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  • Established: 1618
  • Dismantled: 1958
  • Japanese: 吉原 (Yoshiwara)

The Yoshiwara was the chief licensed pleasure district in Edo, and the largest/most prominent such district in Tokugawa Japan, followed by the Shimabara in Kyoto, and Furuichi in Ise. As such, it was the center or subject of much popular culture, with many ukiyo-e prints depicting Yoshiwara subjects, many kabuki plays and popular literature set there, and many illustrated guidebooks to the district being published. Courtesans' fashions also had a strong influence upon women's fashions in Edo, and Tokugawa Japan more broadly.

While some scholars have quite rightfully emphasized the restrictive and oppressive nature of life & work in the Yoshiwara for the women who had been sold into service there, others (also rightfully) emphasize the district's refined, elegant cultural character, and significance as a site of incredible cultural efflorescence, and cultural activity beyond simply the sex trade alone. As Cecilia Segawa Seigle has written, "As the early Yoshiwara was primarily a place of entertainment and socializing, sex was a discreet and secondary aspect of the business. Indeed, Edward Seidensticker has gone so far as to liken an evening at the Yoshiwara to an afternoon of tea."[1]


The Yoshiwara got its start when Shôji Jin'uemon was granted license in 1617 by the shogunate to consolidate all the brothels in the city into a certain area, the Yoshiwara neighborhood.[2] He had applied in 1605 to start a brothel keepers' guild, but was denied by the shogunate. In 1612, he returned with a new proposition. He argued that prostitution throughout the city created opportunities for daughters from "good" families to be abducted into the sex trade, for young men to be distracted from their work & led to squander their money in brothels, and for samurai to plot rebellion in courtesans' private quarters. Jin'emon proposed that all of these social problems could be controlled if he were to be granted monopoly rights on operating brothels in the city; the shogunate could restrict all prostitution to a single pleasure district, and within that district, Jin'emon and his fellow brothel keepers could keep records of customers coming and going, and could report to the authorities on any suspicious activities.[3].

The district was quickly built over the course of the next year, opening for business in 1618. As the area was originally known as Ashihara (芦原, "field of reeds"), a homophone for "field of bad/evil" (悪し原), Jin'emon renamed it "field of good/luck" (吉原) - Yoshihara, or Yoshiwara. Over the course of the period, the district came to be called by numerous euphemistic names, including Geppon ("the land of the rising moon"), Karyûkai ("world of flowers and willows"), and Fuyajô ("No-Night Castle").[4]

Brothels and teahouses were organized along four streets, in a twenty-acre area[5] surrounded by high plaster walls, and accessible only by a single point of entrance/egress, the Great Gate, or Yoshiwara-Ômon. A sign was placed just outside the gate declaring the district's monopoly, and requiring that only physicians could enter on horseback or in a palanquin, and that all must leave spears or longswords outside. By 1626, the last holdouts against the Yoshiwara monopoly - brothel owners based in Sumichô - relocated to the Yoshiwara, leaving only unlicensed (and thus, illegal) prostitution in the remainder of the city. At that time, courtesans' contracts were limited to ten years; however, they would later extend over much longer periods.

A typical contract, as of circa 1800, is signed by the girl's father or legal guardian, who receives a lump sum in exchange for her indentured servitude for a set period (e.g. 25 ryô for five years of service); the contract assures the brothel that the girl is not Christian, and notes her registration with a Buddhist temple. Other terms include that the family is responsible for any expenses or losses the girl may incur during her period of service (thus putting strict expectations on her behavior), that if she dies the brothel may bury her as they choose (without the family's involvement), and that if the parents/guardians should die before the term of indenture is up, the brothel may sell the girl into service elsewhere or marry her off. Further, if someone should wish to buy out the girl's contract, so long as the girl is not entered into sex work again, she may be sold in that manner to anyone, anywhere, without the parents' involvement. Amy Stanley notes that this bears much similarities with, for example, a contract for indentured service for a housemaid, though there are key differences including that a housemaid could not be sold further, married off, or buried by the employers but would instead be returned to her family.[6]

