The birth of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter

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The Yoshiwara area is the most famous red light district in the history of Tokyo. While the neighborhood is no longer called Yoshiwara today, it is still home to a large concentration of brothels.

The history of Yoshiwara can be traced back to the start of the Edo period. It is believed that Yoshiwara began to develop almost at the same time as Edo became a true city.

Let us take a look at how Yoshiwara came into being.

Why did the Tokugawa shogunate establish the city of Edo in the Kantō plain?

In order to understand the emergence of Yoshiwara, we must first understand why a city was established in the Kantō plain in the first place.

Before the Edo period, the Kantō plain was no more than a remote backcountry. While the plain was dotted with some settlements, it was a very rural area that contained not a single noteworthy city. For the authorities of the time, Kantō was rather ideal as a backcountry to which they could banish troublesome retainers.

In the second half of the 16th century, Japan was ruled by the Toyotomi administration. The Tokugawa family were among the Toyotomi clan’s most unruly retainers. The Toyotomi ended up banishing the Tokugawa to the Kantō plain, for little reason except to harass them.

However, the Toyotomi clan was later crushed in battle, and the Tokugawa established the Tokugawa shogunate. Having consolidated their power over all of Japan, the Tokugawa resolved to build a city that would reflect their authority: Edo.

Out of reach for common men: the women of Yoshiwara

Edo had to be built from nothing, and construction of the city was soon mired in difficulties. The main cause was a dire lack of labor. Even people from high-ranking samurai families all had work on public construction projects.

Large numbers of laborers ended up gathering in Edo. Because the initial need was mostly for male laborers, the population of Edo skewed strongly male in these first years: there were only three women for every seven men.

That was when yūjo (women of pleasure) began to gather in the location that would later become the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. However, these women were not there to service the laborers who had come from far and wide to build the city.

Anyone who wanted to have sex with a Yoshiwara woman had to visit the area at least three times first. Until they had completed this quest, men did not even get to see a woman, let alone have sex with her. During every visit to Yoshiwara, the men had to pay large sums of money.

It stands to reason that this procedure put the Yoshiwara women well out of reach for the vast majority of laborers working in Edo.

The Yoshiwara pleasure quarter gets official status

During the rule of Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, the yūjo of Yoshiwara were not formally recognized entities just yet. Still, the authorities quietly tolerated there activities, and the women were never subjected to official crackdowns.

However, Ieyasu retired as shogun almost immediately after he took the position and spent most of the rest of his life in Sumpu (the present-day city of Shizuoka). Sumpu was home to a yūkaku (pleasure quarter) called Keisei.

Keisei operated under the patronage of Ieyasu, making it a formally recognized pleasure quarter. However, historical records reveal that after Ieyasu’s death, Keisei’s inhabitants packed up and moved their activities to the city of Edo.

One possible reason for the move is that maintaining public order in the unstable pleasure quarters tended to be a difficult undertaking, and the then-shogun Tokugawa Hidetada wanted to bring Keisei into Edo’s jurisdiction in order to control the pleasure quarter more efficiently.

Another reason is that after Ieyasu’s death, the shogunate moved to strongly regulate sexual activity. Installing the inhabitants of Keisei in Yoshiwara, and making it the only officially recognized place of prostitution, was part of that move towards increased control. All forms of prostitution outside of Yoshiwara were prohibited by the shogunate, and the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter was thus officialized.

It was established mainly so that the shogunate could forbid prostitution in all other places. Creating a designated prostitution quarter in order to regulate prostitution may sound like a rather odd strategy. However, the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter went on to develop a unique culture of its own over its long history.

Even today, Yoshiwara is still a popular area. With its wide variety of brothels and its fascinating history, Yoshiwara is one of the better-hidden tourist attractions of Tokyo.