Tag Archives: edo period

“More than just a have-a-go”

19 February, 2021

Image via sabakuink.net

I enjoyed the positive book review from Bow International magazine for Johannes Haubner’s The Power Of The Bow, available from Verlag Angelika Hörnig (their website is at bogenscheissen.de). By far the most striking passage in the review is the quote about yaba onna, or ‘archery range women’, who worked an entertainment known as a yōkyū.

One of the most interesting titbits concerns archery in the entertainment districts beginning during the Edo period (17th to 19th centuries), where archery grounds were often found near to temples and shrines. Women known as yaba onna (lit. ‘archery range women’) called over passers-by to try their luck, using short indoor bows known as ko-yumi, rather like you might get at a fairground today.

Small prizes were on offer. You could just enjoy a cup of tea while watching the ladies and their shooting skills, but frequently, the women offered something else apart from just a have-a-go. As the book wryly notes: “This is why the expression ‘to shoot an arrow’ is quite ambiguous in 19th century Japan.”

The woodcut above, from the Sabaku Ink page, give visual clues as to the true role of a yaba onna, with dishevelled clothing and sash, a sword on the floor hinting at the prescence of a client, and the metaphor of a large bunch of ‘spent arrows’.

via https://yajifun.tumblr.com/

The historical website Sengo Kujidai takes up the story. It turns out the yaba onna persisted well into the 19th century:

“In the early part of the Meiji period, a yōkyū site was established at Okuyama in the Asakusa area of Tokyo.  This location employed attractive ladies to pick-up the arrows, garnering attention among the men. The women were assigned to gather the arrows, but also taught how to use the bows by standing in close proximity to the guests, showed their legs while retrieving arrows, and enticed customers.  In jest, some of the guests shot arrows at the rears of women who were picking-up arrows, and those women humored them by skillfully evading the arrows.  Prostitution services occurred behind the facility…”

The illustration above shows the tiny targets used, which were incorporated into what were essentially business cards, one of which appears in the book. It’s a little more explicit than the ones above. You can see it by clicking here.

Fashions changed, however, and less-expensive drinking establishments offering similar services led to fewer guests, and yōkyū as a form of entertainment declined precipitously. In 1877 the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department issued a regulation to control one prominent store in order to ‘prevent the tendency of worsening morals’.

Despite the beautiful ukiyo-e woodcuts, hinting at a certain amount of power, life for sex workers in early-modern Japan was probably difficult and dangerous. But it’s an apposite reminder that archery ranges certainly haven’t always been the upstanding establishments they are today.