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Yoshiwara, the Glamorous Culture of Edo's Party Zone

A stunning exhibition of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter is on show at the University Art Museum, Tokyo University of Arts, adjacent to Ueno Park until May 19.



Kitagawa Utamaro , Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara, c.1793, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund.

Yoshiwara was a pleasure quarter licensed by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1618. It was established soon after the commencement of the Edo era (1603-1868) in which the capital moved from Kyoto to Edo, present-day Tokyo. Originally located in Fukiya-cho (modern-day Nihonbashi), it was relocated to an area north of Sensoji, in present-day Asakusa, in 1667. 

In being a sanctioned pleasure quarter, it operated with a sense of order. The borders were clearly defined and entry was restricted to a single gate. Only doctors were permitted to use horses and palanquins, and no weapons were allowed on the premises. This included the swords of samurai, which needed to be left at the entrance. 

Utagawa Kunisada, Illustration of the Upper Floor of Brothels, 1813, The British Museum. (©The Trustees of the British Museum.)

The Inevitability of Vice 

Yoshiwara is indicative of the Japanese attitude toward vice, which is to recognize its inevitability and deal with it in a constructive manner. Accordingly, Japan will at times be criticized by those whose nations prefer to leave vice unregulated. This allows for a moral high ground to be maintained, despite the often devastating impact upon purveyors of vice, participants, and the non-participant population.

A further characteristic of the sex industry within Japan is recognition that many men are as interested in attention, as they are in physical acts of sex. Yoshiwara became an increasingly sophisticated precinct. There, the most talented of the courtesans, known as Oiran, entertained with cultivated manners and skills in the performing arts. The natural evolution of the Oiran was the Geisha, refined entertainers from whom sexual services are not an expectation. 

A further manifestation of the finely honed sense of aesthetics that developed within Yoshiwara was great art, from which this exhibition was able to draw. The artists who recorded Yoshiwara's vibrant existence included Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Hiroshige, and Hokusai Katsushika. These are some of the biggest names in ukiyo-e woodblock printing of the pre-photography era. Kitagawa Utamaro, in fact, resided within Yoshiwara itself. Noted nineteenth-century art critic, Edmond de Goncourt, dubbed him "Painter of Pleasure Houses."

Chobunsai Eishi, The Courtesan Nakagawa with Her Attendants Niono and Isoji. From the series 'Opening of the New Quarters of the Matsubaya Brothel', c. 1795, The British Museum

A Precinct That All Could Enjoy

The area became a tourist attraction that drew in sightseers and cultural figures. Seasonal events such as obon, cherry blossom viewing, and the Lunar New Year celebrations were conducted. Japanese culture flourished within Yoshiwara's bounds, including calligraphy, dance, music, ikebana, and tea ceremony. Guidebooks and manuals on appropriate etiquette were produced by highly skilled artists including Utamaro himself. Yoshiwara was central to the development of the kyoka (short comic poetry) publishing industry. 

Jippensha Ikku / Kitagawa Utamaro, Social Rules of a Brothel. From the Yoshiwara Picture Book: Annual Events, 1804, Tobacco & Salt Museum

Majestic Modeling 

A highlight of the exhibition is a stunning scale model of a brothel, created by three master artisans: cypress wood craftsman Miura Hiroshi, dollmaker Tsujimura Jusaburo, and Edo miniature accessory craftsman Hattori Ichiro.

Tsujimura Jusaburo / Miura Hiroshi / Hattori Ichiro, Diorama of an imaginary brothel in Yoshiwara, 1981, Shitamachi Museum

The model measures 268 cm wide by 235.5 cm deep and 81.5 cm high (around 106 in × 93 in × 32 in). Twenty-three dolls have been created, wearing luxurious attire. The rooms of the model have been furnished with almost 400 small objects, crafted from paper, clay, bamboo, and cloth. It is one of many exhibits that brings the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter to life. 

