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Monday, February 8, 2016

Ukiyo - The Edo-Era World Of Prostitution: The Yoshiwara

I have often written about ukiyo-e (浮世絵), the Japanese wood block prints that have helped define Japan throughout the Edo period (1603-1868AD), but not once have I delved into what ukiyo (浮世 - "Floating World") is.

Well, ukiyo is the thing that 'saved' the art form of ukiyo-e in the 1800s... it is indeed the so-called 'floating world', but what it really means is that it's the world of legalized prostitution in Japan.

I've written about prostitution in Japan a few times - just look to the right of this blog under favorites... but the world of Edo-era prostitution is a lesson in that era's moral center. I guess it's part of any era's moral center.

It's said that after farming, prostitution is the second-oldest profession. The ukiyo-e to the left is owned by me, and depicts a prostitute checking her makeup. The image was drawn by Eisen.

In Japan, because marriages in the Edo-era were arranged for politics of every social order, for both the man and the woman, there was little romance or adventure.

Yes, the implication here is that when married, romance and adventure go out with the bath water... and for many, the same holds true today.

Of course, even if one was single back then, what adventure could one have in Japan?

After 1630 foreign travel was made illegal, punishable by death. No one could enter Japan, and no one could leave it... except for a trading post or two, there was no outside contact between Japan and the rest of the world.

At home, Japan was lead by a Shogun (将軍)... a military leadership that was essentially a dictatorship... so no political change. It was the Shogun's way or death. For 250 years.

A strict system of class was installed: farmers, merchants, samurai (the army, basically), and the aristocracy.

Born a farmer? Probably die a farmer. Little upwards movement could be achieved.


All that was left was pleasure.
Not a prostitute - I don't think... at least not depicted as one... though the ukiyo-e artists frequently used courtesans as models for their work. I'm no longer sure who the artists is? Help?
The Shogunate knew that and licensed many a pleasure center in each city.

And so, men would go and find themselves a Courtesan, or maybe the women would find a male (no female) Kabuki actor with which to spend money on for pleasure. Sexual or perhaps just emotional.

Don't judge. Everyone has felt that self same pull... we just act upon it differently (or exactly the same) as they did back in the Edo era.

Now... the art form of ukiyo-e was inspired by the Kabuki (歌舞伎 - classic Japanese dance/drama) and the brothels of Japan. Images were initially drawn depicting a famous Courtesan - Oiran (花魁) or Kabuki actor, especially after art lovers became bored with nature scenes of birds, fish and landscapes (though each still had a niche market... later in the Edo era, artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige revived the landscape market with their fresh take on things).

The most famous area of brothel was in the Capital city of Edo (now known as Tokyo), where the Yoshiwara floating world was set up. Yoshiwara (吉原) was a famous yūkaku (遊廓、遊郭, pleasure district, red-light district) - the first, official such place set-up and legitimized by the Shogun.

From shabby beginnings, to nearly becoming a city within the city with parks, shops, restaurants and gardens, Yoshiwara had, by the year 1869, 3,289 courtesans working in 153 brothels, which were known colloquially as 'green houses'.

There were also 394 legit tea houses there, because sex doesn't mean one has to be an animal about it.

Established in 1618 AD, Yoshiwara was a means for the Shogun to control Edo's more seedier elements.

Brothel owners got together (with the Shogun) and discussed plans for a single area of pleasure to be set up in Edo, who agreed that a licensed pleasure quarter would be the best for all parties, allowing them better control over who could prostitute, while ensuring its clients were kept in check.

A key rule agreed upon was that no client could stay in a brothel for longer than 24 hours at a time ensuring that no one could shirk their job or official duties.

The area was set up on a reedy-filled swamp known as the Moor of Rushes... which translated into Yoshiwara. It remained in that area until a large fire in 1657 destroyed half the city, prompting the construction of a new Yoshiwara quarter to be set up near Edo's Asakusa-ji... Asakusa Temple (it remained here until it was closed down in 1958 AD. Damn Americans. Probably. I'm not sure.

Actually, until 1957, Japan's government allowed regulated prostitution. 

Who worked here at the Yoshiwara?

Prostitutes in the form of a Courtesan... young girls who were sold by their families to the brothels to pay of debts, or from families who had suffered from some earthquake or fire or famine, or even noble families of the aristocracy who used it as a means of ridding themselves of a girl who had embarrassed herself and the noble family in some manner.

Here's a partial view of an ukiyo-e print I own that is too big for my new home scanner... actually, they are all too big for my scanner, as the one's above were done on a huge flatbed at a previous work place. As you can see, here we have a man taking advantage of a woman who was doing some writing, by slipping his hand down the top of her kimono. Is this a scene from the Yoshiwara - no, but you get the idea. How do I know it's a man copping a feel? The shaved head was always depicted in blue. I didn't know that when I bought the art, figuring I had something different. Artist help, please.
Once a prostitute, always a prostitute... unless they happened to catch the eye of a rich customer who could buy her way out of debt and into a more secure home life... each brothel did, of course, keep track of just how much money each girl had cost them... from food, shelter, training, dress, etc. Buying the freedom of a Courtesan was not inexpensive.