Within the first decades of its establishment, as with many other aspects of the Tokugawa realm, the shogunate made incremental attempts to control the activities of the district. Some of these policies were successful, and became standard policy; others were grossly ignored or otherwise did not last long. An example of the latter was a 1640 edict banning the Yoshiwara from operating at night. An example of the former, however, was an edict the following year banning the women of the Yoshiwara from leaving the district (except for particular circumstances, with authorization). Many of these policies carried over into the new Yoshiwara, rebuilt farther away from the city, past Asakusa to the northeast, just before the 1657 Great Meireki Fire which destroyed much of Edo. It remained in that new location through the rest of the period, and this "New Yoshiwara" (Shin-Yoshiwara) then came to be called simply the Yoshiwara, while the old site retroactively came to be referred to as the "former Yoshiwara" (Moto Yoshiwara).

The walled district served as a model not only for the Shimabara in Kyoto, Shinmachi in Osaka, and Maruyama district in Nagasaki, but also for pleasure districts in domainal cities such as Kanazawa, Shimonoseki, and Fukuoka.[7]

Despite its marginal status, the Yoshiwara managed to exercise some degree of political autonomy, and pressure on the shogunate, at times. In 1665, managers of the Yoshiwara managed to persuade the shogunate to forcibly shut down much of the Yoshiwara's competition, outside of the district. The authorities shut down two hundred bathhouses and arrested 600 of the girls who worked there, marking the effective end of the phenomenon of yuna, or bathhouse girls, many of whom relocated to the Yoshiwara and took up work there, often as sancha (teahouse waitresses).[8] Meanwhile, up until the 1740s, the Yoshiwara served a role for the shogunate as a site of criminal punishment for women - under certain circumstances, after committing certain crimes, a woman could be given over by the authorities into a life of servitude in the Yoshiwara. This became more systematized after the issuance of the kujikata osadamegaki of standardized penalties in 1742; unlicensed prostitutes were now to be sentenced to three years service in the Yoshiwara.[9]

The Yoshiwara was the only licensed district in Edo. The authorities attempted to control prostitution and other such unsavory activities by giving them somewhere legal to be, and limiting them to that space. For a time from the 1660s onward, Yoshiwara brothel proprietors were even entrusted with leading raids on clandestine prostitution operations outside of the district, enforcing their monopoly firsthand; still, despite their oppositional nature, the proprietors of operations within and outside of the Yoshiwara were actually very well-connected with one another, in terms of information, recruiting, and so forth, and thus to a certain extent were supportive of one another's activities. By the end of the Edo period, in fact, the Yoshiwara proprietors were supportive of the reestablishment of the Fukagawa district, despite the competition it would create, seeing the Fukagawa proprietors, rather, as allies in expanding their business.[10]

The district grew rapidly from just under 550 prostitutes in 1661, right after the rebuilding following the Meireki Fire, up to over 2,700 by 1689, the second year of Genroku. These numbers remained fairly stable, in fact dropping a bit, to remain around 2,200 to 2,400 for the next hundred years, until the 1770s or so, when the number of prostitutes operating in the Yoshiwara began to grow rapidly again. Around this time, the largest brothels in the district housed some forty to fifty courtesans, plus maids, kitchen staff, and so forth.[5] In 1800, the district boasted just under 5,500 women, a figure which rose to just under 5,800 by the 1830s, and to an all-time peak of 7,144 around 1845, before falling back down to around 4,500 in the 1850s-1860s.[11] Historian Amy Stanley estimates that including both the Yoshiwara and beyond, there may have been a total of 10-15,000 operating within the greater Edo area, at the peak in the 1840s, including roughly one thousand meshimori onna (serving girls) at post-station inns, and whatever number of prostitutes operating in unlicensed districts.[12] From time to time, the shogunate would crack down on illegal prostitution operating elsewhere in the city. Sometimes, as in 1842 when over 4,000 prostitutes were arrested, they were simply relocated to the Yoshiwara; other times, of course, the penalties were harsher. On one occasion, in 1639, eleven managers of bathhouses and other Yoshiwara operations were crucified outside the Great Gate of the district for illegal activities committed outside the quarter. By the 19th century, however, prostitution outside the Yoshiwara's walls was established enough, and supported or ignored enough by the authorities, that the division between legal and illegal prostitution came to be defined less by the walls of the Yoshiwara, and more by the quality of the prostitutes' contracts; those properly associated with an inn or teahouse came to be largely tolerated, while those with no contract, such as women operating independently, or being pimped out by their husbands, became the chief target of arrests.[13]

