日本語版はこちらThe Yoshiwara: Its Mythological Roots, its Residents, and its Legacy
Throughout the Edo period (1615–1868), the Yoshiwara district, located on the outskirts of modern-day Tokyo, functioned as a government-sanctioned brothel district. In addition to prostitution, the Yoshiwara offered clients an opportunity to indulge in extravagant fashion, which was banned in other parts of the country. In order to offer the Yoshiwara a sense of cultural legitimacy lacking in most unlicensed brothel districts, the proprietors transformed the female residents into embodiments of courtly culture from the Heian period (794–1185), Japan’s golden era of literature. These courtesans (prostitutes) not only dressed in aristocratic style, they were also trained to recite classical poetry as if they were reincarnated characters from The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari, 11th century).
The most prosperous period for the district was in the 17th and early 18th centuries, during which the female residents formed a highly stratified social hierarchy. At the top of that society was the tayū, a courtesan considered so noble and alluring that clients happily paid several months worth of their earnings merely for an opportunity to speak with her. Ukiyo-e print designers such as Hishikawa Moronobu (1631–1694) immortalized these women as exemplars of beauty.
Over time, the Yoshiwara struggled to compete against other unlicensed brothel districts, and its aura became ever more ostentatious. Its social order was dramatically reconfigured, with its representative tayū replaced by oiran—elaborately dressed courtesans frequently accompanied by young attendants and still popularized in ukiyo-e portraits. Sadly, these images largely belied the grim economic reality of the Yoshiwara. By the 20th century, the district had lost its cultural veneer, and it finally shut down in 1958.
Presented here are Sakuran, a manga portrait by Anno Moyoco (b. 1971) of a young woman growing up in the Yoshiwara during the 19th century; The Tale of Genji, in which Egawa Tatsuya (b. 1961) contemporizes the 11th century classic novel in an erotic light; and Pink, a manga by Okazaki Kyōko (b. 1963) that considers the daily life of a prostitute in contemporary Tokyo.