From Courtesan to Geisha by Zoe Weber Home / Publications / 2013/14 / Essays / From Courtesan to Geisha by Zoe Weber

From Courtesan to GeishaThe Rise of the Edoite Commoner Class, in and out of Yoshiwara, Site of Economic and Social Subversion

ZOE WEBER, University of Toronto


When looking at official documents, such as edicts or writings of government personnel, the picture of Tokugawa life and society emerges as a very strict, disciplined, and controlled environment. In this picture, one sees society as irrevocably and decidedly divided among the four classes (samurai, peasant, artisan, merchant), in addition to those who are considered social outcasts, such as tanners, actors, and prostitutes. However, in looking at unofficial histories, a very different image emerges; one that highlights the tensions within this idealized social order and elicits the economic, social, and political realities of the Tokugawa period. The history of the rise, development and denouement of the licensed pleasure quarters of Yoshiwara can be used as a tool through which to understand the realities of the economic and social changes throughout this era.


Starting out as a conflation of private and official interests, a site was created within the newly founded and rapidly growing Edo for the control of a ‘necessary evil.’ Yoshiwara, provided a place for entrepreneurs in the sex trade to maintain a government sanctioned monopoly on the commodity, as increasing numbers of men and women came to Edo in search of new opportunities and new commercial enterprises. The change throughout the two and a half centuries of the Tokugawa period in the social and cultural fabric of the quarters as well as the popular culture, such as theatre, art and literature, which grew up around Yoshiwara, is a microcosm of broader changes in the economic and social realities of the time. Both the nature of the courtesans and their clients show a decided transition in the dominant cultural and social forces that occurred as a consequence of the economic changes brought about by a developmental acceleration of commodification and a market economy. The final reality near the end of the Tokugawa period was marked by the development of a distinct commoner society in Edo. The shogun’s capital became the people’s capital, as economic changes produced social and cultural changes, which reshaped the economic and cultural dynamics of the city. A commoner culture came to dictate the fashions and sensibilities of the times, in which commoners build up an array of popular culture centered on celebrating this new social reality, epitomized by the rise in popularity of the geisha outside the Yoshiwara compound.


