The Pleasure of Edo
After the Tokugawa shogun Ieyasu (1543 – 1616) established his political control of Japan in the early 17th century, a relatively long period of isolation, continuous peace, and economic development followed. The Tokugawa shoguns designated Edo (modern Tokyo) as their capital, and by the early 18th century the city was inhabited by over a million people. Its flourishing economy was fueled by the feudal lords (daimyō), who were required by the shogun to house their families in Edo and maintain permanent residences there. As the economy grew, the merchant class (chōnin) prospered and developed its own distinctive subculture, identified with the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure in the theaters, teahouses, and brothels of the city.
Established in 1657, Edo’s newly licensed pleasure district (Shin Yoshiwara) was located in a walled compound in a suburb reachable by boat via the Sumida River, which ran through the center of the city. The famed beauties of the district set the fashion standard and were celebrated in woodblock prints hawked on the streets of the city. Exorbitant fees for the services of top-ranked courtesans could, over time, bankrupt even wealthy visitors. The woodblock prints depicting the great beauties occasionally were used as vehicles for social commentary on high culture. By parodying classical Chinese and Japanese literary and artistic sources, these pictures of the so-called “floating world” (ukiyo-e) of the Yoshiwara appropriated the cultural legitimacy of their elevated models and played at assuming a similar respectability.
The group of prints assembled here depict aspects of life in the Yoshiwara in the late 18th and 19th centuries: the formal public processions of elaborately dressed courtesans, the teahouse entertainments attended by courtesans (prostitutes) and geisha (entertainers), and the preparatory rituals of assuming elegant dress, so necessary for women whose appearance ensured their livelihood.