwara in her book ‘Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World’ (2000), a history of the customs of Japanese courtesans and geisha. In her talk for this book’s launch the author provided a rare glimpse of her visit to the courtesans in Kyoto in the 1990s:

“There are five women who still uphold the traditions of courtesan, they are not the same as geisha, but they occupy the same world of the flower and the willow,” she said. Courtesans are high-class prostitutes, whereas geisha are women who sell their arts and social skills. Hana is equipped with the ability to write poetry, and so quickly promoted to being a star courtesan, given the honorific title “Hanaogi.”

In her talk, Downer described the awesome appearance of a courtesan (a ‘re-enactor’ in this day and age) dressed in many layers of kimono, escorted by child attendants, with a head of lacquered hair pinned together with tortoiseshell combs. She described the “electric” atmosphere among the men on this occasion, who were all lining up for an audience. The scene is recreated in the book when Hana appears in a cage along with her companions. During this viewing she is meant to pick out a man to be her lover. Outdoor scenes of this can also be seen in Utagawa Hiroshige’s prints.

The year that Downer chose to portray the life of a courtesan is crucial. At this time, courtesans were still sought after by the elite, but very shortly after, geisha women, partners of the new ruling Imperial elite installed in the newly named Tokyo, were elevated to higher social status. A few years later, the old Yoshiwara was burned down and then moved. Interestingly there are no photographs of the old Yoshiwara. It is as though Downer has chosen a period just beyond our reach to create a lavish world of high romance.

The other half of this story of star-crossed lovers is seen through the eyes of Yozo Tajima, a samurai sailor, fighting on the side of the Northern Alliance, serving the historical figure of Admiral Enomoto, of the ex-shogun’s navy. Both have recently returned from an expedition to the West licensed by the shogun. Part of their mission there is to build and bring back a warship, the Kaiyo Maru (which was later sunk). But on their return, they are appalled to find shogun has in fact resigned but Enomoto refuses to hand over the navy to the southern Imperial forces. Instead he is motivated by a mix of loyalty to the previous regime and idealism gained from his exposure to the more democratic ways of the West, to lead the Northern Alliance to Ezo, present-day Hokkaido. From there, the Northern Alliance “will establish the Democratic Republic of Ezo in the name of the shogun with Hakodate as our capital and from there move South and take the rest of Japan,” as Downer has him proclaim.

The army of the Northern Alliance, is here led by Commander Yamaguchi, a fictional figure based on the formidable leader of the shinsengumi (the ‘new select corps’), Toshizō Hijikata. His story is cleverly woven into Downer’s tale of star-crossed lovers. This army included crack troops some of whom had been trained by the French to protect the shogun before he resigned. Thus, historically, nine French officers sailed with the Japanese including Jean Marlin, who features in the novel as Yozo’s friend and supporter.

Downer imaginatively recreates the internal tensions of such a dynamic mix of personalities. Yamaguchi turns out to be bitterly opposed to the foreign-leaning Enomoto and Yozo, who is so adept at languages that not only has he read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, but he also sings an English sea shanty to entertain the troops. When Kitaro, a friend of Yozo is murdered mysteriously by one of Yamaguchi’s men, Yozo is motivated to take revenge for his friend’s death.

The defeat of the Northern Alliance at Hakodate gives Yozo the opportunity to take his chance at revenge but Enomoto, Yozo and his French protector Marlin, are eventually captured and brought back to Edo. They escape to the Yoshiwara, where Hana is preparing for her ‘debut’ or ‘mizuage’. Once a courtesan attracted a wealthy patron who would arrange for her mizuage, she could escape her debts and leave the Yoshiwara. So when the wealthy merchant Saburosuké Kashima catches sight of Hana, her fate is sealed, or is it? The pièce de resistance here is the mizuageitself, a grotesque affair where the odious merchant Saburosuké meets his match at last in a manner appropriate to this exaggerated world – gaudy, lascivious and grotesque.

There is a symbolic ending for the other characters too. Yozo and Enomoto survive, their skills needed in the new Japan. Meanwhile the old-style samurai Yamaguchi is killed, and in fact Hijikata died at Hakodate. Without such inspiring and entertaining books to draw our attention to it, Japan’s less well-known history of the 1860s might be in danger of going the way of the Kaiyo Maru herself.

Buy it here:


Kindle Edition:

Also see: Across the Bridge of Dreams by Lesley Downer


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