text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Seen with 21st century eyes and through the filter of social consciousness primarily emanating from the various versions of Christianity and unavoidably accompanying them, Edo’s Yoshiwara (吉原) the “adult entertainment area” (one way to translate the word “yukaku” /遊廓 used to refer to it) or, for those preferring a more poetic rendering the “nightless city” (fuyajo/不夜城) was at best an anachronism and at worst a monstrosity for whose uprooting the Japanese should feel an eternal debt to the Americans –Yoshiwara closed permanently after the American occupation of 1945-1952 when postwar legislation, undoubtedly influenced (officially and unofficially, willingly and inadvertently) by McArthur and his General Headquarters made prostitution illegal for the first time in three centuries.
Cultural correctness is risky: the values of a society and an era rarely travel unalterable in time and space. The older photographs available of Yoshiwara were taken at the end of the Edo period (1603-1868) and the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the district was already in decadence and confirm all decrying views: plain, melancholic girls clumsily wrapped in kimono behind the (not necessarily decorative) bars of the “houses” smiling constrainedly and waiting for someone to choose them. Nothing in these pictures, made even more pitiful by hand-coloring, indicates that Yoshiwara, an enclosed world of a few square miles north-east of Asakusa in the area today called Senzoku was ever anything but another vulgar flesh marketplace; the only difference being the clothing and the elaborate hairdos.
Yet, if one is determined to set aside the age’s criteria and see the society of Edo in a less guilt-ridden way, they realize that there was indeed another aspect, at least until the beginnings of the 19th century. The world of Yoshiwara was governed (like everything in Japan of that time as well of the present) by a complicated set of rules and conventions that made it something much more. From the majestic parades of the oiran (花魁/おいらん) the topmost women of each house for whom even today’s morals couldn’t help but reserve the term “courtesans” (instead of “prostitutes”) to the gatherings of intellectuals and artists at the houses’ salons and from the, unheard of for the day’s standards culture and sophistication in the behavior of both women and patrons to the merchandise itself (no, it wasn’t always sex), Yoshiwara, plainly hidden in hundreds of ukiyoe woodblock prints and tens of Kabuki and period plays is perhaps the most intriguing among Tokyo’s unknown worlds.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.
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