Chōkōsai Eishō 鳥高斎栄昌 (active c. 1795-1801)
The Courtesan Tsuruno-o of the Tsuruya Brothel with her Kamuro Attendants Sakaki and Kotori
From the series Beautiful Women of the Green Houses Compared
(Seirō Bijin Awase 青楼美人合)

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1795-1801
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1957

Kamuro — adolescent girls between seven and fifteen years of age who lived in the Yoshiwara — assisted and trained under particular high-ranking courtesans. During the 17th century, each courtesan was assigned a single kamuro, while in the late 18th century, two kamuro, dressed in matching kimono, attended to the courtesan’s needs. Visitors to the Yoshiwara were not allowed to interact sexually with kamuro, but as the courtesans’ assistants, they were nevertheless exposed to many situations that nowadays would be considered dramatically inappropriate for children.

The fact that parents allowed recruiters from the Yoshiwara to lead their daughters into such a lifestyle underscores the desperate circumstances those families faced. The unequal distribution of wealth throughout the country was most poignantly felt in rural areas.

Unlike the residents of Edo, including the courtesans of the Yoshiwara, farmers toiled throughout their lives with little hope of more than mere self-sustenance. Even if a family were able to relocate to a large city, their fortunes were dictated by their heritage and the feudal caste system.

At the bottom of that caste system were the untouchables (buraku-min) who had few prospects for education, employment, or marriage. Ironically, the Yoshiwara was one of the few places in the country where a woman of humble origins could be liberated from the limitations of her caste, live in relative comfort, and bask in the light of others’ admiration. Considering these opportunities, the physical and psychological hardships of life as a kamuro — and later, as a courtesan — might seem tolerable, and a parent’s acceptance of such a lifestyle might seem understandable.

Depicted here are the courtesan Tsuruno-o of the Tsuruya Brothel with her kamuro assistants Sakaki and Kotori.

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