Not only a center of prostitution and related activities, the Yoshiwara was also a center of cultural production. While most novelists, artists, publishers and the like made their homes in the commercial districts closer to the center of the city, some lived in or just outside the Yoshiwara, taking the environment as a muse, and the Yoshiwara customers and residents as patrons. Tsutaya Jûzaburô, likely the most famous of Edo period publishers today, was born and raised in the district; he was the son of a brothel owner, and was adopted as a child by the owner of a teahouse. As an adult, he maintained his shop just outside the Yoshiwara's gates for ten years, from 1773-1783, after which he moved to Toriabura-chô, where most other publishers were located. The author Santô Kyôden (1761-1816) similarly lived much of his life in the Yoshiwara, running a tobacco shop there, and marrying two shinzô[14] over the course of his lifetime.[15] There is also evidence of popular discourses, whether tongue-in-cheek or relatively sincere, regarding the Yoshiwara as a liminal or alternative space; at least one map of the district names it "Geppon" (The Land of the Rising Moon), in parody and contrast to the regular world of Nippon (The Land of the Rising Sun). Timon Screech has also written of the symbolic or metaphorical association of various landmarks along the river route to the pleasure districts as parts of an imagination of the journey as one from the "hell" of everyday life to the "heaven" or "paradise" of the Yoshiwara.[16]

Though quite prominent in the popular imagination throughout the period, the district was perhaps at its cultural height only for a brief time in the mid-18th century. It was not until 1741 that the famous sakura were planted along Nakanochô (the main avenue of the district), in hopes it would help attract tourists there to engage in hanami. By the 1760s, the district had already begun to decline; in 1761, the last tayû (top-ranking courtesan) of the Yoshiwara retired, and shinzô were first allowed to engage in sexual relations with clients. After this time, however, a new order established itself in the Yoshiwara, with the oiran as the top rank of courtesans, and low-ranking teahouse waitresses called sancha transforming into the middle-to-top-ranking chûsan courtesans.

The district burned down frequently, including in 1644, 1676, 1768, 1771, 1784, 1786, 1787, 1812, 1816, 1824, 1845, 1860, 1862, and 1866, requiring operations to be temporarily relocated eighteen times over the course of the Edo period. The quarter was always rebuilt, however, until 1958, when it was abolished and dismantled. The Nihon-tsutsumi and Yoshiwara Ômon ("Great Gate") survive today as placenames, but beyond a replanted mikaeri yanagi and a few signs and plaques, there is little of the old district to see in that neighborhood today.

In 1868, six other districts were made licensed, and in 1875, the Yoshiwara, and the brothels, teahouses, and prostitutes of a number of other areas came under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. By this time, the Yoshiwara was very much only a shadow of its former self, but it lingered on, and was not formally shut down by the government until 1958.


See Courtesans for more on this subject.

Like any other town ward of Edo, the Yoshiwara was governed by a headman and group of elders (toshiyori). While the courtesans engaged in cultural activity unique to the district, including courtesan processions and affected language (arinsu kotoba), the few thousand people who lived in the district were in many ways subject to the same hierarchical and administrative relationships as townsmen anywhere else in the city.[17]

Courtesan processions were a major sight within the district, providing an opportunity to see even the most expensive & exclusive courtesans in lavish kimono and hair styles, walking elegantly through the streets, accompanied by their entourages. As the Edo period progressed, the cleats of a courtesans’ geta grew in height and their kimono became increasingly heavy, making the choreographed “figure-eight” walk they were required to perform extremely challenging. Occasionally, a courtesan would stumble and fall during a procession, in which case she would be required to retreat to the nearest teahouse, send her attendant home for a new set of clothes, change into the new outfit, donate her previous outfit to the teahouse, and later pay the teahouse staff an additional fee for their assistance. For courtesans whose daily income was unpredictable and who were struggling to meet expenses for their shinzô, kamuro, and themselves, the mere possibility of such an accident must have been a source of intense anxiety.[18]

