Sex and Suffering

The Tragic Life of the Courtesan in Japan's Floating World

Sex and Suffering

The official recorded history of high-society prostitution and pleasure in Japan leaves much to the imagination, but a new exhibit at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum attempts to piece together a visual tapestry of the Yoshiwara pleasure district outside of Tokyo during Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868). Journalist Lisa Hix explores the rigid hierarchical schema of the industry, the societal influence of the courtesans, their romantic and somewhat bizarre traditions as well as the inaccurate depictions of the courtesans through the male-created art that still remains from the period.

It’s difficult to get a window into the world of Edo-Period Japanese prostitutes without the gauzy romantic filter of the male gaze. The artworks in the new San Francisco Asian Art Museum exhibition, “Seduction: Japan’s Floating World,” were made by men for men — the patrons of the Yoshiwara pleasure district outside of Edo, which is now known as Tokyo. Every little detail of Yoshiwara — from the decor and fashion, to the delicacies served at teahouses, to the talents of courtesans, both sexual and intellectual — was engineered to sate a warlord’s every whim.

We’re left with the client-commissioned pretty-girl scroll paintings by masters like Hishikawa Moronobu and Katsukawa Shunshō, as well as woodblock prints and guidebooks by commercial artists meant to lure repeat visitors through the red-light district gates. These often lush and colorful artworks are rife with romantic longing, from the images of interchangeable beauties with inscrutable expressions, to the layers of richly patterned textiles they wore, and the highly symbolic haiku poetry written about them. The showstopper of the exhibition is Moronobu’s nearly 58-foot-long hand scroll painting, “A Visit to the Yoshiwara”, which takes viewers on a tour of the pleasure district from the street vendors and the food being prepared to the high-ranking courtesans on parade and a couple cuddling under the covers in a teahouse.

The Yoshiwara pleasure district was just part of what the Japanese referred to as ukiyo or “the floating world,” which also included the Kabuki theaters of Edo. Originally, the Buddhist term ukiyo referred to the sorrow and grief caused by desire, which was seen as an impediment to enlightenment.

A detail from Hishikawa Moronobu’s 58-foot-long handscroll “A Visit to the Yoshiwara,” from the late 1680s, shows two couples in beds with kimono-shaped covers.
A detail from Hishikawa Moronobu’s 58-foot-long hand scroll, “A Visit to the Yoshiwara” from the late 1680s, shows two couples in beds with kimono-shaped covers

“In the Buddhist context, ‘ukiyo’ was written with characters that meant ‘suffering world,’ which is the concept that desire leads to suffering and that’s the root of all the problems in the world,” explains Laura W. Allen, the curator of Japanese art at the Asian Art Museum who originated “Seduction.” “In the 17th century, that term was turned on its head and the term ‘ukiyo’ was written with new characters to mean ‘floating world.’ The concept of the floating world was ignoring the problems that might have existed in a very strictly regulated society and abandoning yourself, bobbing along on the current of pleasure. Then it became associated with two particular sites in Edo, one of which was the Kabuki theater district, the other the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. The art of the floating worlds ‘ukiyo-e,’ which means ‘floating world pictures,’ usually depicts those two subjects.”

But, of course, by and large, this free-floating sensation belonged to men. Allen suggests that we, as viewers, resist indulging in the fantasies of Yoshiwara prostitutes presented in the artworks, and instead, consider the real lives of the women portrayed. Unfortunately, no true records of the Edo-Period prostitutes’ personal thoughts and experiences exists — and with good reason. Publicizing the dark side of the pleasure district would have been bad for business.

“Don’t take these paintings at face value,” Allen says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s a picture of a beautiful woman, wearing beautiful clothing.’ But it’s not a photograph. It’s some artist’s rendition, made to promote this particular world, which was driven by economics. The profiteers urged the production of more paintings, which continued to feed the frenzy for the Yoshiwara.

