Hishikawa Moronobu 菱川師宣 (1631-1694)
Pictures of Japanese Warriors and Farmers
(Yamato shinō e zukushi 大和侍農繪尽)

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1686
Woodblock-printed book; ink on paper
Gift of Robert Allerton, 1960

Daily life in the Yoshiwara was not always as lively as depictions of courtesan processions down Naka-no-chō Boulevard, and of the district teeming with revelers, would suggest. Lower-class courtesans sat in the parlor of their brothel behind latticed windows and flirted with passersby, hoping to pique one’s interest and earn some money. Higher-class courtesans ran various errands with their adolescent attendants in tow, perspiring in their heavy kimonos amidst the sweltering heat. Groups of male visitors stared at the courtesans from a distance and chatted about them.

As revealed in novels and biographies from the time, in addition to these nuisances were financial worries, rivalries with other courtesans, and abusive supervisors. Venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea had entered Japan in the early 16th century. They were rampant in the brothels of Osaka and Kyoto, and even the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) was infected. Though the Yoshiwara was relatively successful in preventing infection, the women certainly lived in constant fear of it. Such anxieties were literally inescapable, since none of the women were usually allowed to leave the Yoshiwara, except in the case of medical emergencies, until the end of their term of employment (around the age of twenty-seven).

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