Critiquing Concubinage: Sumiya Koume (1850-1920) and Changing Gender Roles in Modern Japan

Marnie S. Anderson, Smith College

Peer reviewed accepted manuscript.


This essay introduces the life of Sumiya Koume (1850-1920), a geisha who was a concubine before becoming an activist and social reformer. I use her story to examine two major shifts in women’s roles in Meiji Japan (1868-1912)—the decline of concubinage and a heightened divide between different categories of women: women based in households and those available for hire. I introduce Sumiya’s 1893 essay ‘I Recommend Against Becoming a Geisha or Concubine’, the only known piece written by someone who had worked as a concubine. After situating her essay within debates about concubinage and legal changes, I turn to the reception of her work. Sumiya’s life sheds light on the transitional nature of the early Meiji era, specifically the period of flux between the formal abolition of concubinage in 1882 and the advent of the state- sponsored ‘good wife, wise mother’ (ryōsai kenbo) paradigm in 1899.