A detail from Tsukioka Settei’s hanging scroll “Reading by Lantern Light,” circa 1776-1786
A detail from Tsukioka Settei’s hanging scroll, “Reading by Lantern Light” circa 1776-1786

“The artwork is very much glamorized and idealized,” she continues. “I haven’t been to 17th-century Japan so I don’t know what it was actually like, and the women didn’t write about it, so we don’t have their firsthand accounts. To imagine it from a woman’s perspective, it must have been a very harsh reality. There’s been some modern scholarship that promotes the idea that the women working as prostitutes had an economic power that they might not have otherwise had. But I think the day-to-day reality of living in the Yoshiwara could not have been pleasant.”

For one thing, most of the women involved didn’t have a choice about their occupation. Born into impoverished farming or fishing villages, they were sold to brothels by desperate parents around the ages of seven or eight. This tradition was rationalized by Confucian ideals that allowed the children to work out of a duty to their parents, who usually brokered ten-year contracts with the brothel owners that their girls would have to work off. The little girls would do daily chores at the brothels and tended to their “sister” courtesans, cleaning and delivering messages. In those early years, they’d learn the tricks of the trade, how to speak using manipulative language, to write “love letters,” and to fake tears with a bit of alum hidden in their collars.

If a child attendant proved she was gifted by age 11 or 12, she would be chosen for elite courtesan training, where she would learn etiquette and refined arts from masters, including how to play flute or a three-stringed instrument called a samisen, to sing, to paint, to write haiku, to write in calligraphy, to dance, to perform a tea ceremony, and how to play games like go, backgammon and kickball. She would be well-read and literate in order to engage in stimulating conversation. While these are pleasurable activities and such talents would be a source of pride, these women weren’t encouraged to pursue them for their own fulfillment, but to make themselves more attractive to men.

“They would be trained in the very polite, cultural accomplishments of the type that aristocratic women would have,” Allen says. “The idea was that they were comparable to the wife of a daimyo [feudal lord] or a high-ranking samurai [warrior] in terms of their level of accomplishment. The elite courtesans were supposed to know all of the lady-like skills, and their skill level was keyed to how much space they would have in a brothel and how lavish their clothing was. It was a very carefully calibrated hierarchy.”

On the occasion of being accepted for courtesan training, the girl’s virginity would be sold to a client for a hefty sum. As a young teenage courtesan, her job would be to entertain patrons while they waited to meet with an elite courtesan. Her debt to the brothel would only increase as she rose through the ranks, as her luxurious and ever-changing wardrobe, which required as many as four or five layers of kimonos worn at a time, and the tips and fees for her attendants were her financial burden, too. Forced to work long hours even when they were sick or having their periods, the women of Yoshiwara had to make a daily quota, or they would be fined. The quotas would double on so-called holidays known as monbi.

“It was very difficult for them to buy out their contract because they were kept in debt the whole time, because they had to pay for all sorts of things.” Allen says. “They were very rarely able to escape unless they were basically ransomed by a man who wanted to take them out of that world.”

Competition for clients, ranking and celebrity status was fierce among the “sister” courtesans, who could be cruel to one another, not to speak of the abuse they suffered from their clients. After being abandoned by their families of origin, the girls lived with mistreatment by their new “families.” That said, it’s also true that prostitutes in some ways had a better life than the people in their farming villages back home — they had regular meals, clean clothes, access to education and an opportunity to become a star.

A young couple cuddles near a peony in a vase, which symbolizes their sexual connection, in a panel from Katsukawa Shunsho’s “Secret Games in the Spring Palace,” from the late 1770s.
A young couple cuddles near a peony in a vase, which symbolizes their sexual connection, in a panel from Katsukawa Shunsho’s “Secret Games in the Spring Palace” from the late 1770s

In the medieval period, Japanese Buddhist traditions, particularly among the lower classes, embraced casual sex and promiscuity. Even the myth of Japan’s creation involved two gods making love, which became part of the justification for selling girls into prostitution. Male promiscuity often extended to sex with other men, which was considered normal.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the military dictatorship known as the Tokugawa shogunate imposed the moralistic tenets of Confucianism on the populace, which bound every citizen with duty to their families and the great society. But the culture of sexual indulgence among men was entrenched, and brothels were lucrative businesses. One wily brothel owner, hoping to gain a monopoly on the female sex-work trade, proposed that if the shogunate gave him a tract of land near their new headquarters in Edo, the government could regulate prostitution and reap the benefit of taxing the profession. In 1617, new laws restricted brothels to pleasure quarters — including his newly established Yoshiwara, the Shimabara in Kyoto, and the Shinmachi in Osaka — which bloomed into isolated neighborhoods also offering fine dining and wine, singing and dancing performances and parlor games. In 1642, one count estimates 987 prostitutes lived in Yoshiwara.

