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Sex and Suffering: The Tragic Life of the Courtesan in Japan's Floating World

A new exhibit of Japanese art in San Francisco called "Seduction: Japan’s Floating World" presents the image of beautiful women doing alluring things in an opulent world. But these women of the Edo period were prostitutes in the Yoshiwara pleasure district outside Edo (now Tokyo). The art promoted business, and invited intrigued men to sample the decadent pleasures of what was once called the "suffering world," but then was changed to the “floating world” to whitewash any negative connotations. Laura W. Allen, curator of Japanese art at the Asian Art Museum, put together the exhibit. She cautions us on what we don’t know about the women.   

“Don’t take these paintings at face value,” Allen says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s a picture of a beautiful woman, wearing beautiful clothing.’ But it’s not a photograph. It’s some artist’s rendition, made to promote this particular world, which was driven by economics. The profiteers urged the production of more paintings, which continued to feed the frenzy for the Yoshiwara.

“The artwork is very much glamorized and idealized,” she continues. “I haven’t been to 17th-century Japan so I don’t know what it was actually like, and the women didn’t write about it, so we don’t have their firsthand accounts. To imagine it from a woman’s perspective, it must have been a very harsh reality. There’s been some modern scholarship that promotes idea that the women working as prostitutes had an economic power that they might not have otherwise had. But I think the day-to-day reality of living in the Yoshiwara could not have been pleasant.”

The life of an Edo Period prostitute was strictly ranked and regimented, and Yoshiwara flourished under their labor. Read some of the history of the pleasure district and the women who lived and worked there, at Collectors Weekly. You'll also see samples from the art exhibit.  

(Image source: the John C. Weber Collection, image © John Bigelow Taylor)   

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