Partaking of what the Yoshiwara had to offer could be incredibly expensive. And it required more than just money to get in the door; one needed connections (networking, i.e. knowing people), and a reputation for cultural capital. At the time of the Yoshiwara's cultural height, prior to 1750 or so, only the most tsû, that is, those with the greatest reputation for familiarity with the Yoshiwara, its etiquette, and so forth, could secure an appointment with the top courtesans; even then, few could afford it, as the prices for a night with even a middling-ranking courtesan were quite expensive, serving as the source of income not only for the courtesan one was hiring, but for her entire entourage (i.e. attendants, younger courtesans-in-training) as well. A first visit could cost on average 10 ryô, including tips for the nakai and taikomochi (servants/assistants). Yet, some managed to afford not only this, but on occasion, a very few merchants are known to have even rented out the entire Yoshiwara for themselves for a night or two.

While the higher-ranking (and thus more famous and more highly demanded) courtesans might not need to advertise themselves, lower- and mid-ranking courtesans often sat in the harimise of the teahouse, a latticed display window facing the street. They might typically sit in three rows, and perform a concert from roughly dusk (the sixth hour) until midnight (the 9th hour).[19] While sitting there, courtesans freely chatted with one another, including talking about clients, and about scheduled engagements and past ones; they were not obligated to avoid such talk, let alone to avoid chatting entirely.[20]

Getting to the Yoshiwara typically involved a river journey, on swiftboats called choki. One typically departed from Azuma-bashi, in Asakusa.


  • Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.
  • Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012), 45-71.
  1. Segawa Seigle, 152.
  2. Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 268.
  3. Stanley, 45.
  4. Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, University of California Press (2012), 52.; Christine Guth, Art of Edo Japan, Yale University Press (1996), 92.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Laura Allen, "Introduction," in Seduction: Japan's Floating World, San Francisco: Asian Art Museum (2015), xiv.
  6. Stanley, 57-58. Such contracts bear strong resemblance as well to those for girls sold by their families into work in silk mills and other factory work in the Meiji period, showing that the exploitation of poor peasant families by strict contracts of indentured servitude, which held the family responsible for any expenses or losses caused by the girl, did not end with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, and the advent of "modernity." Such girls, whether in the Yoshiwara or in the silk mills of more modern times, were seen as virtuous filial daughters, working hard for the sake of their parents, but were also under incredible pressure to not do anything wrong - let alone try to escape - for fear of impoverishing her family even further. The case of the silk mill women is vividly depicted in the 1979 film Aa, Nomugi Toge.
  7. Stanley, 52.
  8. Stanley, 61.
  9. Stanley, 50, 61.
  10. Stanley, 63-65.
  11. Gallery labels, Yûjo no jitsuzô, Edo-Tokyo Museum.[1]
  12. Stanley, 2.
  13. Stanley, 65.
  14. Teenage attendants who had not yet become full-fledged courtesans, or those who wouldn't or couldn't become full-fledged courtesans on account of not possessing the beauty, wit, and/or various skills necessary.
  15. Segawa Seigle, 150.
  16. Timon Screech, Morishita Masaaki (trans.), Edo no daifushin 江戸の大普請, Kodansha, 2007.
  17. Stanley, 53.
  18. "Arts of the Bedchamber: Japanese Shunga," Honolulu Museum of Art, exhibition website, 2012. Accessed 16 December 2014.
  19. Kobayashi Tadashi and Julie Nelson Davis, "The Floating World in Light and Shadow: Ukiyo-e Paintings by Hokusai's Daughter Oi," in John Carpenter et al (eds), Hokusai and his Age, Hotei Publishing (2005), 96.
  20. Allen, xiii.