Japan during the Edo era experienced an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity, which presented a unique problem for the Shogunate. Peace had made the samurais restless, and the growing merchant class was straining against their place at the bottom of the strict social hierarchy.
The shogunate sanctioned new pleasure quarters, the ukiyo (floating world)—places of heavenly delights and earthly desires.
This article is the first in a series about ukiyo-e, but before diving into Japan’s famous woodcuts, we need to understand the ukiyo –the floating world– that these woodcuts depict.
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The most famous pleasure district, the Yoshiwara, was in Edo, with similar districts in Kyoto and Osaka. Part of the need for a pleasure district in Edo, in particular, was the seasonal gap between the male and female populations –which was caused by the sankin kōtai.
The sankin kōtai system required the daimyos (feudal lords) to spend every second year in the city of Edo in close proximity to the Shogun. When the daimyos visited the city, they brought huge retinues, causing a gap between the male and female populations. This population gap led to a need for female entertainment, which, in feudal Japan, could mean anything from poetry and theatre to sexual services.
Aside from entertainment, the pleasure districts provided a space free from Japan’s strict social hierarchy where patrons could unwind. The Yoshiwara was sectioned off from the rest of Edo by a moat. The original Yoshiwara sat on drained swampland, and the moat is partially responsible for the name floating world being used to describe it.
The moat functioned to keep criminals and children out while maintaining anonymity for the patrons. Although, as all the prostitutes were indentured servants, one could be cynical and think that it was also useful to keep them from escaping.
A hub for the arts
The Yoshiwara was at the center of Edo’s culture, and while prostitution was undoubtedly one of its main attractions, it wasn’t the only entertainment on offer.
The pleasure districts were full of tea houses and theaters packed with actors, players, singers, and poets. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the floating world in Edo’s culture. It was a hub for many art forms, from kabuki and tea ceremonies, to haikus, and calligraphy. Much of what we now think of as traditional Japanese arts developed in the brothels and theaters of the ukiyo during the Edo period.
All these art forms were patronized by the brothel owners and developed to suit the customers' desires of the Yoshiwara. High-ranking courtesans were often very trained in poetry, drawing, and puppetry and were destined to entertain the wealthy and powerful samurai who frequented their establishments.
During the Edo era ukiyo came to embody an attitude towards life, a joie de vivre, or a YOLO approach to existence. Members of the ukiyo lived a hedonic life, fully aware of the transience of their time on earth. An example of this is the Firefighters of Edo, who lived a work-hard-play-hard existence, were equal heroes and villains in Edo society.
The sorrowful world
Ukiyo translates as the floating world, but when spoken, it sounds like the Japanese for the sorrowful world.
In Japanese Buddhism, the sorrowful world is shorthand for the endless cycle of life, suffering, death, and rebirth from which Buddhists seek to escape. And if you were looking to escape the sorrowful world, the ukiyo would have been an ideal place to start –but not for everyone.
Yoshiwara had over 9,000 prostitutes at its peak, with the largest brothels having up to 50 women. These women exclusively came from poor farming and fishing communities and were sold by their families into indentured service for terms from 5-10 years. Prostitution was one of the few jobs women could do in the Edo era, and Confucian ideals allowed parents to sell their children to pay their familial debt.
Girls as young as 7 or 8 were taken in as basic servants, cleaning and tending to the older girls. By the age of 12, the luckier few would start their training as high-class courtesans destined to entertain wealthy merchants and samurai and with the power to refuse clients if they wished. In comparison, the rest would start working with little to no say in most aspects of their life.
The brothels had very strict hierarchies, with the courtesans receiving much better lodgings, food, and clothing –which contributed to their debt. In contrast, ordinary sex workers lived in much harsher conditions. They all ran the risk of pregnancy and disease, and unsurprisingly the average life expectancy of a Yoshiwara prostitute was 23 years old.
All good things…
The Yoshiwara lasted from the start of the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth, including surviving fire, earthquakes, and relocation. It was eventually (mostly) shuttered after World War II when prostitution was made illegal under the American occupation. Coincidentally, at the same time that tattooing became legal again.
See our article on the history of tattooing in Japan to learn more about Japan’s on-again-off-again relationship with tattooing.
The ukiyo gave us many amazing aspects of Japanese culture, and much of what we know about the floating world comes from ukiyo-e which captured the time. In the next article, we’ll be looking at the woodcut art form itself, the kinds of images represented, and the impact of ukiyo-e on the world.
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