• Justine McLellan

Yoshiwara, the Whoretopia

Updated: Feb 26, 2019

Between 1603 and 1868 in Japan, the Edo region was the political and military epicentre of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was virtually city of men, overpopulated by single soldiers and male civil servants.

In 1617, after being petitioned by a group of brothel owners, the military dictator of Japan, or Edo, licensed the creation of a contained pleasure center, Yoshiwara. The twenty-acre quarter was built like a fortress with walls surrounding the area, a moat, and a single entrance in order to better track those who entered. The streets were filled with brothel and teahouses, in which high ranking sex workers met their clients.

Yoshiwara was intended to provide an outlet for men’s desires as well as generate tax revenue. It became a cultural hub where artists and musicians performed. Melissa Hope Ditmars assesses that “of the some 10,000 residents of Yoshiwara, about 2,500 were prostitutes. The rest were proprietors, managers, guards, and servants.”

Courtesans, or Tayu, while they were outcasts in regular society, in Yoshiwara they were elevated to the ideal of perfect icons of womanhood, and were marketed by brothel owners as paragons of artistry and sophistication. Like the courtesans of renaissance Italy or Ishtar’s priestesses in ancient Mesopotamia, courtesans enjoyed much more freedom than their female civilian peers.

Nils Johan Ringdal describes “dense and complicated” ritual of interacting Yoshiwara courtesans:

“To meet a prostitute of high rank and price one first had to visit agoya, an elegant hotel with a courtyard garden. Entrance was permitted only to those who were known or carried a recommendation as a guarantee of background and economic standing. If a client requested a visit with a specific girl he had to write her a letter which would be delivered to her.

The visitor would order food and sake for himself and his entourage and usually hired actors and musicians to perform sketches and sing merry songs while he chatted with the hotel owner and his wife. Then the renowned tayu would arrive with her entourage. Leading the procession came the adult women chaperone, followed by one or two young apprentices, a few lower ranking prostitutes, maybe a few geishas (male or female entertainers who were versed in traditional songs, and storytelling, knew all the rituals of the tea ceremony) a young male servant called a shinzo carried the tayu’s bed clothes and extra equipment in a large chest.

[…] Once she arrived the tayu would seat herself diagonally opposite her suitor. She would not look at him, speak or smile, even if he was a regular customer or her absolute favorite. The hosts would bring sake and two small porcelain cups. The customer and his chosen lady would do a short version of a ceremony used in weddings at the same period.”

Interacting with a Yoshiwara courtesan was a highly luxurious experience reserved for the wealthiest individuals, often resulting in bankcruptcies: “the client had to pay the brothel owner, his wife, the girl’s escort. He had to pay for his transportation, the tea house, refreshments for his entourage and hired actors. Everyone expected to be tipped. If he brought anyone he was expected to treat. A stylish but not necessarily extravagant night could cost $2,000. Yoshiwara was composed of a hierarchy of service, all important to preparing for the great love encounter.”

Unfortunately, the courtesans saw very little of their earnings; most of their money was taken by the brothel owners for their upkeep, and they often contracted astronomical depts.

Centuries later, Yoshiwara was destroyed during the second world war. Then, after 800 years of legal sex work, prostitution was outlawed in 1956. The licensed pleasure quarters were abolished, and courtesans lost their jobs.


Lisa Hix's Sex and Suffering: The Tragic Life of the Courtesan in Japan's Floating World

Nils Johan Ringdal's Love For Sale: A World History of Prostitution

Asian Art's Courtesans and the Licensed Pleasure Quarters in Edo Japan

©2019 by Kaytlin Bailey and Justine McLellan.