|Henry Norman. The ladies promenading in the Yoshiwara, 1890.|
Cambridge University Library.
English journalist Sir Henry Norman travelled to Japan in 1890 to write a series of essays, which he illustrated with his own photographs. Of the courtesans whom he discovered processing in the Yoshiwara, Tōkyō’s officially licensed pleasure district, he writes, ‘It is difficult to give in words an adequate notion of the extraordinary effect of this procession. The costly and gorgeous clothes… the exaggerated bow of her obi tied in front (the courtesan is obliged by law to distinguish herself in this way), the pyramidal coiffure, the face as white as snow… women servants walking solemnly behind… her slow and painful hachimonji [figure-of-eight walking]; her stony gaze straight before her, half contemptuous and half timid; the dense and silent crowd –– all these go to make a spectacle apart from anything one has ever seen…’
In fin-de-siècle Japan, these glamorous figures still generated a powerful mystique in spite of Yoshiwara’s decline from its heyday, when it was the shimmering essence of that arty, sensuous, extravagant urban lifestyle known as “ukiyo” or the “floating world”. By the time Henry Norman arrived at Yoshiwara, the floating world was sagging under the weight of its implausibility – but that a trace of the old magic still lingered is a testament to the forcefulness of the concept.
The Yoshiwara was an irresistible subject for Edo-era writers and artists, who flocked to record every aspect of its demi-monde. Gorgeous woodblock prints amplified the enclave’s appeal and turned the most prestigious courtesans into celebrities. Songs and poems wove webs of allusion that wrapped the reality of the Yoshiwara’s business – women trafficked and enslaved as sexual commodities – in elegant evasions. “Last night a peach was wetted by the rain” sounds rather more charming than “last night a fifteen-year-old’s virginity was sold to the highest bidder”.
|Utagawa Kunisada. The courtesan Mayuzumi in the |
Yoshiwara of Edo, c.1830.
The presentation of the pleasure district in poems and pictures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is the very expression of determined glamour. Images and literary musings that took the Yoshiwara as their subject created a transcendent world, distant yet alluring, populated by unknowable beauties. They project the kind of dazzling glamour that causes things to appear other than they actually are.
Yoshiwara was constructed in 1617 as an enclave of 394 teahouses and 153 bordellos on a marshy plain two miles outside of the city of Edo (as Tōkyō was known then). In the first decade of the seventeenth century, the Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu had eyed with suspicion the kinds of loose establishments – tea houses and unruly houses of ill-repute – that might harbour political agitators and threaten his power. When a brothel owner petitioned authorities for a tract of land with the aim of securing a monopoly on sex-work, it occurred to the Shōgun’s government to establish a designated pleasure district, where brothels could be monitored and taxed. A restricted quarter of this kind would make it easier for the government’s taxation service to obtain revenues from prostitution and for secret police and informants, on whom the shogunate relied to keep political threats in check, to go about their eavesdropping work – since brothels and tea houses had always been a reliable source of intelligence about adversaries and criminals.
The business of the Yoshiwara was highly regulated fantasy, with sex as the consumable product. Even the quarter's name involved some dissembling in order to make it more attractive to customers. Yoshiwara meant “Rush Moor” or, equally prosaically, “Sedge Plain”. But a convenient switch to another kanji (character) transformed the meaning into something more felicitous – the “Moor of Good Luck”. The term "ukiyo" had got a makeover, too. Its original Buddhist meaning was "suffering world" – a place where chasing after desire inevitably results in sorrow. "Uki" was interpreted as "sad, gloomy" from the Chinese yuu, but in the upbeat, thrusting Edo period, "uki" was repurposed as the Chinese fu, which gave the sense of floating and cheerfulness and drifting on a pleasant current. Even in the matter of timekeeping, Yoshiwara was not exactly commensurate with reality. City regulations required bordellos to close at ten o’clock in the evening, but Yoshiwara’s brothelkeepers got around this inconvenience by calling midnight ten o’clock and having the night watchmen – who struck the hours with wooden clappers – alter the count.
|Okumura Masanobu. Nakanochō in the Yoshiwara, c.1710-20. |
Art Institute Chicago.
The pleasure district covered twenty acres of gridded streets. It was surrounded by a moat and barred by an imposing Great Gate. Booths outside the gate sold cheap straw hats that could be pulled down low to hide the wearer’s identity. The individuals sporting hats in the print above are probably samurai, who were technically forbidden to visit the Yoshiwara, but as the district grew in prestige, this regulation lapsed. A notice posted on the Great Gate prohibited persons other than doctors from entering in a palanquin or sedan chair, and long weapons were forbidden. Even the most illustrious of visitors must go unarmed and on foot into the Yoshiwara. He understood straight away that the conventions of ordinary society no longer prevailed and that the only mark of distinction a man might have, after passing through the Great Gate, lay in the amount of money he was prepared to pay for services. A representative of the lowly merchant class who managed to secure an assignation with a ranking courtesan might fancy himself a prince of the city – at least for twenty-four hours.
|Utagawa Hiroshima. Cherry blossom time, Yoshiwara Nakanochō, c.1839-42.|
Honolulu Museum of Art.
