Women of the Yoshiwara
Detail from 'Oiran and maids in the Yoshiwara main street, 1854' by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1874). Collection: Frank Milner
The Yoshiwara pleasure quarter was a walled, guarded and gated zone of toleration on the edge of Edo. Here 3000 prostitutes lived and worked alongside geishas, teahouse and brothel servants, and entertainers.
Brothel owners typically bought poor peasant female and male children on contract. They were educated, some were taught social accomplishments, and at 15 years old they started work as prostitutes. In theory, contracts were for ten years.
Prosperous merchants and samurai visited the Yoshiwara and many Edo people thought of it as a glamorous urban site. However, like parts of London and Paris at this time, the area was home to prostitutes who lived hard lives with very limited prospects of release from work.
Kabuki play plots were often set in the Yoshiwara. A typical theme was an impoverished samurai lover and his girlfriend, an honourable Oiran heroine. Oiran were elite prostitutes who were regarded as fashion icons. Prints of famous Oiran were popular and were often pasted onto walls or screens in homes and teashops.