Economic Depression and Reconfiguration of the Pleasure Quarter
It is said that the prosperity of [the Yoshiwara] during the Genroku to Hōei era [1688-1710] was like Paradise during the day and like the Dragon Palace at night. The rarest foods of various provinces were all brought to this place because it was the best market, and exotic fragrances filled the houses…
If one customer spent a hundred gold pieces at a bordello, another would claim he had spent a thousand, making profligacy the criterion of the quarter. But after the Kyōhō era [1716-1736], if one client spent ten pieces of gold, another would boast he had spent only five and then go home feeling rather clever that he had not spent more. The men of the Genroku era would have laughed at him, saying, “The pleasure quarter is a place where one should throw away gold and silver. If one doesn’t want to waste money, why go there?
-Katō Eibian (b. 1763), My Robe (Waga koromo), n.d. (Translation by Cecilia Segawa Seigle)
When swarms of locusts devastated crops around the Seto Inland Sea in 1732, the price of rice skyrocketed to as much as seven times its original price. The Kyōhō Famine, as it came to be called, had tumultuous consequences for every sector of Japanese society, including the Yoshiwara. By 1761, the last tayū, the most prestigious (and most expensive) class of courtesan, had retired, and the entire hierarchy of the Yoshiwara shifted dramatically. Ironically, the women who benefited most from this reorganization were the successors of bathhouse girls, who in the early 17th century were considered some of the lowliest workers in the sex industry.
In 1657, when the Yoshiwara proprietors forced the shogunate to shut down the bathhouses throughout Edo that conducted unlicensed prostitution during the previous decades, many of the bathhouses were transformed into teahouses, and former bathhouse girls (yuna) worked there as waitresses (sancha). Eventually, the waitresses returned to engaging their customers in prostitution. Each visit to a sancha cost a customer approximately 15 to 30 momme — between approximately USD $450 and $900.
In 1665, under pressure by the Yoshiwara proprietors, the shogunate shut down the teahouses. The sancha were invited to continue their work in the Yoshiwara, but if they chose to do so, they were forced to work for the first three years without pay as punishment for having previously stolen potential business from Yoshiwara courtesans. Yet again, the popularity of sancha rose, and in the 18th century, they would come to be known as chūsan, the most respected courtesans of all, their fame even surpassing that which tayū once enjoyed.