Yoshiwara sairei no zu
(Figure of a Yoshiwara Festival)
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858)

Yoshiwara - The Floating World

It was the end of the 17th century in Japan. The Shogun Hideyoshi was faced with a unique problem - An increasingly wealthy middle class, with time and money on their hands. In the old world of serfs and lords, this had not been a problem.

Edo, the capital city of Japan (later called Tokyo) was full of sex clubs, ribald entertainment, and both male and female prostitutes. Sex was hot, and the local priests were not happy.

So Hideyoshi took a large tract of land north of the city — accessible only by canal, which was called "Good Luck Meadow," or, in Japanese — Yoshiwara. He had the remainder of the tract enclosed with a moat, so that the only access was by water to keep minors and criminals out (and the sex workers in). Visitors got the impression that the whole area was an island, and called it "The Floating World". The term applied not only to the geography of the place, but to the floating feeling one has when in the throes of sexual satisfaction.

Yoshiwara within the City of Edo

The area soon filled with brothels, teahouses, kabuki theaters, Sumo arenas and other amusements. You may have heard of New York referred to as "the city that doesn't sleep" - the Yoshiwara was known as "The Nightless City" when New York was nothing but a little a fishing village in the hinterlands.

But this was no typical "Red Light" district - Inside the Yoshiwara, unlike the rest of Japan, there were no class or gender distinctions. Samurai were technically forbidden from the Yoshiwara, so they had no authority there. The floating world had its own rules. A farmer (assuming he had the money) was treated the same as a high ranking Daimyo (lord). Women were not only allowed, but encouraged to learn to read and write - and study music, the arts and history. They were also allowed to run their own businesses. Some became very wealthy and had their own "concubines."

People involved in mizu shobai ("the water trade") would include hokan (comedians), kabuki (popular theatre of the time), dancers, dandies, rakes, tea-shop girls, Kano (painters of the official school of painting), yujo (ordinary prostitutes), courtesans who resided in seiro (green houses) and geisha in their okiya houses. Homosexuality, cross-dressing and fantasy role-playing were all widely tolerated.

Also for the first time, sex and sexuality were treated openly and freely. One could seek out any fantasy one chose, without fear of reproach. Classes were taught in sexual technique and were well-attended. Safety became a concern (accidents were bad for business). Shibari and Kinbaku (sexual bondage) became art forms. Inside "the floating world" you could be whatever you chose to be, if you were clever enough to achieve it.

Facing Pages from an Edo-Period Woodblock Book
Author: Takai Ranzan | Artist: Katsushika Hokusai

The Rise of Realism

Before the 1620s, the only books available in Japan were handwritten manuscripts. And all the monogatari, tanka, renga, and haiku (the great Japanese classical forms) were disseminated through these manuscripts. But a new type of book, printed with woodblocks, became popular in the 17th century. The printed kanazõshi were less expensive and more widely available than these earlier manuscripts. They are really the first commercial literature produced in Japan. Saikaku becomes one of the most popular writers of his time because he writes this type of book focusing specifically on the Floating World. However, "popularity" is a relative term. The cost of a book was still very expensive -- roughly what a laborer earned for two or three days of work. Moreover, the books, because of their small print runs (often only a few hundred copies), rarely circulated beyond Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo, the publishing centers in premodern Japan.

Despite these limitations, the appearance of these books amounted to an important new trend in literary production. Closely tied to the rise of Japan's urban centers, the growing economic power of the chõnin (urban commoner) class, the improvement of literacy rates, and the advent of woodblock print technology, kanazõshi (and ukiyozoöshi, the kanazõshi particularly about the Floating World) emerged as a new, distinctly lower- and middle-class form of literature. Its authors arose from the educated portion of the population, including scholars, Buddhist priests, courtiers, samurai and ronin. But its readership consisted mostly of non-aristocratic residents of Japan's growing cities.

In contrast to the classical and medieval literature which preceded them, kanazõshi tended to be more realistic, with fewer supernatural or fantastic elements. They paid more attention to details about the characters and their setting, contained more natural dialogue, and showcased a more representative slice of life.

A Street Scene in Yoshiwara

Upper-Class Audience Members at the Kabuki Theater

Courtesans Entertaining Their Clients

A Geisha in the Fashion of the Day