The Gentrification of the Yoshiwara

The Edo period saw the establishment of licensed prostitution districts throughout Japan, but none attained the iconic status of the Yoshiwara, the only licensed "pleasure quarter" in the political capital of Edo (modern Tokyo). The Yoshiwara was first opened to the public in 1618, and then moved to a new location outside the city in 1657, where it would remain for the rest of its existence.

For over three centuries, the Yoshiwara was the center of a unique sexual culture in the popular imagination. This sexual culture figured prominently in both ukiyo-e in general and shunga in particular. From an early point, brothel owners encouraged publishers, writers and artists to feature their establishments and the women that worked for them, and by the 18th century Yoshiwara prostitutes became a primary subject for ukiyo-e. At the same time, despite the efforts of both Yoshiwara proprietors and the government, unlicensed prostitution remained widespread throughout the city of Edo, and the Yoshiwara was never able to rely on its unique licensed status alone to encourage visitors.

Consequently, brothel owners turned their attention to the development of festivals and other annual events to attract a wider audience. In particular, starting in 1741 the Yoshiwara celebrated the arrival of spring with the annual planting of blossoming cherry trees along the main avenue, the Nakanochō. This remained one of the major events of the year well into the 19th century, and was featured by Hiroshige in several famous designs, two of which are included in this exhibition. Cherry blossoms were ripe with sexual symbolism; not only did their transience resonate well with the fleeting beauty of Yoshiwara women, but as Timon Screech (b. 1961) has pointed out, the breaking of a blossoming branch also symbolized the act of seduction.

Another event that attracted visitors was the Niwaka Festival, held annually in the eighth lunar month, and captured in a design by Hiroshige also on display. The Niwaka Festival was connected with celebrations in honor of one of the patron deities of the Yoshiwara, the fox god Inari (for more on the sexual symbolism of foxes, see the section "Supernatural Shunga" elsewhere in this exhibition). During the festival, prostitutes would ride on floats dressed in elaborate costumes, stopping at teahouses to do dances and skits.

The 19th century saw the dominance of landscapes, in particular famous scenic sites (meisho) around the country, as a subject in ukiyo-e, and this was reflected in depictions of the Yoshiwara. A number of places in the Yoshiwara were identified as meisho for the city of Edo, including the Nakanochō, "Primping Hill" (emonzaka) where visitors would clean up after the journey from the city before an appointment, and the "looking back willow" where they could linger for a final goodbye before returning to the city. The latter, like much of the Yoshiwara, was steeped in tradition; since willow trees were homophonous with the verb "to linger" (liu) in Chinese, willows had been a prominent motif on the continent in parting poems for centuries.

Despite this gentrification of the Yoshiwara, by the time Hiroshige designed the prints on display here, the quarter had already gone into significant decline. Other parts of the city became well known as centers for unlicensed prostitution, notably Fukagawa, seen in this exhibition in a print by Hiroshige promoting one of its teahouses (which often were fronts for brothels). While the mechanisms of unlicensed prostitution could be exceedingly primitive, over time districts such as Fukagawa became known for their own distinct cultural practices. For example, As Cecilia Segawa Seigle has pointed out, female geisha first became popular in the brothels in Fukagawa, and it was only later that they were introduced into the Yoshiwara. Hiroshige's Grand Series of Famous Teahouses of Edo (c. 1838-1840), several prints from which are included in this exhibition, shows unlicensed prostitutes not only operating quite openly in teahouses all around the city, but dressed in elaborate outfits rivaling those of Yoshiwara women and providing entertainment and other services beyond crude sexual favors for their clients.

The Yoshiwara (barely) managed to maintain its exclusive status through the collapse of the Edo period, but shortly after the Meiji emperor was restored to power in 1868 six other districts, all of which had long been centers of unlicensed prostitution, also were granted licensed status. While the Yoshiwara still carried a certain mystique, especially for the many foreigners that arrived in Japan during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a mere ghost of its former self, and it was finally closed by the government in 1958.