In Stanford professor Melinda Takeuchi’s essay in the “Seduction” catalog, she writes, “The lack of reticence on the part of Edo-Period Japanese men about the use of aphrodisiacs, and an unconcealed preoccupation with erotic pictures, merited mention in the diary of an early 18th-century Korean diplomat, who found these habits surprising. Apparently the Confucian-oriented, decorous culture of upper-class Koreans favored keeping private matters private.”

In a detail from Utagawa Toyokuni’s hanging scroll, “Courtesan in Her Boudoir,” a woman puts herself back together after having sex.
In a detail from Utagawa Toyokuni’s hanging scroll, “Courtesan in Her Boudoir”, a woman puts herself back together after having sex

The ruling class of the Tokugawa shogunate was made up of roughly 200 feudal lords (known as daimyo), who were required to maintain residence in Edo. Duty-bound samurai warriors, who had traditionally been hired to protect daimyo land, were military nobility who became the bureaucrats and administrators of Edo. As the city population exploded to one million by 1700 — with twice as many men as women — so did the wealth of the merchant class. To serve the military elite and the rising merchant class, a new type of prostitute emerged, one that would give the trade a veneer of ritualistic respectability and high-class refinement — the elite courtesan.

After the Great Edo Fire of 1657, a new, larger Yoshiwara, both walled off and surrounded by a moat, was rebuilt two miles outside of the city. To get to Yoshiwara after 1657, a patron had to travel by foot, by boat, or if he were extremely wealthy, be carried by others on a posh palanquin. This trek could only serve to heighten his anticipation. While it was considered improper for samurais (who made up a large part of Edo’s population) to solicit prostitutes, they viewed the floating world as means of escaping the humdrum of their highly regulated lives. They, too, made the journey to Yoshiwara, hiding their faces with big straw sedge hats.

The new Edo middle class developed a taste for fast fashion and ribald and wild stories — and devoured woodblock prints advertising both Yoshiwara and Kabuki performances. By 1800, densely populated Yoshiwara was home to more than 4,000 prostitutes as well as kitchen workers, maids and other service people. The biggest brothels would have as many as fifty prostitutes. Leading ukiyo scholar Asano Shugo estimated Yoshiwara’s daily income at about $877,200 in today’s U.S. dollars.

Women, however, didn’t benefit from Japan’s libertine attitude toward sex. The wives of the daimyo and high-ranking samurai, following Confucian ideals, were expected to dress modestly and served their husbands, while the feudal lords looked to courtesans to find passion and love. The clients wanted to believe that their favorite courtesans were in love with them, and they were sold as such. But the women working at these brothels weren’t expressing their own sexual desires or autonomy.

The pretty-girl hanging scroll art of the period often presents a courtesan pining for a lover, whereas guidebooks warn of “femme-fatale” courtesans faking pleasure or attraction, deceiving a hopeful heart. The art-and-poetry-infused 1660 guidebook, Mirror of the Yoshiwara, pretends to be interviews with courtesans revealing how they fake orgasms or deal with unpleasant men, but they’re complete fiction — once again, they’re prostitutes stories filtered through a man’s perspective.

“That was the way men were led to think about the women, that they were these tricky femme fatales who could trap you,” Allen says. “They could pretend to be in love with you but not really be in love with you.Mirror of the Yoshiwara is fascinating to the extent that it creates an image of women who were very alluring. You really want to spend time with them, but at the same time, you need to be on your guard, which makes it all the sexier. Those sorts of stories were repeated again and again in books over the course of the centuries, passed down as being firsthand accounts. When you actually look into it, they’re far from that. They’re just received wisdom about what it’s like in the pleasure quarter.”

