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Courtesans and the Licensed Pleasure Quarters in Edo Japan

Three types of beauties in Edo, set of three

Three types of beauties in Edo, set of three, by Chobunsai Eishi, Japanese (1756–1829), 1770–1829. Hanging scroll, Ink and colors on silk. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60D81.

In this scroll is a courtesan in a magnificent costume with her heavy obi (sash) tied in front, a brightly patterned overkimono (uchikake), and an elaborate hairdo. She is attended by two young girls (kamuro) in twin costumes. This scroll is one of three scrolls represent three types of women-an elite courtesan, a geisha, and a maiden of a wealthy family-who had developed distinctly different roles by the second half of the eighteenth century.

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Courtesans and the Licensed Pleasure Quarters
In Japan, prostitution had been legal since the 1100s (in 1956 prostitution was banned, the licensed pleasure quarters were abolished, and the courtesans lost their jobs). In the early 1600s, government licensed, isolated pleasure quarters were created in cities in order to provide an outlet for men’s desires and create additional tax revenue. These quarters—Yoshiwara in Edo (now Tokyo) and similar districts in other major cities—were constructed with surrounding walls, a deep moat, and a single entrance in order that those who came and went could be tracked.

A health clinic and a registry office provided and enforced rules of conduct for all residents. In 1657, following the great fire of the same year, Yoshiwara was relocated to the outskirts of Edo along the Sumida River and became known as Shin Yoshiwara (New Yoshiwara). At twenty acres it was the largest pleasure quarter. Its streets were lined with brothels of all sizes, teahouses, and meeting houses, where courtesans (licensed prostitutes) met their clients. Of the some 10,000 residents of Yoshiwara, about 2,500 were prostitutes. The rest were proprietors, managers, guards, and servants.

The Cult of the Courtesan
Socially, economically, and artistically, a pleasure quarter formed its own culture in which courtesans were distinguished from ordinary prostitutes and elevated to the level of icons of femininity. Brothel proprietors packaged courtesans as expensive, “aristocratic” women in attire: thick brocade sashes (obi) tied in front, heavily padded garments (uchikake) over their kimonos, and elaborate coiffures. When these women walked to meet a client, an entourage attended them, adding to the public spectacle. Visiting Yoshiwara and other pleasure quarters was an indulgence entailing great expense. The clients themselves had to dress exquisitely. In some cases, a client had to make three visits to a top courtesan before being taken seriously as her client. Clients were expected to have a certain degree of style, culture, and above all, enough money to tip everyone involved in each visit.