Yūjo (“women of pleasure”) existed long before the Edo period and played a key role in the development of Japan’s rich sex culture. This culture was obviously considered something elegant and refined, rather than something vulgar.
This means that yūjo had to be elegant and refined women. Especially high-class yūjo, such as the tayū or the tenjin, had to be the very embodiment of all the qualities of a true yūjo. These women worked day and night so they could excel at their jobs.
Simply ensuring that they had a pleasing and stylish appearance was not enough; everyday actions were performed according to set rules, and they always had to remain highly aware of the roles they played.
Let us take a peek at what kind of yūjo were popular in the yūkaku (the “pleasure quarters” where yūjo worked), and what the immense efforts these women had to put into their jobs.
What kind of yūjo were popular during the Edo period?
The Edo period was probably the golden age of pleasure quarter culture. During the Edo period, an atmosphere of sensual pleasure pervaded society. The Life of an Amorous Man, a novel of the time by famous writer Ihara Saikaku, describes this ambience beautifully. This atmosphere is thought to have been based on, and popularized by, the refined culture that flourished in the pleasure quarters.
The Edo period’s most celebrated yūjo were those who came from what is now called the Kansai region of Japan – more precisely, those who came from the city of Kyoto.
Even today, women from Kyoto are still considered particularly lovely and elegant in Japan. This idealized image of the Kyoto woman already existed in the Edo period.
There were also yūjo who hailed from the Tohoku region, the rest of the Kantō region outside of Edo proper, and from the Hokuriku region. However, these women were much less popular because they were considered “vulgar”. This was not simply thoughtless discrimination. At the time, one’s birthplace tended to have a strong impact on one’s appearance.
It was fairly common for women from poor farming villages to be sold to the pleasure quarters. These were women who had led a very different life from city girls. Food culture was a particularly strong point of difference between the countryside and the city, with most rural food being quite hard and tough.
Women who grew up eating this kind of food had rounder faces, because the muscles of their jaws were more developed after years of having to chew hard. By contrast, women who grew up eating higher-quality city food had more slender faces – or so it was said.
In the Edo period, it was also considered attractive for a woman to be tall. Every now and then, it became fashionable for women to wear high wooden clogs that made them seem taller, much like high heels today.
The high value of “quality of one’s character”
Women who wanted to become high-class yūjo not only needed an impeccable appearance and an excellent sense of style, but also “quality of character”.
Yūjo of the time had to make their clients feel like they were courting a woman who was far out of their league. That means that it was not proper for yūjo to do things like laugh loudly or go to bed earlier than their clients.
While it was acceptable for a yūjo to have a somewhat bashful personality, they were not allowed to laugh no matter how funny something was, and were not allowed to sleep early even if their clients claimed not to mind.
By today’s standards, this “character” that was required of yūjo may sound a little standoffish. However, men of the time reportedly found such behavior extremely attractive.
The one thing that yūjo were absolutely never allowed to do in front of clients under any circumstances, however, was passing gas.
Even today, to pass gas in front of people is considered very impolite. In Edo-period Japan, however, accidentally passing gas just once was enough to leave a person open to a lifetime of ridicule.
Still, there were quite a few clients who would have treated such a faux pas from their yūjo as a pleasant surprise. Taking pleasure in someone else’s shame is not very kind, back then and now, but that would not have kept some clients from feeling delight when a woman who is normally completely unflappable embarrasses herself in front of him.
It should be clear by now that yūjo had to put up with quite a lot in order to maintain their position. It is no wonder that their profession was so highly regarded in Edo-period Japan.