Okumura Masanobu 奥村政信 (1686-1764)
Beautiful Courtesans of the Northern Quarters
(Hokkaku Bigichō 北郭美技帖)

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1701
Woodblock-printed book; ink on paper
James A. Michener, 1991

The courtesans of the Yoshiwara were considered paragons of feminine beauty not only by their patrons but also, thanks largely to the print artists featured in this exhibition, by the general public throughout Japan. This book by Masanobu includes portraits of high-ranking courtesans from each of the major brothels in the Yoshiwara. “The Northern Quarters” was a nickname for the Yoshiwara, as the district lay to the north of Edo. The use of the nickname, especially for the purpose of this publication, may have been further inspired by the text Records of the Northern Quarter (Bei li zhi), written in 884 by Sun Qi (active late 9th century), which recounts the lives of courtesans in the Tang dynasty (618-907) and idealizes them as immortals.

On the left page, “Otowa of the Chōjiya” poses with pillows and bedding seen behind her in the upper left corner and the crest of Chōjiya Brothel, clover leaves within a circle, in the upper right. On the right page, “Yūgiri of the Ōgiya” combs her long hair in front of a standing mirror, a cosmetics case with hair combs beside her, and a folding screen in the background. In the upper right corner appears the Ōgiya Brothel’s crest, a folding fan.

View this book in its entirety on museum database (enabled through support by the Robert F. Lange Foundation)