The Women of the Sex Industry

To what extent should we divorce these portraits from their sociological and historical contexts? Since Dutch merchants first introduced ukiyo-e to Western audiences in the mid-19th century, we have interpreted these women as paragons of beauty, as expressions of Asian aesthetics, and as characters in a variety of semi-fictional narratives. Indeed, the prints themselves present an inherently idealized and glamorized view of the pleasure quarters that conveniently overlooks many of the more controversial aspects of their subjects’ lives. Do those interpretations interfere with our ability to both understand the Yoshiwara as an industry and to identify each of these women as an actual person who played a particular role within that industry? If we focus instead upon the social mechanics of the Yoshiwara, how much should we allow our personal beliefs about sexuality, the commercialization of sex, and social justice to color our appreciation of this artwork?

Perhaps what makes these images of courtesans so fascinating to modern viewers is that, like the genre of shunga as a whole, they represent a worldview that fundamentally challenges our own. To some extent, these images may satisfy our desire to know more about the world these women inhabited. Was that not, however, the same curiosity that compelled customers to visit the Yoshiwara three hundred years ago? And if those visitors to the Yoshiwara were responsible for feeding the early modern Japanese sex industry and perpetuating the exploitation of these women, then are not those of us who admire these works of art in some way validating that industry as well? Are we not all complicit in the fate of these women?