What it meant to “play” in Yoshiwara

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The Yoshiwara pleasure quarter was an area in the city of Edo that was established at the beginning of the Edo period. Within the city, Yoshiwara fulfilled a purpose similar to today’s red light districts. Within the pleasure quarter, men could meet yūjo (“women of pleasure”) or oiran (“courtesans”) and establish pseudo-romantic relationships with them.

Compared to today’s red light districts, however, Yoshiwara was a rather lofty place. Men could not simply waltz in and receive sex from the women there. The quarter was, above all, a place where “love” took center stage.

For men of the time, the pleasure quarter was a place where they went to buy the “illusion of love”. Essentially, a pleasure quarter at the start of the Edo period was a place where men found a type of love they could not obtain elsewhere.

But why was love so hard to find during the Edo-period? To answer that question, we have to ponder what attracted the citizens of Edo to a place like Yoshiwara in the first place.

The social structure of the early Edo period

A mentioned above, “love” was something that was not so easily obtained at the beginning of the Edo period.

Edo was an artificial city, constructed from the ground-up by design. That means that in its earliest days, Edo was one giant construction site that swarmed with large numbers of male laborers.

As a result, the population of early Edo was characterized by a severe gender imbalance. For every three female inhabitants, the city had no less than seven men. The severe lack of women in Edo was exacerbated by the marriage practices of the wealthy chōja families (families with commoner roots who had become rich), where men often took up to five wives at the same time.

Many men found themselves sentenced to a lifetime of bachelorhood and could only find an illusion of love in the pleasure quarter.

Love in samurai families

For members of samurai families, finding love was also a difficult undertaking.

Long before the Edo period, political marriages of convenience had been the norm for members of samurai families. Many men wound up married to women they were not attracted to and love was generally not expected from a marriage.

The pleasure quarter became a place of salvation for many men from samurai families. We will go into more detail about this later, but spending time in the pleasure quarter was a very costly affair. That men from samurai families still chose to go there is a testament to how strongly they longed for a kind of love that they could not get in their daily lives.

There was, however, another option for samurai outside the pleasure quarter: the practice called shudō. Shudō means love between two men.

The cumbersome workings of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter

How did the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, so beloved by the men of Edo, work exactly? The system was reportedly very different from today’s sex industry.

In order to engage with a yūjo in a pleasure quarter, men had to go through a series of steps. First, they visited a teahouse in the pleasure quarter. Here, introductions were made and men decided which yūjo they wanted to pursue. After that, they could meet their chosen yūjo for the first time.

However, they could not yet engage in carnal relations with the woman. Men first had to make a series of visits to their chosen yūjo.

Reportedly, the yūjo barely even spoke to the men during this long string of visits. In other words, men spent hours sitting in front of the yūjo and speaking to them, without getting any response. This kind of ouse (rendezvous) had to take place at least three times.

Every visit cost the men a predetermined amount of money. On top of that, they also had to pay a kind of tip to the musicians who were present during every visit, playing tunes while the men spoke to the yūjo. In other words, men who took themselves to the pleasure quarter had to spend a significant amount of money long before sex was even on the table.

And when men finally and publicly entered into a relationship with a yūjo, that meant they were bound to continue loving only that yūjo for the rest of their lives. Reportedly, guards of the establishment where a yūjo lived would rough-up male clients if they were found to be “cheating” on their chosen yūjo.

All of this makes the pleasure quarter sounds like a costly, troublesome, and even rather dangerous place. Be that as it may, men still visited the pleasure quarter because they earnestly yearned for love.

When you think about it, “real” love is also troublesome and expensive. What the pleasure quarter did was to take all the ingredients of a romantic relationship and package them into a kind of simulated love that could be offered for sale to customers.