However, not only is class hierarchy disturbed, so is the gendered hierarchy of the state premised on Confucian ideals. In the development of the market economy, more women started participating outside the home from weaving factories to brothels. Women, now public figures, became generators of economic wealth, driving local and archipelago-wide economies. Although a subversion of the official ideal women, at home supporting the functioning of the rice-producing household unit that was the economic and social basis of the countryside, this economic and social movement was not ‘freedom’, as women’s bodies were commodified and dominated by a largely male-driven demand. However, looking at the sex trade in terms of its economic and social realities for women belies the idealized view of gender that we get from official sources, which for the most part exclude women as a factor driving social, political and economic change. From the early high class courtesan and her clientele that emulated the culture and tastes of the upper classes, the geisha outside the quarters represented the power of a new social and cultural force. They eclipsed this government-sanctioned site of economic and social subversion, to undermine the official order.
The History of Prostitution in Japan and a Note on Notions of Morality
Women, their bodies, their latent power, the selling and purchasing of their bodies, are themes that continue to incite fear, anxiety and ambivalence throughout history. Women and their bodies represent a site of uncertainty, the tipping point between need and want, pleasure and misery. The importance of the female body incites anxiety over its use and control. In medieval Japan, which was governed by a philosophy of defilement, there were elaborate rules and taboos regarding illness, death, and blood. Both male and female bodies could, of course, be the source and target of pollution. However, the female body, with its frequent association with blood, occasioned much more pollution, and became an ‘impure’ gender, barred from sacred sites, including Mt. Fuji until well into the 19th century.[1] Buddhist ideologies were added to this during the medieval period. Prostitutes, “whose ‘impurity’ of gender was compounded by her activity as a peddler of flesh,”[2] seemed the antithesis of someone who could achieve nirvana. Her life was permeated by an attachment to bodily pleasures, and, worse, incited such worldly attachments in others. Buddhist teachings preach the “eradication of cravings and complete freedom from desire and worldly attachments,”[3] and thus the female body, especially that of the prostitute, “keep men chained to the eternal cycle of birth and death.”[4] However, perhaps as part of an evangelizing mission, medieval Buddhists in Japan, conflated female bodies, of both courtesans and prostitutes, into an expression of defilement, while at the same time presenting this ‘fallen’ body as a bodhisattva that helped others to be reborn in the Pure Land.[5]
The major site of prostitution prior to the Tokugawa period was on the Kanzaki River, which connected Osaka to the inland, with Eguchi being the most popular.[6] By this time, the importance of ability and beauty were combined through the fierce competition needed to attract customers traveling along major highways and waterways. When large vessels moored, women in boats approached through the reeds, singing and soliciting.[7] It was this aspect of song that reconciled Buddhists to the idea of the prostitute-bodhisattva. The prostitute’s “song was an expedient provided by the Buddha for the enlightenment of the common people.”[8] Here, earlier shamanistic practices of female priests lending their voices to the gods, is imbued with Buddhist meaning. Buddhism could reconcile itself with earlier notions of female defilement by presenting the ultimate defiling body, that of the prostitute, as having “obtained salvation in the next world in spite of the depth of her sins.”[9] The exact means and logic behind this reconciliation is a matter of its own, but what needs to be taken from this earlier history and attitude towards prostitution and the female body are the layers of interpretation, meaning and the increasing ambivalence around it. The female body was both polluted, defiling, an inhibitor of Buddhahood, yet the site of salvation, enlightenment and life. The moral views concerning sex and prostitution were no less ambivalent.
In prehistoric Japan, there was no institution of prostitution, understood as an income-producing commodity. However, an ideology of ‘free love’ in the Nara period seemed to be the dominant attitude towards sex, for both men and women. Festivals especially, were sites where sex was encouraged as a shamanistic symbol of agricultural fertility, held in high importance for an agrarian society.[10] However, this liberalism devoid of later notions of Confucianized gendered hierarchies does not preclude egalitarianism between genders. It was primarily men who initiated the exchanging or lending of partners, offering wives or servants as testaments of his hospitality.[11] There was also an emerging ‘profession’ of prostitution, as more displaced peoples created an abundance of yūkō jofu (peripatetic women) or ukareme (floating women), who sold their bodies for their livelihood, although they were more akin to beggars than a ‘professional’ prostitute.[12] However, this trend of wandering women, which harkens back to the suspected origins of prostitution, of itinerant female shamans who served the gods through a form of religious prostitution, established a precedent for prostitution as an occupation.[13]
During the Heian period (794-1185), there was an increasing number of prostitutes in cities and along roads and waterways. Some prostitutes who possessed talents in singing and dancing were called upon to entertain the nobility.[14] In the Heian period, the general attitude of aristocrats towards sex was represented by irogonomi (fondness for amorous activity). Irogonomi was construed as a desirable ideal, which went together in the making of an ideal aristocratic person with skill in poetry, music and calligraphy. In Tales of Ise (9th or 10th century) both women and men are described positively as irogonomi, where poems and love are intricately linked.[15] However, Buddhism introduced a more censuring tone, as eventually the ideal poet/lover transformed into the poet of the Way, an artistic practice now undertaken with a new seriousness.[16] This serious study of Buddhist doctrines and ideas by the aristocrats of the 12th century, was, as we have seen, also linked with the notion of the female body as inhibiting enlightenment. Irogonomi now came to connote purely “sex and lasciviousness, especially when used for describing women.”[17] Competing histories and notions of women, love and the body are at play, constructing the female body as an elusive and problematic figure.
However, this ambiguous figure was, between the 8th and 13th centuries occupying and consolidating different levels of prostitution.[18] Itinerant female shamans and entertainers to wandering displaced women eventually solidified as a somewhat distinct group of yūjō, in brothels or on boats in areas of dense population and travel.[19] On the higher end of women for sale, the entertaining courtesan, introduced from China as part of the entertainment branch of government, consolidated into shirabyōshi (professional dancers) who possessed cultivation and artistic talents and were supported by aristocrats as the Heian gave way to the Kamakura period.[20] The highways developed along routes from Kamakura to Kyoto, which were dotted with post stations, also attracted prostitutes and procurers. In 1193, the bakufu created the keisei bettō, an intendant of courtesans, in an attempt to control prostitution– an indication of the trade’s proliferation.[21] By the Muromachi period, the number of prostitutes, including a large number of itinerant nuns, who were women displaced in the civil wars and fires of Kyoto, motivated the bakufu to create a bureau of prostitutes in which prostitutes were taxed in an effort to alleviate a bankrupt treasury.[22] This decision is significant as it is the first government ordinance that recognized prostitution as a legitimate business, eligible for taxation.[23] In the Tokugawa period, prostitution continued to flourish, as we will see, in a more controlled and regulated manner, in effect giving the business even more official sanction. Although, the government was founded on a Confucian ideology, there was a long history of varying beliefs and practices surrounding sex with which this new ideology it wished to impose upon society had to contend. Having multiple partners was not problematic in the way Chinese Confucianists found it to be. In Japan, cohabitation before marriage, divorce, and widow remarriage were all permissible.[24] However, as the period progressed, especially in the upper classes, who were under closer scrutiny from the government, notions of the vice of female adultery and the virtues of female chastity came to be more pronounced.[25] Although women, female bodies and prostitution were construed in layers of sometimes contradictory meanings, prostitution by the start of Tokugawa period was not necessarily immoral or a societal vice. Rather, it was useful in many ways as indicated by the earlier bakufu ordinances. Although laws of containment regulated the industry, illegal sites persisted.