Tsujimura Jusaburo / Miura Hiroshi / Hattori Ichiro, Diorama of an imaginary brothel in Yoshiwara, 1981, Shitamachi Museum

One of the most extraordinary of the exhibits is Guidebook for Visitors to Yoshiwara, published by Tsutaya Juzaburo (1750-1797), of whom Kitagawa Utamaro was a protege. Tsutaya was a cultural figure, born in Yoshiwara. He promoted Yoshiwara culture through his publications. The guidebook is made remarkable, not by its content, but by its permanent location. It is on show courtesy of the central library of Taito ward, the ward of Tokyo within which Yoshiwara was contained. Presumably, the guidebook has resided in the library since its 1789 publication. In the nation of Japan, the links between the present and the past are delightfully strong. 

Guidebook for Visitors to Yoshiwara, 1789 (left) and Guidebook for Visitors to Yoshiwara, 1792, Taito Ward Central Library

The Many and the Few

In 1865, Heinrich Schliemen, the German archaeologist who unearthed ancient Troy, visited Japan. He was stunned by Yoshiwara. "The Japanese even revere the type of women considered lowly and shameful in other countries," he announced. It is indeed extraordinary, although Schliemen of course, was merely commenting upon the small top percent of the Yoshiwara sex industry workers. 

Keisai Eisen, The Courtesan Yosooi, Nioi, and Tomeki of Matsubaya Brothel. From the series 'New Beauties of the Seven Most Trendy Parlors in Yoshiwara', Early 19th century, Hagi Uragami Museum Exhibition period: April 23–May 19

The bulk of the women who worked within the precinct were from poor farming families. They had entered into contracts of indentured servitude, often as a result of parental pressure. Their life was typically far from glamorous. Nonetheless, the structured nature of Yoshiwara assured that all could rise into the small upper percentile, if sufficiently skilled at their craft. The prostitutes of the unregulated brothels of Edo and elsewhere did not enjoy such opportunities. 

The Yoshiwara Area Today

In 1872, during the Meiji era, the national government provided for the cancellation of debts of all trafficked geisha and courtesans: "The Prostitution Liberation Decree." It is estimated that around 90% of the women vacated the brothels in the months after the decree had been issued. 

Yoshiwara was also repeatedly vacated as a result of fire, albeit temporarily. In the 20th century, it first burnt down in 1911. It was destroyed again after the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, and again during the firebombing raids of the Asia-Pacific War. Of even greater threat to the continuation of the precinct during the post-Edo era, however, were Christian-led crusades that began soon after the 1853 opening of Japan. Christian missionaries sought the abolition of prostitution within Japan — an impracticable moral stance that has yet to lead to the eradication of prostitution in any of the nations upon which it has been applied. 

A Generator of Culture

Yoshiwara technically lost its status as a red-light zone in 1958 when prostitution was made illegal under the Prostitution Prevention Law. Loopholes within that law, however, abound. The area is presently home to a variety of "soaplands", at which sexual services continue to be provided. Remnants of the high culture that the region once exhibited, however, are few and far between. 


The street grid system of old Yoshiwara has survived, as have many of the temples. This includes the Jokan-ji, infamously known as the "nagekomi-dera" (the throw-away temple) at which the bodies of prostitutes too poor for proper burial rites were anonymously left. 

The front gate of the Jokan-ji, the throw-away temple. (©Paul de Vries)

Yoshiwara, The Glamorous Culture of Edo's Party Zone is a fascinating glimpse into a former world. While encompassing a virtual prison for the prostitutes of the lower-class brothels, the Yoshiwara precinct was nonetheless a vibrant generator of culture and artistic excellence. The pictorial component of that artistic achievement, the approximately 230 artworks of the exhibition that depict Yoshiwara culture in full, is a visual feast that should not be missed. 


Author: Paul de Vries

Paul de Vries is an Australian writer and educator based in Japan.