Week 2 Class Notes

Sex in the City

A description of the Floating World

The term ukiyo, or floating world, was first used by Asai Ryoi (1612-1692) in his collection of stories called Ukiyo Monogatari, or Tales from the Floating World, published in the 1660s. It described the earthly pleasures that an idle person might devote himself to.

It was, however, another work of fiction that fully described a life devoted to the floating world. Ihara Saikaku's The Life of an Amorous Man, published in 1682, follows the life of the title character, Yonosuke. His father is the wealthy owner of a silver mine and Yonosuke spends his entire fortune in pursuit of sexual pleasure, and much of that time is spent among courtesans in the licensed brothel districts of Kyoto, Osaka and Edo. It is the world of these pleasure districts that epitomizes the Edo Period concept of the floating world.

Note: This book is available in English translation. There is even a Kindle version.

The Yoshiwara

From the beginning of the Edo Period, when Tokugawa Ieyasu began construction on his castle in Edo, the city had a sex ratio problem. This was due to the large work force needed to build the castle and then the mansions for the daimyo, who were required, according to the system of alternate attendance, to live in Edo 50% of the time, along with a large retinue of their samurai retainers. Men outnumbered women by at least 2:1. Prostitution, though generally disapproved of, was considered a necessity. The Yoshiwara, a district for the licensed brothels, was established in 1617 near the city center.

In 1657 much of the city, including the Yoshiwara, was destroyed by a particularly horrific fire, called the Great Meireki Fire. The government decided the new Yoshiwara should be moved further out of town to a district called Asakusa. The New Yoshiwara, or Shin Yoshiwara, covered an area of approximately 20 acres. The New Yoshiwara was surrounded by water and there was only one entrance. It was about a 2 hour walk from the center of town to this Yoshiwara, so most visitors took a boat up the Sumida River. From the boat dock one walked along the Nihon Embankment, which had originally been built for flood control, to the Yoshiwara entrance.

There were more than 100 tea houses along the 800 yard stretch of the Nihon Embankment. Each tea house was associated with a particular brothel and they would function as middlemen, introducing customers to the brothels, making specific arrangements, and entertaining customers while they waited. The nicest tea houses, associated with the best brothels, were inside the Yoshiwara. The willow at the end of the embankment was called the "Looking Back Willow" as it was at the top of the slope leading down to the main gate of the quarter and where customers, theoretically, would turn to look back wistfully at the district as they headed for home.

There was just one main entrance gate for the Yoshiwara, and it was always guarded. The main purpose of the guards was to prevent any of the prostitutes from running away from the Yoshiwara and to prevent customers from leaving without paying their bills. Men were required to leave their swords by the gate when they entered. Samurai carried two swords. Townsmen were permitted to carry one, if they were so inclined, but never two. This rule was to prevent disputes from becoming too violent, and to prevent the prostitutes from having access to a weapon with which they might commit suicide.

The Yoshiwara was not unique. Each major city had its licensed pleasure quarter, or brothel area (Shimabara in Kyoto, Shimmachi in Osaka) that was separated from the rest of the city by a wall or moat. But by the end of the 17th century the Yoshiwara had become the most famous pleasure district.

Cherry trees about to bloom were brought to the Yoshiwara and placed down the center of the main street. High ranking courtesans and their attendants would walk down the avenue in a stately parade to view the cherry blossoms, and in turn to be watched and admired by the visitors to the district. Prostitutes are always compared to cherry blossoms in Japanese art and literature. They both are very beautiful, but their beauty only lasts a short time. The cherry tree just inside the gate was known as the cherry tree of first meeting.

The Yoshiwara was essentially a town within the city. Many people lived their entire lives there. Approximately 3000 prostitutes lived in numerous brothels (called houses) along with their attendants (teenage attendants called shinzo and child attendants called kamuro), servants, and the managers. In addition, tea house workers, entertainers, masseurs and people providing a whole range of other services lived in the area.

Brothels were ranked as were their workers. The higher classes of prostitutes, generally referred to as courtesans, stayed inside unless they were on parade or meeting a prospective client at a tea house. The middle and lower ranks of prostitutes sat on display behind a lattice, though the lower ranks might be out on the street actively soliciting customers.

Ironically, while the courtesans themselves were ranked, the social standing of their customers was not so important as their ability and willingness to pay. The Yoshiwara became a place where commoners could mingle with samurai on a more-or-less equal footing. Officially the government disapproved of samurai visiting the Yoshiwara, so they often went in disguise.