Islands of Women and the Creation of Controlled Pleasure


Toyotomi Hideyoshi built his castle in Osaka, a city of importance and long a site of prostitution. Under Hideyoshi’s occupation, a population influx occurred, including an increase in prostitution. By 1589, Hideyoshi’s vassal, Hara Saburōzaemon, received permission to open a brothel.[26] Although there had long been brothels along travel routes and waterways, this area, Nijō Yanagimachi, assumed to be based on the pattern of Ming pleasure quarters, was a walled-in quarter, the first isolated space for prostitution and the prototype for the later Edo Yoshiwara.[27] In this way, one can already see the logic used towards the social structure that the Tokugawa period later developed. To prevent any future disturbances that could overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate, a Confucian ideology of strict social classes and roles was set in place, physically reflected in the layout and development of castle-towns including the shogun’s capital of Edo. To keep power, it was essential to control space and to control bodies.
Edo, which had quickly grown into an overcrowded urban centre from a marshy wasteland under the final figure of unification and control of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, quickly became a ‘city of men’.[28] The town was constructed around the shogun’s castle, which was surrounded by great estates of daimyo and samurai. The official policy of sankin-kōtai[29] in 1635, which had been based on a system already in place by Hideyoshi, not only brought in enormous amounts of upper class men, but also a great number of merchants and artisans who poured into the city in order to cater to and support the upper classes. Edo had an overwhelming number of men as initially many of these entrepreneurs, who came from all over, set up branch offices in Edo, while the home branch remained elsewhere.[30] Similarly, many of these men’s families were ‘back home’ as well. As a result of having a permanent home elsewhere or not being able to afford a family, many men in Edo were bachelors. Of course, it was not just men who came into the city in search of economic opportunity.
After two centuries of war, this tenuous offering of peace and prosperity was grabbed at by a populace hungry for stability and pleasure. Peacetime prosperity brought a boom to the success of itinerant dancers and prostitutes, as both prostitutes and purveyors rushed into the city from all provinces. There was a proliferation of brothels. However, they often relocated because of Edo’s continuing expansion and ad hoc city zoning policies.[31] In 1612, there was a meeting of brothel proprietors where the suggestion of writing to the shogun to request exclusive rights to operate houses in one restricted area was well received. The suggestion was given to the government, citing Edo’s need of creating a licensed pleasure quarter in following with other great cities, such as Shimabara in Kyoto and Shinmachi in Osaka.[32] The isolated, walled-city prototype was suggested for its easy surveillance. A major concern of the shogunate in the early years of the Tokugawa period was the use of brothels as hideouts for potential rebels. As Ieyasu consolidated his power around 190 daimyo families and their retainers were divested of status and thus employ, creating a potentially threatening group of rōnin (master-less samurai).[33] The government was also anxious about purveyors’ role in the trafficking of girls from ‘good families,’ a concern in a time when the government was trying to create and cement class distinctions.[34] This conflation of official concerns and brothel proprietors’ interests in creating a government-sanctioned monopoly on the Edo sex trade resulted in the creation of Yoshiwara in 1618 as the only licensed pleasure quarter in Edo.[35]
The original Yoshiwara (Moto-Yoshiwara) and its successor Shin-Yoshiwara, hereafter referred to as simply Yoshiwara, were literally ‘islands of women’, surrounded on all sides by water, either river or moat. They were walled-in, containing one entrance, the Great Gate which was situated at the end of a bridge where a guard would be stationed to make sure no ‘strange’ men went in and no women (unless they had an authorized pass) went out.[36] This ‘island of women’ was seen, even by its contemporaries as something exotic and exciting because of its legal and moral ambivalence. It created, and was created by, the tone of the times, reflected in the city’s emerging ‘culture of play.’[37] However, this was not the only ‘island of women’ known at the time. There was a history of such a place which arose in the Buddhist imagination of the medieval period and which continued to grow in the popular imagination of the Tokugawa, no doubt adding to the exotic and ‘out of the ordinary’ feeling, as well as one of ambivalence, that Yoshiwara excited.
The demonic female is a common character in Buddhist literature. These creatures, rasetsu, are beautiful shape-shifters who entice men only to eat them alive.[38] Originating from stories out of India, these women/demons, came to occupy a physical space near the Japanese archipelago around the medieval period, identified as Rasetsukoku, which “lay forever at the margins of the known world, marking the furthest edge of cultural identity.”[39] Throughout Japanese cartographic history, this island physically shifted as did its name. In the Nihon daihendō zu (Great route map of Japan, 1685), Rasetsukoku is now Rarestukou with an additional Nyōgogashima (Island of Women) added beside it.[40] By this time, however, the demonic female from whom unsuspecting males must escape to find the Pure Land is replaced as the site of male sexual fantasy rather than anxiety, as imagined in a 1763 Hiraga Gennai story as a “Yoshiwara-through-the-looking-glass”[41], in tandem with changes in the Tokugawa period of the culture of the ukiyo (the floating world). This marginalized space of women, finds an echo in the marginalized site of Yoshiwara, of which both versions were also “islands of women: isolated at the urban peripheries, secluded, confined, surrounded by moats, and often approached by boats.”[42] Sanctioned by the government yet never given full recognition as part of the city and as citizens of Edo[43], these ambiguous, liminal spaces of marginalized women came to be the centre of art, literature, cartography and male imagination and fantasy in the popular culture that evolved around them. They became a playground in which males could act out fantasies and desires that had no other outlet, creating a culture and voice of the commoner, while at the same time idealizing and obfuscating voices of the women whose livelihood depended on these commodified fantasies.[44] As virtually all the literature, theatre, and art that we have depicting pleasure courters and its inhabitants are male, it is difficult to find and analyze voices of the women themselves.[45] As a result, the ‘realities’ of Yoshiwara will be subsumed under the ideals of Yoshiwara created in its contemporary popular culture as a tool for measuring economic and social change in the Tokugawa period. However, the circumstances creating the increasing expanded sex trade in the period need to be considered.
The Purveying of Prostitutes


