It's not one of those places the Tokyo Tourist Information Center makes much of a fuss about, but the legendary red-light district Yoshiwara (吉原) still exists outside James Clavell novels. But first, the historical background:

History

There is and has been only one Yoshiwara, which was opened in the early 1600's on the outskirts of what was then Edo. (Yes, Clavell's Shogun and Gai-Jin have Yoshiwaras all over the map, but as usual, he was making stuff up.) The name was originally written 葭原, meaning "reedy field", but was soon changed to 吉原, still read Yoshiwara but now meaning "lucky field". After a disastrous fire in 1658, the quarter was moved near Asakusa, but the name stayed. Prostitution in Japan had of course been going on since time immemorial, but Yoshiwara differed in being a walled city, guarded by the shogun's men. This provided a triple benefit, as it meant that incomers could be spied on, the prostitutes could not escape, and -- above all -- it made the place easy to tax. The model was soon adopted elsewhere in Japan in quarters like Tobita in Osaka.

Yoshiwara was not a geisha district (the most famous of which was and remains Kyoto's Gion), but that didn't stop some of the more high-ranked courtesans from being the superstars of their time, many of whom were immortalized in Utamaro's bijin-ga woodblock prints. According to a 1689 census, Yoshiwara had 1300 jijoro (the lowest grade), 1000 sancha (2nd best) and 500 oiran (top class), of whom only 3 qualified as tayu, the best of the best. Legends of the expense and effort needed to woo some of the tayu-grade ladies abound; one silk merchant reportedly bought "the time" of all the women in Yoshiwara for three days to celebrate his success, another bought all the eels (unagi) in Edo. (Eels are, unsurprisingly, thought to increase male virility.) But the tayu were the lucky ones -- as with geisha, most girls were essentially sold into slavery by their parents before they were 10, and the great majority of them would never be able to repay the debts incurred by their "education". The girls were allowed to (temporarily) leave Yoshiwara only for two reasons: to visit dying parents, and to see the cherry blossoms in Ueno Park.

Modern Times

Yoshiwara's fortunes waxed and waned over the years, until on January 21, 1946 the bombshell dropped: the office of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers requested that the Japanese government immediately abolish prostitution. It took almost ten years for the shocked Japanese to comply, but Yoshiwara's fate was sealed indirectly by another American innovation, suffrage for women and the consequent election of 39 women to the Diet.

On April 1, 1958, Yoshiwara closed its doors -- in legal fiction, that is. Sure, the open houses of prostitution disappeared. but they were promptly replaced Turkish baths, massage places, cabarets, models at nude studios and all the typical disguises. After some loud coughing by the Turkish ambassador, the Turkish baths changed their names to soaplands, referring to a service in which the customer is washed by a naked woman "until he's all lathered up", to quote a commentator.

Getting There

You won't find Yoshiwara marked on any map and, believe it or not, I stumbled there by accident the first (and last) time I've been there. I was exploring Minowa, which happens to be the terminus of the Toden Arakawa streetcar -- the last line in Tokyo and my primary touristic goal for the day -- and the total lack of any sights marked on the maps in the subway was my first tip-off that this place isn't quite kosher. Yoshiwara's formal name these days is Senzoku 4-chome (千束4丁目), and you'll find it if you walk a few blocks south on Kokusai-doori ("International Avenue") and turn right at the temple. I am also told that taxi drivers are quite familiar with the place (who woulda thunk it?).

That said, there is very little reason to visit the place, even if your interest is more practical than academic. With its monopoly broken and Tokyo's action having largely shifted to points west, modern-day Yoshiwara is distinctly at the low end of the scale and frequented only by the dregs of humanity. Unless you can read Japanese the clubs in the area won't appear out of the ordinary, and foreigners are generally not welcome. Roppongi and Kabuki-cho are both far more accessible, impressive and offer at least the chance of sex without having to pay for it.

References

Seward, Jack. The Japanese. Tokyo: Lotus Press, 1970.
東京23区。ユニオン文庫, 2001.

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