This detail of Katsukawa Shunsho’s “Beauty Reading a Letter,” circa 1783-1784, shows a provocative glimpse of a courtesan’s red undergarments as she gets absorbed in a letter from a lover.
This detail of Katsukawa Shunsho’s “Beauty Reading a Letter” circa 1783-1784 shows a provocative glimpse of a courtesan’s red undergarments as she gets absorbed in a letter from a lover

In reality, the high-ranking courtesans and low-ranking prostitutes all suffered from venereal disease and the hardships of bearing unwanted children. The courtesans in particular wore toxic lead makeup to whiten their faces, necks, hands and feet. Many prostitutes died by age 20.

“The graveyard at Jōganji in Edo contains the remains of 21,056 muen(‘without connection’) prostitutes — many of them in their twenties — who had no one to cover the cost of their funerals,” Takeuchi explains in the “Seduction” catalogue. “An illustration from [the 1672 guidebook] The Yoshiwara Stripped Bare shows a weeping prostitute giving money to a priest for a memorial service. It may well have been for two of her ‘sisters.’”

Brothel owners ranked the women in Yoshiwara in a rigid hierarchical schema, the quick and inexpensive moat-side prostitutes being the lowest, with the elite courtesans at the top. These courtesans, who were celebrities, had the most comfortable lives of all the prostitutes — they had luxurious garments and bedding and enviable education. Most Yoshiwara prostitutes weren’t so fortunate. In 1642, Yoshiwara is recorded as having 106 courtesans of the upper tiers, and 881 prostitutes on the lower tiers.

Hishikawa Moronobu’s 58-foot-long handscroll “A Visit to the Yoshiwara” shows courtesans on display through lattice walls that resemble cages at a zoo.
Hishikawa Moronobu’s 58-foot-long handscroll, “A Visit to the Yoshiwara”, shows courtesans on display through lattice walls that resemble cages at a zoo

Before 1761, the lowest-ranking and most numerous prostitutes were thehashi, or common prostitute, who did their best to appear elegant despite living in the worst conditions, relegated to brothels on the outer edges of Yoshiwara. They were a step below the tsubone prostitutes, who could be observed through latticed partitions that resembled cages, congregating and playing music on the samisen. On the next level were the teahouse waitresses called sancha, or “powdered tea girls,” who were known to never refuse the attention of a paying client. Above the sancha were thekōshi courtesans, who were also visible to flirt with through the lattice walls, but they would be distinguished by their more aristocratic appearance, wearing lush kimonos, their skin whitened. They whispered among themselves in a coquettish manner in well-appointed parlors as men gawked and discussed their attributes.

The highest of level of all the prostitutes were the tayū courtesans, who were revered as fashion plates and celebrities. The tayū lived in the refinedageya or “house of assignation,” whose interiors resembled the most upscale Edo homes, with hanging scroll art, shelves displaying pricey curios, alcoves for studying and lovely gardens. The courtesans here could not be approached directly. Instead, a man had to ask an intermediary to set up a series of interviews with the courtesan, where he would entertain her and her attendants.

On the first introduction, the courtesan would ignore the wealthy patron and refuse his offers of food and drink. On the second meeting, she might sit closer to him, but still turn down any refreshments. Finally, at the third meeting, she would be willing to engage him in conversation and partake in the food set out for her. She and the client would engage in a sake-drinking ceremony that required they each take three sips from three different cups, nine sips in total, before they had sex. After the brothel proprietors hosting these parties tallied up their expenses on food, alcohol, and sex work, they often charged a hefty sum: as much as $13,000, only a tenth of which went toward paying off the courtesan’s debt.

Katsushika Hokuun’s hanging scroll “Courtesan Promenading Under Cherry Blossom,” circa 1815-1819, shows an oiran performing her twisting steps with her wooden clogs, showing off the lush layers of her kimonos, her child attendants following her.
Katsushika Hokuun’s hanging scroll “Courtesan Promenading Under Cherry Blossom” circa 1815-1819, shows an oiran performing her twisting steps with her wooden clogs, showing off the lush layers of her kimonos, her child attendants following her

If a tayū gained the favor of an affluent client, he would provide her with the latest fashions four times a year. These included kimonos made of luxurious fabrics like silk satin, brocade, velvet and open-weave ramie. They’d feature patterns such as floral and water motifs and breathtaking landscapes made with dyes and embroidery using silk and metallic threads. The tayū advertised their services with a daily procession through Yoshiwara, walking slow, exaggerated, figure-eight steps in tall wooden clogs. Their faces whitened and hair done up in the latest sculptural style, the courtesans would flaunt their fancy duds, which telegraphed their status, as well as the wealth of their patrons.