The realities of the women working within and without Yoshiwara, although difficult to ascertain given the wealth of cultural activities built up by men for men around it, do show one thing. Yoshiwara and its illegal counterparts were a “social institution that allowed men to enjoy sexual and aesthetic entertainment”[46] that relied upon the labour of economically and socially destitute women. These women were also economic and social actors that transformed local communities and cities as the market of prostitution developed and expanded and became embedded in everyday life and culture. Many of these women were indentured as children, usually between ages seven and nine. Parents were given a lump sum in cash for the future earning potential of their daughter.[47] The early attitude towards these women, who entered the trade to help out their destitute families, were seen with sympathy as ‘paragons of filial daughters’.[48] The social and economic realities of many peasant families in rural areas, as well as those poorest families in towns, created a situation that only expanded over time as the poor segments of society became increasingly impoverished, whereby the sale of a daughter for a much needed lump sum, usually in the spring when food stores were low or the summer when taxes were to be paid, the times when brothel purveyors usually made the rounds of the rural areas, acted as a lifesaver for the rest of the family.[49] There were also the material benefits their daughters were sure to have over what could be offered to her if she stayed with the family: good food (rice as opposed to millet), clothing, and some type of education in literacy and arts, as well as the potential of being able to marry a merchant or become the concubine of a samurai.[50] Although, not an ideal situation, and many prostitutes ended their period of servitude, usually 10 years, with more debt, there was the possibility of some sort of economic and social mobility, especially if she became successful, that would otherwise not have been available for a girl from a destitute peasant family. Of course, not all women were sold into prostitution, some entered into it on their own, usually for economic reasons.[51] Although there were other ways that women in the Tokugawa period could gain some socioeconomic mobility and independence, especially in the expansion of the market economy, such as in the weaving industry, the one area available to all women, from every class and every area across Japan, was prostitution of one sort or another.[52]
The female body as a commodity was the cause of social and economic gratification for many diverse groups of people and interests. For parents, it was an economic lifeline, for brothel proprietors, a chance to become a successful businessman and increase ones economic and social standing, for communities around where brothels opened, a chance to attract travelers and invigorate the local economy, upon which local government officials also relied in the form of taxes on local brothels, for males with economic means, both elite and common, it provided a site where the culture of play and fantasies of emancipation from the official social order could be enacted, and for the women themselves, it was a means by which one could potentially gain social and economic mobility.[53] As a useful commodity for so many segments of the population, it is little wonder that the sex trade expanded as it did throughout the period, coming to permeate even small towns and rural areas from its start as an urban phenomenon in the early 17th century.[54]
A note now must be said on male prostitutes. A market for the male body as commodity existed as well, but only in passing as it diverged considerably from the institution of female prostitution. It therefore deserves its own analysis. Male prostitution was intricately linked to the theatre and teahouses within those districts, which flourished in catering largely to men and, to a lesser extent, women.[55] The difference is that by the 19th century female prostitution had increased and expanded to become a “huge, independent, and well-integrated industry that spanned the archipelago.”[56] In contrast, male prostitution which revolved around the theatre and groups of itinerant actors, never became as large and expansive an enterprise as the commodification of the female body did, and by the 19th century had declined rather than flourished.[57]
Ukiyo Culture and the Early World of Yoshiwara
During the Tokugawa period, there was a drastic cultural transformation brought on by economic changes propelled by an expanding market economy.[58] Especially by the end of the period, the reality of contemporary life and the official view of society were at odds with each other. An increasing number of merchants, who had gained economic power, were now acting as money lenders to increasingly impoverished samurai who lived off rice stipends not adjusted to inflation.[59] Eventually, merchants created their own Edo culture, rooted in the daily lives and concerns of the townspeople, of which Yoshiwara and the culture of play were major themes, as they provided a site for merchants’ wealth and power to be channeled.[60] As the official social order limited the display of wealth by townspeople through numerous sumptuary laws, sometimes resulting in banishment or the confiscation of overly showy merchants’ fortunes, their frustrations and wealth could find an outlet in the ambiguous realm of the Yoshiwara, where ordinary life was left at the gate, as one entered the world of pleasure and jouissance.[61]
Yoshiwara acted as a stage on which a new social order could be performed, where wealthy merchants and townsmen could insist on equal treatment with their samurai counterparts.[62] Daimyo and samurai were officially forbidden to enter the quarter, but as a great many elite men, including a few shoguns themselves frequently patronized Yoshiwara, it was rarely enforced.[63] In Yoshiwara, the official social hierarchy was subverted and in its place a culture and society whose hierarchy was created based on money was constructed.[64] In its early days, up to the beginning of the 18th century, Yoshiwara was a place to see and be seen. It was a cultural mecca, woven into a typical day, along with a trip to Sensōji temple, a boat trip across the Sumida to the sightseeing spot of Mukōjima, and a show around Asakusa, of a retainer with copious amounts of time or a merchant who could enjoy the fruits of his labour.[65]
This culture of play, or asobi, was not tied to class, and could be enjoyed by anyone who had the means with which to purchase its commodities and the time with which to enjoy its lifestyle. Play eventually developed into a vocation of sorts, in which the main character refused to take himself seriously, drifting along without care, living of and for the moment.[66] The townsmen who participated in this culture and eventually came to increasingly control and shape it, created their own social image set at odds against the official’s discourse based on Confucian morality, loyalty, duty and frugality, especially as this official view increasingly became out of touch with the social reality. The main ‘haunt’ of men of taste became Yoshiwara, where sumptuary laws could be openly defied, as there arose a new class of habitués who went to Yoshiwara primarily for freedom and entertainment, where they went with friends to eat, drink, be entertained, write poetry, and generally, not have to take life too seriously, if was after all a time of peace and prosperity, where one could dedicate oneself to the pursuit of pleasure.[67]
The early courtesans and their clients were, however, playacting the elite lifestyle. Many of the early courtesans were in fact women of education and culture, for quite a few were the wives and daughters of dispossessed daimyo or samurai who made their way to Yoshiwara to find a living.[68] The standard of courtesans in the early days of the district was quite high, in terms of cultural refinement and intelligence, and the rituals and rules constructed around the interaction with a high class courtesan, or tayū, were intricate and elaborate. Their early customers too, were of a refined taste, willing to go to great lengths to obtain the most famous and aloof ladies, as the majority were elites. This was no place for the poor, even if it did offer some social mobility. Only those who had money could act out the part of an elite.[69]
