Edo Culture II
During the Edo period (1600-1868), the ruling Tokugawa shoguns attempted to control public morals and provide personal security by creating entertainment districts in which prostitution was licensed. In the Tokugawa capital at Edo (modern-day Tokyo), the Yoshiwara district was the government-regulated area in which the courtesans conducted their business.
At the height of its glory during the eighteenth century, the Yoshiwara was the source for an elaborate subculture of dress, manners, behavior, and even of literary forms, all of which gradually influenced Edo culture as a whole. As social institutions, then, the Yoshiwara (and other well-known entertainment quarters in cities such as Kyoto and Osaka) had a profound influence on artistic and intellectual thought and social customs of the period.
The prints in this exhibition are mostly drawn from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and demonstrate the continuing popularity of the courtesan image even into the time of the Yoshiwara's decline. In some, courtesans are presented in the role of great figures from the past, such as literary heroes and poetesses, demonstrating how this subculture transformed traditional literary imagery and inserted an element of social commentary or parody (mitate-e). Others are straightforward depictions of daily activities, like dressing in the elaborate costumes that came to be associated with this profession and entertaining guests in the teahouses and houses of assignation that filled the Yoshiwara. The Sumida River scenes illustrate the association of the Yoshiwara with its suburban setting and the use of pleasure boats to transport clients to its location on the outskirts of the city.