In addition to the clothing, a well-heeled patron would give a courtesan a futon and sumptuous bed covers as a way of asserting his relationship with her was unique. This bedding would only be used when he visited. In the early Edo period, the linens would usually include kimono-shaped covers called yogi, which resembled large sleeping bags, made of silk or cotton and filled with removable wadding.

“The house of assignation would display the yogi given the courtesans to show off the wealth of their patrons and to entice other people to act similarly,” Allen says. “For the brothel owners, it was a way of amping up the excitement and generating potential income.”

The water theme of this silk-crepe summer robe with a cormorant-fishing design would have been thought to have a cooling effect.
The water theme of this silk-crepe summer robe with a cormorant-fishing design would have been thought to have a cooling effect

The last of the tayū died in the mid-1700s, taking their ways with them. They were replaced by a new type of elite courtesan known as oiran. When a young prostitute achieved this status, she would receive a lacquered chest, mirror stand and cosmetic boxes — the same sort of items that would be purchased for the marriage of an aristocratic woman. At this point, the courtesans were such fashion influencers that wives of upper-class men started visiting Yoshiwara just to watch the oiran’s procession.

The most adored courtesans achieved an image of youthful perfection, which in some ways, mirror our contemporary celebrity culture. They had no moles or blemishes, for example, and often the body ideal was slender (although during the 1780s, Takeuchi points out, a “cute dumpling body” was held up as perfection in art). In other ways, the men describing the ideal courtesan have very specific requirements, down to the shape of a woman’s ears, that would seem foreign to Hollywood. In modern America, women are getting collagen injected into their lips to make them bigger; Edo-Period men admired a small mouth. Today, we expect celebrities to have gaunt, razor-sharp cheeks; the Japanese preferred round, soft faces. Where we pluck our eyebrows into thin lines, these women would blacken and thicken the look of their brows. Large breasts and cleavage are not eroticized in these Japanese artworks — instead a tiny, bare foot or a flash of a red undergarment peeping out of her outer robe provides the erotic charge. The skin that courtesans did show was whitened with makeup to distance themselves from the peasants who worked all day in the sun.

The layers of kimonos, like caftans, would serve to both obscure and reveal the woman’s figure, while an obi (like a corset) would emphasize the smallness of her waist. Initially, a woman only wore her obi tied in the front to indicate she was offering sex for sale, but at some point, courtesans became such style icons that high-ranking military wives also wore their obis tied in front as a fashion statement. Much of the men’s desire for courtesans was based on what wasn’t seen, what could only be viewed behind closed doors. The parading courtesans walked in a way to flaunt the beauty of their layers and to tantalize potential clients with a flash of a calf.

While the Edo-period artists did make graphic behind-the-scenes artworks showing naked samurai and courtesans engaging in various sexual acts, many hanging scroll paintings depicted courtesans fully dressed with mere hints of their occupation. “They have suggestions of intimacy by showing the back of their necks or their hands or feet sticking out, a titillating detail that you wouldn’t see in a painting of an aristocratic woman — that wouldn’t be allowed,” Allen says.

Kubo Shunman’s hanging scroll, “Courtesans Promenading Under Blossoming Cherry,” 1781-1789, shows two courtesans with lantern-lock hairdos and “cute dumpling bodies” on parade with their attendants.
Kubo Shunman’s hanging scroll, “Courtesans Promenading Under Blossoming Cherry” circa 1781-1789, shows two courtesans with lantern-lock hairdos and “cute dumpling bodies” on parade with their attendants

Men, particularly those from the Kabuki theater, were even more idealized than women. The Kabuki tradition began early in the Edo Period at brothels, where female prostitutes would put on bawdy musicals for drunk and war-weary samurai — which was also a way to pick up new clients. But these events created too much trouble for the shogunate, who found the way Kabuki brought social classes together distasteful. Inebriated soldiers were quick to get into fights in these crowded theaters where women played men, men played women, and underworld denizens like gamblers and pimps were celebrated. Another form of Kabuki featured young boys as actors, who were also offered as prostitutes.