Yoshiwara Culture and the Tayū
The top courtesan of the Yoshiwara was the tayū, who were prized as ‘flowers on high mountain ridges’, attesting to their level of cultural refinement and price.[70] These women were the top commodity and as a result their large earning potential, which not only paid back their debts, but supported their retinue, proprietors, and house, were given generally more freedom, in terms that a tayū could reject a suitor, and was treated better by her proprietor and yarite (supervisor).[71] These women were idealized as elegant, cultivated in the arts, music, or literatures. They had talents in calligraphy, singing, composing poems, and were conceived of as having refined personality and tastes.[72] The ukiyo culture of Yoshiwara derived from a combination on indigenous and Chinese literati traditions, in which the idea of refinement as a way of life, evolving out of the aesthetics of the Heian court, and the elevation of love, whether real or played at, became the centre of this new culture.[73] An intricate, elaborate and nuanced ritual revolved around acquiring an audience with the tayū whose title comes from the name of a rank of the nobility, an indication of Yoshiwara’s emulation or mimicking the elite classes and their lifestyle.[74] A potential suitor had to engage in a contrived ritual courtship. He would first have to go to the ageya (house of assignation) to request a specific tayū, or her one rank lower kōshi, and would need to hand in a reference letter from a Yoshiwara teahouse. The ageya would then send a request to the courtesan’s ‘house’. While the customer waited for her arrival, he would be expected to order food and drink for himself and his entourage, as well as hire entertainers, such as male geisha musicians or taikomochi (jester-like entertainers). A tayū’s in-training ‘sister’, shizō, would sometimes be sent to entertain while she was busy elsewhere. When the tayū did arrive, it was in a grand procession down the main street to the ageya house, with her retinue of wakaimono (male employee of the house), kamuro (pre-adolescent trainee), shizo (adolescent trainee), and yarite (supervisor). The tayū was seated in the place of honour, not facing the client. They shared a cup of sake, imitating a shortened wedding ritual. At this point, a high class courtesan could reject the cup and thus the suitor, or she could wait until they were alone to do so more gracefully by simply not going to bed.[75] It was an unwritten rule that the top courtesans would reject their suitors until their third visit, to both increase their desirability, worth, in maintaining their distinction as a top class courtesan over the cheaper girls in tsubone (low class houses) who were on display in the front windows, and on a business level, to draw out the amount of money that their clients would have to spend.[76] Yoshiwara courtesans did not have to and were not expected to ingratiate themselves with their clients.[77] As part of the elite façade they acted as a sort of ‘queen’ of the district, expecting to be entertained, by the hire of geisha or odoriko (dancing girls), and being difficult to obtain, creating an aloof persona. The whole ordeal was ended with the payment of all the parties to the house wakaimono, and included an ever-increasing network of tipping, around which guidebooks were produced revealing appropriate amounts.[78]
In matching with the high class of the tayū, the client had to be equally well groomed and cultivated. An elaborate culture built up around the stylish dress and persona of patrons of the Yoshiwara, aided by guidebooks and literature, evolved to match the increasingly elaborate style markers of the courtesans. A less than impeccable presentation could be grounds for refusal by a tayū.[79] As such, in the early 17th century, the majority of patrons were in fact from the ruling class, including a few wealthy merchants.[80] The means of getting to this ‘island of women’, also restricted men of ordinary means, as a boat or horse needed to be hired. Ordinary townsmen of humble means were relegated to window shopping or tsubone lining the river, or had to access the world of Yoshiwara through an increasing market of literature and woodblock prints who took their content and inspiration from the pleasure quarters and its characters.[81]
The Tsū and Popular Culture
By the 18th century, the merchants of Edo had grown in number, and in economic and social standing. In tandem with their growth of wealth was a refinement of sensibilities and a group of commoners who were becoming increasingly urbane, displaying their taste and refinement in Yoshiwara.[82] This concept of sophistication of manner, dress and taste, eventually consolidated into tsū, which became the defining culture of the later part of the 18th century, indicating a growing commoner culture that was to emerge in the stead of replicating elite culture and sensibilities.[83] Tsū evolved from sui (essence), a concept prevalent in the Kyoto/Osaka area to become the dominant male culture of Edo. Sui represented an elegance of appearance and spirit with a ‘savoir faire’in human relations.[84] Tsū, in the 1770s, initially held ideals of generosity, courtesy, wit, refinement and urbanity. Tsū was both a manner and the man who personified that manner. He was ‘the man about town’, an urban literati, who was knowledgeable about art and popular culture and was seen at the theatre and at Yoshiwara, in a display of his worldly sophistication. However, tsū quickly evolved to be more of a fashion, something tangible one could show off. The tsū came to be idealized as one who had expertise of Yoshiwara, knew his way around the intricate rituals and unspoken rules of the district. He became a dandy of the Yoshiwara, and took on the same celebrity that famous courtesans had.[85] There were lists of great tsū in guidebooks and in literature, who were presented as role models for aspiring dandies, and gave tips and instructions for mastering the etiquette and culture of Yoshiwara.[86] As one 17th century writer wrote: “No matter how superior a man, if he does not buy prostitutes, he is incomplete and tends to be uncouth.”[87] Prostitutes, defined as outcasts (hinin (nonhuman)), are here shown to be a status marker. If one does not partake in the culture built up around prostitution, he is ‘uncouth’. Yoshiwara’s place in the cultural imagination of the times is thus shown to be very great indeed. No matter how ‘superior’ a man is, his value in social and cultural terms is measured by his patronage of the cultural mecca of Yoshiwara.
The tsū rose in tandem with popular culture revolving around Yoshiwara and the culture that was being created and exported from there. Many artists and intellectuals of the time were restricted by censoring and restricted in the scope of their activities by how sensitive political topics could be. As a result, many turned to popular culture for inspiration and to find an outlet for their activities.[88] In the 18th century, there was turn to the art and literary style of Chinese wen-ren (gentlemen-scholars) in which free spirited and light literature replaced serious scholarly endeavours. Sharebon (how to books of the pleasure quarters) and kibyōshi (illustrated storybooks) became increasingly popular. These commodities evolved into special codes of behaviour for men and developed into a canon for the development of tsū.[89] The tsū townsman increasingly came to be pitted against the yabo (bumpkin) provincial samurai whose speech was seen as stiff compared to the evolving Edo ‘cool’ lingo, and who was mocked as unfashionable.[90]
Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) also played a big role through which artists could give expression to commoners’ lives, creating a space influenced by and further influencing the creation of a popular culture of Edo that revolved around the townsman.[91] The flourishing prosperity of Yoshiwara gave ample subject matter with which artists could fashion an idealized image of the carefree, liberal sentiments and culture of the time. People who could not actually afford to live this idealized life of pleasure, gained access and participation in this Edo culture through literature and the ukiyo-e depicting it.[92] Wives of wealthy merchants often found an outlet to frustrations and yearning for romance through reading novels depicting star-crossed lovers in the Yoshiwara, while their husbands found an outlet by enacting such fantasies.[93] It was a culture that was permeating society and overriding the earlier culture of Yoshiwara that had evolved around a mimicking of elite tastes.
