What was the Yoshiwara District?

In March 1617, as part of their attempt to deal with the imbalanced demographics of Edo City and to placate the disproportionately high percentage of sexually frustrated male residents, the shogunate ordered the construction of a walled, licensed brothel district on a 11.8-acre lot along the outskirts of the city (near modern-day Nihonbashi district, Tokyo). These “pleasure quarters,” known now as the Original Yoshiwara (Moto-Yoshiwara), operated from November 1618 through 1656. The district was completely destroyed in the Meireki Fire of 1657, after which the New Yoshiwara (Shin-Yoshiwara), expanded to 17.5 acres, was constructed along the Sumida River in an area far beyond the city limits (modern-day Asakusa district). Enduring the repeated destruction of individual brothels by fire, the Shin-Yoshiwara continued to operate until 1958, at which time the postwar occupation forces declared prostitution illegal. Although other walled, licensed brothel districts had existed in Kyoto City since 1589, the attention that the Yoshiwara received from novelists such as Ihara Saikaku (1642-93) and various designers of ukiyo-e prints made it by far the most famous in Japan.

The extent to which the Yoshiwara was focused on prostitution is a subject of contention among scholars. Meetings with high-ranking courtesans were often limited to conversations about literature and art, leading the Japanese literature scholar Edward Seidensticker (1921-2007) to liken a visit to the Yoshiwara to the European custom of afternoon tea. The fact that a visitor did not always have the opportunity to act upon sexual impulses while in the company of a courtesan, however, does not negate the likelihood that his long, arduous journey to the Yoshiwara was motivated as much by his libido as by his cultural interests. Courtesans were experts in the art of flirtation, and deferring a client’s desire ensured his return in the near future. For those visitors who required more immediate sexual gratification, regular prostitutes were available in the Yoshiwara as well.

If the Yoshiwara was not merely a forum for cognoscenti of art and literature to discuss aesthetic concepts such as tsū (refinement of taste), however, neither should we consider it nothing more than — to employ the term coined by social historian Steven Marcus — a “pornotopia” in which visitors reveled in the sort of outré sexual fantasies depicted in many works of shunga. This exhibition seeks to discuss the Yoshiwara in as multi-faceted a view as possible, including but not limited to socio-economic and humanitarian terms: as the hub of Edo’s sex industry, where women were not only exploited in ways typical of modern-day prostitution, but where those women also occasionally encountered opportunities for social empowerment.