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
exists outside James Clavell
novels. But first, the historical
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.
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.
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.
Seward, Jack. The Japanese. Tokyo: Lotus Press, 1970.