The Decline of Yoshiwara and the Rise of the Geisha
However, over time the tsū became less sophisticated in terms of behaviour and deportment as more people were able to become tsū through their ability to buy the outfit and experiences in Yoshiwara as the expansion of the market economy throughout the 18th century created an increasing imbalance between the official social structure and the realities of who had the money.[94] Also, by the mid to late 18th century, the elite classes were becoming more destitute, despite some measures taken over the years to cut down on the costs involved in maintaining one’s status. As a result, there was a transformation in the patrons of the Yoshiwara, with wealthy merchants now outnumbering samurai.[95] Accordingly, there was a shift in the quality of tayū in the Yoshiwara, and eventually their elimination altogether. In a 1642 directory of the Yoshiwara (saiken) there are 75 tayū listed.[96] By the 18th century, that number fell dramatically until there were only a few who could claim that rank, resulting in the last listing of a tayū in the 1761 directory.[97] The quality of these women had decreased in terms of their refinement, cultural and artistic achievements and elegant dress, which now took on an extravagant, gaudy appearance.[98] Periodic raids by the government of illegal bathhouses and teahouses outside of Yoshiwara had sent waves of sancha (illegal tea house prostitutes) into Yoshiwara as punishment, resulting in a perceptible drop in ‘quality.’[99] Yoshiwara was evolving into a pleasure quarter of the masses that started to rely on events and spectacles, which became increasingly elaborate and garish. Many townsmen now were beginning to find the elaborate and overly fussy rituals of Yoshiwara old-fashioned and out of step with the times, in addition to being of inferior quality to ‘the good old days.’[100] One samurai lamented how “their degradation, their common behaviour and vulgar appearance, make you think of illegal places.”[101] Illegal places were another major factor in the decline of Yoshiwara. If Yoshiwara was too vulgar for the elite, it was becoming too fussy for townsmen with an emerging sense of themselves as a distinct group not needing to imitate upper classes for they had created their own identity and culture. As more people acquired wealth, there was less of a desire to flaunt it, and a new style, the understated elegance of iki emerged.[102]
Although the government undertookperiodic raids on illegal prostitution in Edo, especially during periods of reform, such as the Kyōhō Reforms (1716-1736) Kansei Reforms (1790s), the government’s inability to curb these illegal sites is indicative of the real social, cultural and economic power that the townspeople came to possess, as sites for illegal prostitution flourished and actually caused the decline of the officially sanctioned Yoshiwara quarters.[103] The illegal quarters had always been popular with those who could not afford Yoshiwara, however the rise of the iki geisha in the late 18th/early 19th centuries who increasingly populated sites outside Yoshiwara infused these sites with the new Edoite culture, creating new meccas of culture throughout the city defined by commoners’ tastes and culture.[104]
In the first half of the 18th century, most geisha were male musical entertainers hired within Yoshiwara and at other parties. An increasing number of women began to join their ranks, until the term geisha came to denote a female musical entertainer by the latter part of the 18th century. Within Yoshiwara, geisha were made by law to wear simple dress and not to engage in sexual services, as houses feared they would compete with courtesans. As a result, their dress and hair were simple, but elegant and eventually came to be seen as fashionable.[105] This new fashion of iki was defined by the geisha’s understated and subtle elegance and beauty.[106] By 1769, the saiken had come to have a separate page for the names of geisha, as they started to appear more frequently in ukiyo-e and literature.[107] However, it was the development of geisha outside Yoshiwara, who were not under pressure from Yoshiwara authorities to stick to strict rules in what they could and could not do, that started to draw popularity away from Yoshiwara.[108] These illegal quarters, such as Fukagawa, with their iki geisha and iki clients changed with the times and accommodated Edoites’ changing tastes that reflected a homegrown commoner culture that became the antithesis to the ‘old-fashioned’ elite culture embodied by Yoshiwara courtesans who were ‘out of touch with the people’.[109] Geisha “gradually replaced courtesans in popularity, earning power, and social significance.”[110] By the 19th century, geisha outside Yoshiwara were attracting affluent men, from “intellectual, politicians and others of the better classes,”[111] as well as the new aesthetic ideal of the iki “fast-talking, easy-spending Edokko.”[112] A mature Edoite culture had taken shape, no longer in emulation of elite tastes, but grown out of the lives of commoners, the Edokko, who increasingly held social and economic sway in Tokugawa society, as it came to influence the upper classes and dictate what defined taste and style.[113]
Yoshiwara was a liminal space set up through a conflation of government and merchant interests. It held an ambiguous space within society and the law, acting as a pressure valve for pent up frustrations of people who did not have legal way in which to channel the reality of their economic standing. In Yoshiwara, a new class hierarchy was created on the basis of wealth, subverting traditional notions of Tokugawa period class and gender roles. Women here were increasingly commodified and participated in an expanding trade network, generated wealth and socioeconomic changes within society. The lowly merchant class, through an increase in production and development of the market economy during the two and a half centuries of peace and stability, profited by acquiring economic might. However, sumptuary laws and early crackdowns on wealthy merchants, created frustration in their economic realities not matching social hierarchies. Yoshiwara is a place in which the realities of a changing economic and social order can be seen. In the early years, the quarter was seen as a replica of elite tastes and values, with courtesans being highly cultivated and refined along with a patronage that were drawn mostly from the elite classes. However, with the expansion and development of the market economy and an increase in the number of wealthy merchants entering Yoshiwara, a change took place. A new, commoner-initiated style and culture arose, with the help of intellectuals participating in the production of art and literature dealing with this developing popular culture. The tsū became the cultural hero of the times, taking on an increasingly Edoite and commoner attitude as geisha became the new style-defining commodity. An understated elegance with sophistication in details was embodied by geisha who became the site of iki culture. The shifting form of the female body as commodity became a mitate (metaphor) for shifting qualities and dominant forces found in the social makeup of Edo.[114] Yoshiwara, caught between trying to hang on to traditions of the past while being unable to properly emulate the cultured and refined elite style which was trying to be preserved, became largely abandoned in favour of illegal sites populated by geisha who spoke to and represented new tastes and cultures, that of the Edoite. Instead of subverting the official class system by defying them in Yoshiwara, the new iki culture began to defy the notion that elite culture was one to be emulated, as ostentation was now shunned as ‘uncool’ in the wake of the new understated sophistication of the Edoite townsmen.[115] The sanctioned site of subversion was eventually forsaken for the streets of Edo, breaking out of the walls and moats of Yoshiwara and into the streets of Edo, permeating the city with a new culture and identity constructed from below, a testament to the economic and social realities of the time.