Yoshiwara was all about first impressions. From the outset it presented a beguiling face to the visitor. In spring hundreds of cherry trees planted in tubs along the wide central boulevard of Nakanochō offered a breathtaking display. The main thoroughfare was flanked by two-storied tea houses and “green houses” (the term comes from the Chinese custom of painting brothels green). Shops in the side streets sold sex aids, aphrodisiacs and love potions, and food and drink. The banners fluttering from tall bamboo poles, the sound of music everywhere, the countless flickering lanterns that lit this “nightless city" after dusk, and the sumptuous style of its denizens all contributed to an excited atmosphere, while strict rules of comportment added an air of refinement that justified Yoshiwara’s high prices.
|Kitagawa Utamaro. Cherry blossoms at Yoshiwara, c.1793.|
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
|Chōbunsei Eishi. Courtesans at the Great Gate of the Yoshiwara: (right)|
Utaura with kamuro Hanaki and Chidori; (centre) Misayama with kamuro
Wakaba and Teriha; (left) Shinowara with kamuro Takeno and Sasano, c.1792,
Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
In the morning hours the courtesans exercised a semblance of liberty as they strolled the streets attended by young female pages, known as kamuro. When they turned thirteen or fourteen, kamuro might begin training to become prostitutes themselves, or shift into the role of servant or office administrator. Clerical work abounded. Transactions of the Yoshiwara were recorded in detail and encounters charged in time units measured by incense sticks. A ledger recorded the brothel’s sales based on the number of sticks burned for each transaction. Accounts were then made up for customers.
|Japanese timekeeper with incense sticks and name tags.|
National Science Museum, Tōkyō.
Yoshiwara was a sophisticated bureaucratic enterprise that prospered on finely honed time-and-efficiency principles. Every hour of the courtesan’s life was accounted for – she worked whether she was ill or menstruating. At twilight, as a tolling bell announced the evening display, crowds of sightseers gathered to watch the women take up seats in a latticed room at the front of the bordello. Higher ranked courtesans were not exhibited in this way, but they were in the minority. Potential customers might have consulted one of the many directories available, which contained practical information about the brothels, the women in their employ and a price list of services. Tea house girls arranged meetings with customers, who could buy company for a whole or half day or for periods of time known as “cuts” or “flowers”. High-class courtesans were generally listed at a day-rate basis only, while lower-ranking women were available for shorter sessions. It was assumed that the customer, while waiting a response from a woman of the first echelon, would spend generously on sake and entertainment. It was a drawn-out and expensive business masquerading as idealised courtship.
|Okumura Masanobu. Courtesans in the Yoshiwara, c. 1710-20.|
Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Most women in the Yoshiwara had been sold to brothelkeepers at a young age by poverty-stricken peasant families. News of natural disasters sent procurers rushing to the afflicted region, where desperate people could be persuaded to sign away their daughters. Every expense from then on, food, clothes, servants, and accommodation, was loaded on to the girl’s contract and indebted her for years to the brothel owner. The reality of her life was one of indenture with little hope of escape. No woman could leave the Yoshiwara without a police pass and even then she must be accompanied by a male attendant. Any attempt to flee was met with severe penalties.
Henry Norman gives an insight into the process of indenture in his dispatches to the Pall Mall Gazette. He recounts a visit in 1890 to Tōkyō’s Department of Police, where the Bureau of Prostitution allows him to watch the application process for a girl to become a licensed yujo, or “lady of pleasure” at the Yoshiwara. “Three persons appear in front of the officials,” Norman writes, “the girl, her parent or guardian, and the brothelkeeper. The girl is questioned, she replies automatically with downcast eyes; the parent is questioned, he replies apologetically, with many explanations; the keeper is questioned, he replies profusely, with practised fluency. The official makes many entries in an elaborately ruled ledger before him. Then the three retire, in a moment the sliding doors open again to admit another trio, and so on without variation, without emotion, formally and relentlessly the stream of victims is rolled on. I could not help being reminded of the automatic pig-killing at the stockyards of Chicago. Some of the girls are no longer young, but coarse in person and brazen in manner. Others are delicate and pretty and very frightened. Some look little more than children, bewildered.”
Once the girl signed her contract, the brothelkeeper would advance the parents the sum of money agreed – in 1890 that was somewhere between twenty and fifty dollars – and the girl was bonded to the keeper’s brothel until he had recouped his investment from her earnings. In fact the ever-expanding debt made it nearly impossible for the girl to leave the Yoshiwara unless a patron bought out her contract.
|Postcard. Yoshiwara prostitutes, c.1910.|
There was nothing very ideal about day to day life in the pleasure quarter. The mosquitos that thrived in the moat must have been a hellish nuisance in summer and when it rained the streets would have churned to mud. Typhoid broke out from time to time. Many lives were lost to fires – over a period of two hundred years Yoshiwara was burned down at least thirty times. At least a third of Yoshiwara’s women were dead by their early twenties of infectious diseases or from complications of childbirth. Others were slowly poisoned by the toxic lead makeup they painted on their faces and necks. The majority of them passed into death as anonymously as they had lived, their bodies wrapped in straw and dumped at the gates of the Jokanji temple – the Throw-Away temple, as it became known. A total of 25,000 prostitutes met this fate.
As the hour of the dragon arrived, and dawn began to break, Yoshiwara's customers came to the end of their sessions. In typically euphemistic style, this departure at dawn was termed “the parting of the robes”, an echo of the courtly language used to describe the poignant separation of two lovers. The morning bell sounded and the Great Gate was pushed open – but not for the women within.