Decline of the Yoshiwara

While several ukiyo-e artists active in the 19th century, such as Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865) and Keisei Eisen (1790–1848), focused upon bordellos along the Tōkaidō highway, the Yoshiwara brothel district on the outskirts of Edo city, where the shogunate had legalized prostitution in the early 17th century, still remained an important subject in shunga as well as non-explicit prints.

Unlike the previous two hundred years, when artists such as Okumura Masanobu (1686–1764) and Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1814) praised the Yoshiwara as an environment of both cultural sophistication and sexual liberation, however, 19th-century artists such as Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769–1825) described it in more critical, cynical terms. Though the precise reasons for this change in the public’s perception of the Yoshiwara during the 19th century can only be speculated, the decline was as precipitous as it was undeniable. By the early 20th century, the aura of dignity and élan the courtesans had once exuded was all but lost, and these women, many of whom suffered from venereal disease, appeared more like sexual slaves than celebrities.