Hirano, Katsuya, “Politics and Poetics of the Body in Early Modern Japan.” Modern Intellectual History. 8.3 (2011): 499-530.


Keister, Jay, “Urban Style, Sexuality, Resistance, and Refinement in the Japanese Dance Sukeroku.” Asian Theatre Journal. 26.2 (Fall 2009): 215-249.


Marra, Michele, “The Buddhist Mythmaking of Defilement: Sacred Courtesans in Medieval Japan.” The Journal of Asian Studies. 52.1 (February 1993): 49-65.


Moerman, D. Max, “Demonology and Eroticism: Islands of Women in the Japanese Buddhist Imagination.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 36.2 (2009): 351-380.


Pandey, Rajyashree, “Poetry, Sex and Salvation: The ‘Courtesan’ and the Noblewoman in Medieval Japanese Narratives.” Japanese Studies. 24.1 (May 2004): 61-79.


Peabody Essex Museum. Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile. Salem: George Braziller, 2004.


Seigle, Cecilia Segawa. Yoshiwara: the Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1993.


Stanley, Amy, “Enlightenment Geisha: The Sex Trade, Education, and Feminine Ideals in Early Meiji Japan.” The Journal of Asian Studies. 72.3 (August 2013): 539-562.


Stanley, Amy. Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012.


Swinton, Elizabeth de Sabato. The Women of the Pleasure Quarter: Japanese Paintings and Prints of the Floating World. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1995.


Takakura, Yoko, “Performing Marginality: The Place of the Player and of “Woman” in Early Modern Japanese Culture.” New Literary History. 27.2 (Spring 1996): 213-225.