The Yoshiwara was certainly not the only place in Edo where one could find prostitutes. There were illegal brothels, mostly around the outskirts of the city. There were also independent streetwalkers.

Courtesan Fashion

Courtesans were required by law to tie their obi (the sash around the waist) at the front. All other classes of women tied their obi at the back. Other women would gather the excess material of their kimono up around the waist, where it was secured under the obi. Courtesans let the excess material flow behind them in the manner of ladies of the court, or they held it up when they went outside. Many classes of people wore platform shoes called geta, useful for keeping feet out of the rain or snow. Over time the geta worn by courtesans became excessively high, requiring them to take very slow, careful and stylized steps when out.

In the 19th century courtesans began adding padding to the hems of their kimono to make them stand out more and appear fuller. Hairstyles had also undergone considerable change by this time.

For many years courtesans were expected to do their own hair, as did other women. As courtesans were considered fashion icons, other women often copied their styles.

Hairstyles changed somewhat over time, but not drastically. Not, that is, until the late 1770s when a new professional emerged: the female hairdresser. After that courtesans had their hair dressed by experts and styles became overly extravagant. Hairdos became bigger with more pins and combs added.

Another interesting aspect of courtesan fashion was blackened teeth. When she graduated to the rank of professional a prostitute began to blacken her teeth. During some periods married women also did this to indicate their marital status.

Note: The material used to blacken teeth was called ohaguro. A description is given in The Sexual Life of Japan by J.E. de Becker, published by the American Anthropological Society in 1899. He describes ohaguro as a dye made by immersing heated iron scrapes in water and adding a small quantity of sake. It was then mixed with powdered gall-nuts. De Becker's book is still available under the title The Nightless City or the History of the Yoshiwara Yukwaku. It is meant as an academic study, so maybe not the best read, but if the subject interests you it is fascinating. He describes the Yoshiwara at the end of the 19th century, but much of what he writes is applicable to the Edo period as well.

The early 19th century saw the rise of another curious fashion: green lipstick on the lower lip only. It seems this fashion was not restricted to the courtesans.

The prints picturing women always reflect the ideal of female beauty: a small mouth, widely spaced eyes, and a straight nose. To expose the nape of the neck was considered a very sexy pose.

High ranking courtesans were the great female celebrities of the period. To achieve the highest rank a woman required assets beyond beauty and fashion sense. She was expected to have poise, wit, impeccable manners, the ability to charm and entertain guests, as well as to be skilled in the arts traditionally associated with upper class ladies: flower arrangement, calligraphy, poetry composition, and the tea ceremony. She was also expected to have musical training and to be able to sing, dance, and play a musical instrument.

These women represented a feminine ideal on one hand, but they were also tragic, romantic figures. It was understood that their beauty would fade, and their careers would be short. Tragic stories of courtesans were common in popular literature and theatre. In stories they usually died for their lover, or with their lover. In reality, lives of prostitutes, particularly those not of the highest status, were miserable and often shortened by disease. Their best hope was that a wealthy customer would care enough to buy out their contract with the brothel and rescue them from the profession, but this rarely happened.

Suicides with lovers did happen in fact as well as in fiction. In 1785 a hatamoto (one of the shogun's higher ranked samurai) even committed suicide with a courtesan! This illegal act shocked the upper class because it showed the control a courtesan could have over a man of such high social rank. But even the highest were not immune to the fascinations of the Yoshiwara. Shogun Ieharu (1737-1786) enjoyed paintings of courtesans produced by the artist Eishi and Shogun Ienari (1773-1841) was so curious about the Yoshiwara that he had a recreation of a brothel built within the palace.


In the 1600s the term geisha (meaning skilled person) applied to men who entertained at parties in the licensed districts. Female entertainers started to appear in these roles around the middle of the 18th century. By 1780 female geisha outnumbered males. By 1800 the term applied to female entertainers or males who had received special training to become geisha.

Geisha entertained at parties in the Yoshiwara, but they were not sex workers and they were not restricted to the Yoshiwara. They could be hired to perform at any party and the rise in popularity of female geisha coincided with the increase in numbers of fancy restaurants in Edo. Their trademark instrument was the three-stringed shamisen.

Geisha were prohibited by law from selling sex. They were also prohibited from wearing the sort of ostentatious clothing and elaborate hairstyles that had become the trademark of courtesans. By the 19th century their more conservative styles were being copied by other women and geisha had become the new icons of feminine beauty.

