Photo by George Lloyd

What became of Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s old red-light district?

Talk a walk around modern-day Senzoku 4-chome 千束四丁目 in Taito-ku 台東区 and you will find few reminders of the Yoshiwara, the best-known red-light district in Old Edo, bar a handful of plaques. One is at 4-10-8 Senzoku, where a plaque commemorates the ‘Looking Back Willow Tree’ (mikaeri yanagi 見返り柳), so-called because on reaching the tree, visitors to Yoshiwara used to cast a last wistful look back before heading home.

Prostitution was widespread in medieval Japan. To restrict it, the first Edo shogun confined it to Yoshiwara 吉原, a red-light district established in Ningyōchō in 1617. After a disastrous fire burnt the area to the ground in 1656, the decision was made to move the brothels to an area of marshland north of Sensōji in Asakusa.

The land was drained, a new pleasure district built, and the Yoshiwara soon became Edo’s greatest entertainment district. To keep children and criminals out - and the sex workers in – the district was enclosed by a moat. To visitors, it appeared to be an island, which is how it came to be known as ‘the floating world.’

Of course, ‘the floating world’ was not an entirely prosaic name. By law, brothel patrons were only allowed to stay for a night at a time, but like all the official policies governing the Yoshiwara, this was rarely enforced, and many visitors stayed in the red-light district for days on end.

A trip to the Yoshiwara was an opportunity to slip out of time. Instead of the ties that kept the social hierarchy of old Edo in place, the red-light district was bound by a new hierarchy of aesthetic, sensual and sexual pleasure. The ‘water trade’ (mizu shobai 水商売) included kabuki actors, dancers, comedians, painters, dandies and rakes. Here flourished the fashions, kabuki, and popular culture of the day.

The modern day Yoshiwara jinja shrine in Senzoku, Taito-ku is one of the few tangible reminders of old Edo’s best-known red-light district | Photo by George Llyod

By the 18th century, the Yoshiwara was home to 3000 women from all over Japan. It’s easy to romanticise the culture of the oiran (courtesan, or in modern parlance, prostitute), but most of the women involved didn’t flourish. They arrived in the Yoshiwara between the ages of seven and twelve as indentured servants to the brothels, having been sold into bondage by their impoverished parents. Their contracts bound them to the brothels for five to ten years, and the debts they accrued often kept them there for the rest of their lives.

Some women did well, however. The lucky ones became apprentices to high-ranking courtesans and worked their way up the ranks until they too became oiran. High-ranking courtesans were not only allowed but encouraged to learn to read and write, and many of them studied music, the arts and history. They were also allowed to run their own businesses, and some of them became very wealthy.

Scan by NYPL / Public domain

Modern times only boosted the flesh trade: by 1893, there were over 9000 women living and working in the district. The ‘floating world’ only came down to earth when the Anti-Prostitution Act of 1958 made prostitution illegal.

The Yoshiwara is not marked on modern-day maps. The old neighbourhood names survived until 1966, when new ones were introduced, severing the last tangible link with the past. Not all is lost, however. Prostitution might be technically illegal in Japan, but the definition of ‘prostitution’ does not extend to ‘a private agreement’ reached between a woman and a man in a brothel. This loophole has allowed the flesh trade to survive, albeit discreetly.

Photo by George Lloyd

Walking the streets of Senzoku 4-chome, you won’t see sex workers beckoning customers – in fact, you’ll see next to nobody on the street at all. Instead, each establishment has a doorman, whose job it is to usher in visitors when they pull up in their cars. Only the Sasaki clinic, on the southern border of the former Yoshiwara serves as a reminder that you’re still in a red-light district: a discreet sign informs visitors that it specializes in obstetrics 産婦人科, gynecology 婦人科 and the treatment of venereal diseases 性病科.


By - George Lloyd.