When a new girl arrived at a brothel, she was given a new name... the Japanese equivalent of a Brittney, Chelsea, Lexus or Porsche that are common in today's western world. It was to inform the girl that whomever they were before, upon passing the Omon (Entrance Gate) of Yoshiwara, they were now someone else altogether.

There are two sets of rankings of courtesan - Pre-1750, and Post 1750.

I am going to detail how things were first, with Post 1750AD.

These new girls... the rookies, were known as Kamuro (禿), and would act as a maid to a Courtesan. They ranged in age from anywhere from seven to 15. I know, I know. No no sex was involved... just a young life of servitude.

If a kamuro was pretty, then she had a chance to move up the ranks, and was taught the arts of music, poetry, painting, flower arrangement and even the tea ceremony... all elegant stuff that turns a female into a woman of taste. (I'm just being historically accurate here, and not expounding my own views.)

I said pretty girls could advance. Those lacking in physical beauty... well... made for maid's work. Sad but true. They could learn the other skills, but the brothel owners had to create women that men would clamor for in order to make money.

After proper training, by the time the kamuro was 13 to 15, she could attain the rank of Shinzô (新造 newly made one). At that time there would be five days of celebration within the brothel where she would be dressed up and pampered and paraded through the streets of Yoshiwara... and then she would be taught the ways of eroticism.

Its not just how to have sex... it was how to tease, and entice and pamper... and once mastered, she could work as a prostitute... which again, in those days was a courtesan.

The shinzô could be anywhere from 13- to 23-years-old, and they served as attendants to higher-ranking courtesans. Younger shinzô were identified by the long-sleeved furisode of a young girl, while those who had earned a certain degree of popularity with clients wore the tomesode (short sleeves) of a full-fledged courtesan.

Prior to 1761AD shinzô attendants were forbidden from engaging in sexual relations with clients, but after that year, they began to service men.

A shinzô of beauty could rise up the ranks... to a Heyamochi, a Zashikimochi, a Tsukemawashi, a Chûsa, or with extreme beauty and erotic skill and refined artistic skill, become a Yobidashi chûsan.

A Tsukemawashi (付け廻し) was the lowest ranking oiran, requiring no appointment, and one could enter without having to make an appointment.

A Heyamochi (部屋持, which means "room-holding") was a prostitute/courtesan who had a room at the Green House/brothel where she could entertain her clients. No attendants, usually.

The Zashikimochi (座敷持, "chamber-holding") was a courtesan who had her own small apartment/chamber for private bouncy-bouncy. The difference between them and a heyamochi was that they had up to two shinzô and up to two kamura girls working for them.

The Chûsan (昼三) was a top-level prostitute, who sat in the front room of a brothel - part of the display of what a Green House offered, and could be hired without needing to make an appointment.

The Yobidashi chûsan (呼出昼三, "a chûsan called-out, summoned") was the top of the top when it came to escorts. The difference between them and a chûsan, was that a man was required to make an appointment to see her well in advance of arriving at Yoshiwara (or other legalized brothels in Japan).

Before 1750AD, there were fewer ranks:

There was still the kamuro, and shinzô (also known as hikifune), and then to tenjin (天神), as courtesans-in-training - which means no-sex for pay for them.

I'm actually curious about what sort of training they received when it came to the erotic arts... was it just theory, or was there some practical involved? Having done university( theory) and college (practical), nothing beats hands-on-training, despite the snob appeal of university. That's five years of my life I'll never get back. But... we were talking about courtesans and prostitution. I have no idea, at this time, what the training fully encompassed. Sorry.

Before 1750AD, the lowest of the courtesan rank were the Hashi (端), and thus the most affordable. There was no application required to see her, and she had no power to reject a customer. If some fat, sweaty, smelly guy had the cash, she had to let him get atop her. Waiting for customers, she was part of the visual catalog, sitting on display in the front room of a brothel. She would have to either wait until a room opened up before she did, or she would have to rent a room in order to entertain. Entertain... it sounds wrong, doesn't it?

A Tsubone (局) was just like a hashi courtesan, except that she had a pre-set room for herself and her customers. The tsubone and a hashi are low on the hierarchy.

The second-rank Kôshi (格子, literally translated to 'lattice), was special. If a man wished to see one, he required an official letter of recommendation from that or another Yoshiwara brothel. Then he would have to set up a meeting date and time with the ageya (揚屋) at the brothel (perhaps done at the House of Introduction at the main gate). The kôshi and her sundry attendants would have a single meeting to decide if she would accept the man as a client.

If the man was accepted—rejections were rare, actually—upon arrival at the agreed upon date and time, the man would discuss services in the front room of the brothel.

The Tayû (太夫) was top of the food chain as far as courtesans came. Yes, I meant to write that. You should know me by now. I've read that the term tayû owes its origins to an official title within Japan's imperial court, but that it was perverted at some time to mean something else in the world of the courtesan - performer.

Just like for a kôshi, in order to achieve the right to boink a tayû, there were procedures to follow. One needed the letter of recommendation from a Yoshiwara brothel. An application needed to be submitted to the ageya (揚屋) at the brothel where the tayû worked.