Terasaki, Etsuko, “Is the Courtesan of Eguchi a Buddhist Metaphorical Woman? A Feminist Reading of a Nō Play in the Japanese Medieval Theatre.” Women’s Studies. 21 (1992): 431-456.


Waley, Paul, “On the Far Bank of the River: Places of Recreation on the Periphery of the Pre-Modern Japanese City.” Ecumene. 3.4 (1996): 384-407.




[1] Marra, Michele, “The Buddhist Mythmaking of Defilement: Sacred Courtesans in Medieval Japan.” The Journal of Asian Studies. 52.1 (February 1993): 49-51.

[2]Ibid., 50.

[3]Ibid., 51.

[4]Ibid., 51.

[5] Pandey, Rajyashree, “Poetry, Sex and Salvation: The ‘Courtesan’ and the Noblewoman in Medieval Japanese Narratives.” Japanese Studies. 24.1 (May 2004): 61-65.

[6]Marra, 52.

[7]Ibid., 52.

[8]Ibid., 52.

[9]Ibid., 63.

[10] Seigle, Cecilia Segawa. Yoshiwara: the Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1993, 1.

[11]Ibid., 2.

[12]Ibid., 3.

[13]Ibid., 3.

[14]Pandey, 63.

[15]Ibid., 66.

[16]Ibid., 66-68.

[17]Ibid., 68.

[18]Seigle, 5.

[19]Pandey, 63-65.

[20]Seigle, 5.

[21]Ibid., 7.

[22]Ibid., 7-8.

[23]Ibid., 8.

[24] Stanley, Amy. Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012, 4-5.

[25]Ibid., 5.

[26]Seigle, 8.

[27]Ibid., 8.

[28] Swinton, Elizabeth de Sabato. The Women of the Pleasure Quarter: Japanese Paintings and Prints of the Floating World. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1995, 31.

[29]The sankin-kotai was the system of alternate attendance implemented at the beginning of the Tokugawa period where domain lords had to travel back and forth from their domain to Edo every other year, thus draining them of their resources and time, which were spent on travel as well as the upkeep of two residences, in order to decrease their potential for rebellion against the bakufu government. Their wives and children also were kept as permanent ‘hostages’ at their Edo residences.

[30]Seigle, 16.

[31]Ibid., 17-20.

[32]Ibid., 20-22.

[33]Ibid., 22.

[34]Stanley, 17.

[35]Seigle, 24.

[36]Swinton, 31.

[37]Ibid., 26.

[38] Moerman, D. Max, “Demonology and Eroticism: Islands of Women in the Japanese Buddhist Imagination.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 36.2 (2009): 352.

[39]Ibid., 352.

[40]Ibid., 361.

[41]Ibid., 370.

[42]Ibid., 370.

[43]Seigle, 41.

[44]Stanley, 191.

[45]Swinton, 13-14.

[46]Stanley, 1.

[47]Ibid., 4.

[48]Ibid., 18.

[49]Ibid., 12.

[50]Seigle, 82.

[51]Stanley, 10.

[52]Seigle, 81.

[53]Stanley, 7.

[54]Ibid., 12.

[55]Ibid., 15-16.

[56]Ibid., 15.

[57]Ibid., 16.

[58]Swinton, 13.

[59]Seigle, 92.

[60]Swinton, 13.

[61]Seigle, 130.

[62]Swinton, 14.

[63]Seigle, 47, 58-60.

[64]Ibid., 58.

[65] Waley, Paul, “On the Far Bank of the River: Places of Recreation on the Periphery of the Pre-Modern Japanese City.” Ecumene. 3.4 (1996): 389-390. .

[66]Swinton, 26.

[67]Ibid., 31.

[68]Seigle, 29.

[69]Ibid., 33-35.

[70]Ibid., 43.

[71]Ibid., 66.

[72]Swinton, 13.

[73]Ibid., 27-28.

[74]Ibid., 56.

[75]Seigle, 64-67.

[76]Ibid., 67.

[77]Ibid., 44.

[78]Ibid., 67.

[79]Ibid., 62-63.

[80]Ibid., 56.

[81]Ibid., 62.

[82]Ibid., 131.

[83]Swinton, 30.

[84]Seigle, 131.

[85]Ibid., 131-132.

[86]Ibid., 132.

[87]Ibid., 153.

[88]Ibid., 133.

[89]Ibid., 133-136.

[90]Ibid., 136.

[91]Swinton, 27.

[92]Ibid., 35.

[93]Ibid., 44.

[94]Seigle, 92-94.

[95]Ibid., 130.

[96]Ibid., 34.

[97]Ibid., 125.

[98]Ibid., 218.

[99]Ibid., 173.

[100]Ibid., 203.

[101]Ibid., 205.

[102]Ibid., 94.

[103]Ibid., 209.

[104]Swinton, 37.

[105]Seigle, 170-174.

[106] Keister, Jay, “Urban Style, Sexuality, Resistance, and Refinement in the Japanese Dance Sukeroku.” Asian Theatre Journal. 26.2 (Fall 2009): 216. .

[107]Seigle, 174.

[108]Swinton, 43.

[109]Seigle, 206.

[110] Ibid., 217.

[111]Ibid., 217-218.

[112]Swinton, 37.

[113]Seigle, 94.

[114]Swinton, 38.

[115]Ibid., 64.