Comparison of picture of a geisha and of a courtesan, both by Eisen, both c.1830

A Visit to the Yoshiwara

There were different types of visits to the Yoshiwara. One could go simply to see the sights. One might be there to patronize one of the lower class of brothels, in which case you could go directly to the house of your choice. Or one might be there to meet with a famous courtesan, but the company of the highest ranked women was well beyond the reach of most men. They would have to be content with glimpsing these women as they paraded to and from meetings with clients, or went on special walks for occasions such as cherry blossom viewing.

When high ranked courtesans appeared outside they were accompanied by teenage attendants called shinso and child attendants called kamuro. They would also have a male servant carrying a lantern and one carrying an umbrella plus an older woman who acted as chaperone, (the men and older women were not often shown in the prints).

A specific etiquette and set of rituals developed within the Yoshiwara. The inhabitants even spoke differently from those in the rest of Edo, using a very unique slang. A sophisticated man-about-town would know how to conduct himself in the pleasure district and how to engage in banter with its inhabitants. If he could afford it, he might want to secure his reputation as a dandy by becoming a customer of one of the more desirable women. It was not a simple matter to engage the services of the high ranking courtesans and to do so was a kind of status symbol. Would-be clients required a formal introduction from an existing customer who could vouch for their reputation and ability to pay the bill. Then they had to have two chaperoned meetings with the lady and bring her gifts, before being accepted as a client for a sexual liaison on the third meeting.

The evening would include food and entertainment before the customer and his lady retired for the night. It was an expensive event, and all financial transactions were handled through the tea house where one made the initial arrangements.


Every Japanese male who had reached puberty, but who was not yet considered to be a man, was a wakashu. Little had been published about this stage of life until the ROM presented a ground-breaking exhibition two years ago called A Third Gender all about wakashu. Their principle theme was an exploration of the sexuality of wakashu, who were considered acceptable and desirable sexual partners for both men and women. This is not to say that young men who were wakashu were necessarily sexually active, but they could be.

In artwork Wakashu can be distinguished from adult men by their distinctive hairstyle. It was the custom for all adult men to shave the tops of their heads. Wakashu shaved a patch on top, but left a forelock at the front.

Some wakashu worked as prostitutes. Sex between an adult man and a wakashu was not considered a homosexual act since wakashu were not men, but rather in a period of ambiguous sexuality, a "third gender", according to the scholars who's work the ROM's exhibit was based on.

Note: The ROM has a very interesting catalog that accompanied this exhibition called A Third Gender. It can be ordered from the museum gift shop.

Wakashu also appear in art from the Edo Period in non-sexual or non-romantic contexts. It was simply a stage of life that all males passed through. The length of time that one remained a wakashu depended on a various factors such as the family's social and financial position.

The Art of the Yoshiwara

Paintings of the famous courtesans were being produced from the 17th century onwards. By the early 18th century these women had also become the subject of woodblock prints.

Two tall images of courtesans in casual poses
by Kaigetsudo Anchi, c.1714 (reproduction) and by Eisen, c.1830s

In the 17th century the lives of courtesans were also the subject of works of fiction and illustrated guide books. Guide books were written to help prospective visitors navigate the specific rules and etiquette of the Yoshiwara. Others gave info on how much a particular women's company would cost, which famous beauty she most resembled, and what particular skills she excelled at. They listed the best brothels and the best deals.

By the 1680s erotic albums consisting of 12 full-page illustrations, with little or no text, were also being produced. Such text as there was generally consisted of lewd jokes or puns. These images showed the activities that one could enjoy in the Yoshiwara.

Erotic images from the Edo Period are called shunga, meaning spring pictures, but at the time they were also often referred to as "laughing pictures". Laughing was a euphemism for masturbation. The main purpose of shunga was to give the many men who could not afford the personal services of a courtesan an alternative, but it may have had other audiences as well. Some shunga images show couples looking at erotic pictures together and there is evidence to suggest that sometimes brides were given shunga albums.

Most shunga images show couples, but there are exceptions. The male partner could be either a wakashu or a mature man.

Most professional ukiyo-e artists produced shunga designs. Albums generally consisted of 12 images to represent the 12 months. The first image was not so explicit as the rest.

One of the most notable features of later shunga was the unusually large and detailed depiction of the genitals.

Same-sex couples are not common, but they do appear in shunga.

Most shunga shows both individuals taking great pleasure in their activity. Scenes of rape are uncommon but do exist.

Many shunga scenes are quite fanciful, showing rather extreme physical positions of the bodies, or even more unlikely scenarios. One of the most famous images, by Hokusai, shows a diving girl with one large and one small octopus stimulating all her erogenous zones simultaneously.

Shunga designs often had an element of humour.