Anyone entertaining a tayû would have to be rich. They paid for the food, and the artistic entertainment, and didn't get any sex out of it until the third visit.

Kind of like the so-called expectations nowadays over the 'third-date'.

But... like the modern version of the 'third-date', the tayû was under no such requirement to have to have sex with the man. But it would be nice.

In fact, upon that third meeting, a tayû could still reject the client-to-be. Yes... who's the real sucker?

In fact, (I say again), being rejected by the tayû was not uncommon. There were only so many hot tayû around, and since she did not need to perform as often as any of the lower level courtesans to make a lot more money... so why prostitute herself IE give herself up quickly?

No... this was a game in order to pry the most amount of money away from the marks.

Once rejected, that man had to begin the process again... trying to woo her for three 'dates' with expensive meals and gifts... trying to impress upon her that he has the financial means to satisfy her cravings - all the while not knowing if she had the wiles to satisfy his sexual cravings. She did, but that's beside the point. At least she had some power. She didn't require many clients... even one influential man would do.

And then... by the time a courtesan hit the ripe old age of 27... phhhhht. Over.

She would retire as a courtesan and, if she had been wise with her money, enter the lucrative field of brothel management, or if she were not, continue as a street-walker, carrying her own bedroll with her as she turned tricks for little money in Yoshiwara... or, she could marry and have a family.

For the brothel owners, having ukiyo-e artists draw the women in the prints was great advertising.

These women were NEVER shown nude. The Japanese ideal, at the time, was to show beauty in the face, the hair, and the kimono. Subtlety ruled.

The only thing I have seen, however, is that the courtesan's depicted in ukiyo-e prints really do all tend to look alike... maybe I'm not seeing the subtlety, not being an Edo-era Japanese man.Or maybe I have too many prints from the same artist.

As for the more explicit shunga artwork showing women and men in sexual positions, complete with description of the position achieved, the prints were gathered in 'pillow books' and given to young brides to ensure both the husband and herself achieved the best possible pleasure.

Now... not once have I said HOW a man goes about finding a courtesan, or even mentioned the word 'Geisha'. The former I will talk about, but note that a geisha - a high-level geisha, never prostituted herself for sex. She was a master of the arts and entertainment and really was also an escorted companion when he ate. Low-level geisha, of the era, might perform sexual favors for cash, however, but it was not part of the official job.

So... let's suppose you are a horny man with a yen to spend some gold Nishuban or silver Isshuban...

A few coins I picked up in Japan. I collected Canadian and U.S. coins, so what the heck, eh?
That's gold - and silver from my own collection, plus some standard coppers (with the square hole) - all from the 1600s up to the 1800s. The coppers are all around the 1630s, and I had an original piece of rope that went through each of the 100 coins to act as a wallet, of sorts. I say 'had', only because in my possession, that rope became brittle and aside from a small chunk in my possession, disintegrated. It's still cool, though, in my opinion. No wonder I had a tough time saving money... I spent it on money and other interesting souvenirs.

So... here's how it is for a man to hire a courtesan at Yoshiwara:

As we enter Yoshiwara, we must first enter the House of Introduction (Hikite-jaya), where we are helped by workers there in making our choice of which brothel to visit, and then with which courtesan we might wish to boink, and even what date or time.

At the House of Introduction, records are kept about when we enter, who we are, where we are going, and whom we are doing. No one is judging, but it helps ensure order is maintained.

Once the choices have been made, and the terms of the deal set - but not paid upfront - a serving girl accompanies us to the brothel/green house we chose, and waits on us during dinner... and then leads us to our 'sleeping chamber', and goes away.

That's when the courtesan we chose back at the House of Introduction shows up to provide her special services.

I'm pretty sure it was MSOG, which is current 'escort' slang for 'multiple shots on goal', a hockey term turned naughty that implies the man can ejaculate more than once, but will pay for that privilege based on what parameters were agreed upon earlier at the Introduction facility at the front of the Yoshiwara. No... MSOG was not an exact term used at the Yoshiwara.

Lastly, it has been my understanding from talking to various dealers in Japanese art, that when it comes to the depiction of women in ukiyo-e prints, for those of us who can not read the descriptions on the prints, one way of determining the rank of the women is to look at their hair - specifically how many hair pins are in it.

The prostitutes and low-level maidens may simply only have one or two hair pins, while the aristocratic rich one with have 10+, with ornate pins being the norm.

You can see an example of that in the triptych ukiyo-e I have framed showing the Tale of Genji.

I used to join the three images I had originally shot (back in 2011) separately. It worked pretty well... I did have to create my own sizing, though. Genji's wife - the aristocrat, is standing... compare her hairpins to the others.
Sorry I had to shoot the triptych panel by panel and from various angles (and heights - because I'm not a robot, nor do I have a tripod, though that used to be my nickname... it's still a nickname if you give the nickname to yourself, right? Oh.) it from the side to avoid flashback off the frame's glass.

Anyhow... that's enough about prostitution in Edo-jidai (era) Japan. For now.

Andrew Joseph

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