By the mid-1600s, the shogunate had clamped down on the theater, banning both women and boys from performing. After that, all roles were played by adult men — but the shogunate could not prevent them from engaging in prostitution. Boys that were apprentices to the actors would also provide sexual services at special teahouses. Boy prostitutes, like their female counterparts, were ranked, and some cost more than the most elite courtesans.

The Edo middle class loved gender-bending performances and tales revolving around disguise, secret identities and latent agendas. Stories and mythology around courtesans often involved duplicity on the part of the courtesan or demons, monks or deities in disguise. Because a woman was seen as less of a person than a man, the women depicted in “floating world” paintings have indistinct faces, while the men of the theater, particularly those known for female impersonation, are painted with unique, individualized expressions. “If you look at the paintings of Katsukawa Shunsho, all of his female beauties look more or less exactly the same,” Allen says.

By the turn of the 18th century, courtesans had become more specialized in their skills, so brothels would provide other entertainers, men known as geishas, to amuse patrons waiting to see top-ranked courtesans with dancing, singing and playing instruments. Late in the century, brothels started to hire trained female entertainers. These geishas were prohibited from selling sex, so as not to compete with the oiran. Instead, geishasflourished in other traditional courtesan skills including the refined arts and intellectual conversation. Geishas were also required to wear less flashy clothing and hairstyles than the oiran — a pared-down look that eventually became considered more modern and chic. Like young courtesans in training, the virginity of a maiko (geisha in training), would be auctioned off to the highest bidder before she could become a fullgeisha, but this was not considered an act of prostitution.

Geishas grew more and more popular in the 19th century, surpassing the status of elite courtesans. It says something about Japan’s obsession with the bittersweet sorrow of unconsummated desire that a large part of thegeisha’s appeal rested in the fact that they would flirt and entertain their clients while remaining sexually unavailable to them. Farmers and fishers still sold their daughters into a decade or more of work obligation, but the ones considered more attractive became geishas; those considered less attractive became prostitutes. Like the courtesans before them, geishaswere ranked. They, too, had to buy expensive wardrobes and were educated for etiquette, conversation and high art. Geisha houses were usually owned and run by women.

A fan painting of ink, colors, and gold on silk, showing the courtesan Hanaogi of the Ōgiya brothel, 1794–1795, by Kitagawa Utamaro.
A fan painting of ink, colors, and gold on silk, showing the courtesan Hanaogi of the Ōgiya brothel, 1794–1795, by Kitagawa Utamaro

Above all, image reigned in Yoshiwara. As Takeuchi explains in the “Seduction” catalogue, “Photographs of the physical Yoshiwara in the late 19th century make it look small, shabby and sordid. The crowded narrow streets were probably muddy in the rainy season and dusty when the weather was dry. The water in the moat must have attracted mosquitoes.” But the paintings, woodblock prints and guidebooks in “Seduction” depicted the pleasure quarter as “a kind of escapist theme park where a client could be ‘lord for a day,’ a ‘master of the revels.’ It was a theatrical stage set where clients could, for a short time, become leading actors. It was home to coteries of poets, intellectuals, wits, actors, other urban celebrities and the occasional daimyo. It celebrated luxury and excess in a society where moderation was extolled, and luxury and excess could be punished severely.”

For this escape into the “floating world,” it was the women who paid the price. “From my perspective, there was a very elaborate mechanism for promoting this idealized vision of the world the courtesans and prostitutes lived in which didn’t necessarily in any way match up with the reality of it for them,” Allen says. “They had no one speaking for them. Very few images of Yoshiwara actually spoke the truth as they saw it.”

All images are from the John C. Weber Collection. © John Bigelow Taylor.

A version of Sex and Suffering first appeared in Collectors Weekly.