The Floating World of the Yoshiwara

by Bruce Boynton

Several summers ago, when I was working in Lansing, Michigan, I developed a fever and sore throat, and set off one evening to find some miso soup to ease the pain. I came upon a small Japanese restaurant, staffed entirely by Occidentals in badly fitting imitation kimonos, and boasting both a sports bar and a sushi bar; something for everyone.


However, the miso soup and tempura were excellent, and as I sat staring vacantly at the Hispanic sushi rollers, my attention was drawn to a large painting behind the bar. In it a woman lounged against a limb laden with cherry blossoms, her willowy figure echoing the gentle curve of the branch. Her features were delicate and her robes colourful and elaborate. It was a beautiful   composition but I had the gnawing feeling that something was wrong. Her dress was elaborately decorated, such as might be worn by a maiko (apprentice geisha, see a photo of maiko), but it was quilted and the woman was no adolescent. Her ornate coiffeur, adorned with eight tortoise shell pins, was unlike either the shimada style of the mature geisha or the wareshinobu style of the maiko. And horror of horrors, her obi was tied in the front!

Suddenly the truth dawned upon me … It’s a hooker!

Well, not exactly a hooker; the more accurate term would be a high-ranking courtesan of the Yoshiwara.

During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries the red-light district of Edo, known as the Yoshiwara, became the centre of a vibrant urban culture known as the ukiyo or the Floating World. This era in Japanese history, known as the Tokugawa period, followed a century of civil war, and saw resurgence in literature and the arts. New forms of poetry were introduced, such as haiku and senryu, as well as Kabuki theater, puppet theatre, sumo wrestling, wood block prints (ukiyo-e), and a new genre of fiction (ukiyo-zoshi). The term ukiyo was expropriated from Buddhist theology where it referred to the impermanence of life and worldly pleasures. Whereas the Buddhist maxim concluded that one must spend one’s life in spiritual pursuits to assure one’s place in the Western Paradise, new authors such as Asai Ryoi (1612-1691) turned this teaching on its head. In Tales of the Floating World, the protagonist, a Buddhist priest, leads a life of debauchery and pleasure-seeking and still gains enlightenment in the end. The denizens of Floating World embraced the earthy pleasures because of life’s impermanence. This attitude was captured in the tanka of a much earlier poet.

Because they fall
we love them –
the cherry blossoms.
In this floating world
does anything endure?

Ariwara no Narihira (823-880)

The Tokugawa shogunate established the Yoshiwara in 1617 in an attempt to control prostitution in the new capital of Edo by restricting it to a single quarter. The name Yoshiwara means “field of rushes” and referred to the swampy and mosquito-infested site designated by the authorities. The Yoshiwara and much of the rest of Edo was destroyed in the great fire of 1657 and a new pleasure quarter was rebuilt in a walled enclosure two hours north of the city along the Sumida River, complete with 200 establishments and 3000 licensed ladies. The new Yoshiwara was surrounded by a moat and had a single entrance, which was locked and guarded. For the women inside there was no way out.

Only through the Great Gate
the courtesans
peep at the world. 1

These violets!
How the courtesans must want
to see the spring fields! 2

Attitudes toward love and marriage in medieval Japan were quite different than those held today. A woman’s domain was inside the house (uchi), a man’s outside (soto). The purpose of marriage was to form alliances and continue the family line, not romance. Falling in love with one’s wife was considered a bit unseemly. John Gallagher quotes a saying of the time: Keep love where it belongs … in the brothel. 3 This probably explains the following Senryu.

Making much
of his wife –
a painful sight! 4

The courtesans of the Yoshiwara, though prostitutes, were women of style and sophistication and were often highly educated. They wrote letters, danced, sang and played multiple musical instruments. They had celebrity status, and women throughout Japan copied their dress just as modern women copy movie stars.

About 1750 a courtesan named Kiku renounced the sex trade and became the first geisha or arts person, thereby initiating a new cultural tradition. Geisha, at least when acting as geisha, were not prostitutes; they were professional musicians, dancers and entertainers.

Courtesans and geisha existed side by side in the Yoshiwara, each with separate and distinct styles of dress and art. Geisha wore kimono and tied their obi in back, indicating they were not sexually available, whereas courtesans wore quilted robes and tied the obi in front. Geisha played the shamisen whereas courtesans played the traditional kokyu.

The poetry of the Floating World, like its art, was gritty and realistic and dealt with life as it is rather than as we would wish it. Because Edo street life was so familiar to their readers, the poets of the Floating World did not feel the need to explain things and many of their allusions are unknown to modern readers. Consider these examples which, without insight, are totally obscure to modern readers:

The second night
she sits
several inches nearer. 5

Strange as it seems, a high-class courtesan, or tayu, had to be wooed. An interested visitor first visited a teahouse inside the Yoshiwara and asked for the courtesan he fancied. The proprietor sent a letter of request to the courtesan, who usually lived a few blocks away. While awaiting her reply the suitor was expected to buy sake for his friends and hire musicians to entertain the company. The tayu, would arrive in great style, accompanied by the female supervisor of her house, one or two kamuro (child prostitutes who served as pages), a shinzo (adolescent courtesan in training), a male employee who carried the courtesan’s bedding, and occasionally a geisha. See historic photos of tayu and kamuro here. When the courtesan entered the teahouse she was seated in the place of honour and she and the client went through a simplified version of the wedding ceremony. Everything was very formal. And this was only the beginning. No self-respecting courtesan would make love to a client until the third visit, if then.

Having deceived his mother
he goes off
to be deceived himself. 6

He deceived his mother about where he was going and is about to be flattered and deceived by the courtesans he will visit.

The priest earns
all the money and the doctor
fritters it away. 7

Visitors to the Yoshiwara often disguised themselves; in fact shops near the entrance to the quarter did a thriving business in providing such disguises. In this poem the priest has disguised himself as a doctor.

With wriggling worms
for bait, the courtesan
fishes for men. 8

Earthworms were a frequent metaphor for the cursive form of Japanese handwriting. Higher-class courtesans sometimes wrote letters to their favourites to encourage more frequent rendezvous. This is reminiscent of the practice among the nobility of the ancient Heian court who exchanged tanka in the pursuit of lovers.

Twenty-seven comes
driving away
thirty-three. 9

The man has divorced his wife to marry a courtesan who was released from her period of indenture at age 27. Because of their beauty and refinement, ex-courtesans were eagerly sought as marriage partners.

A clever wife:
she makes him take their child
on his blossom viewing. 10

Cherry trees were planted in the middle of the main street that led from the Great Gate (O-mon) into the Yoshiwara (see a Hiroshige woodblock print here). The trees bloom in the first week of April, and when lit by lanterns and seen against the night sky, the matted blossoms form a cumulous mass of great beauty. In this poem the wife uses a stratagem to ensure her husband’s blossom viewing does not lead to other activities.

The wife comes back,
having fallen in love
with the kamuro. 11

“How wonderful is human nature!” comments R.H. Blyth. A wife visited the Yoshiwara to see what all the fuss is about, and ends up charmed by the beauty and grace of the kamuro. Despite their indentured status promising kamuro were treated kindly and taught deportment, koto (harp), ikebana (flower arrangement), incense burning and tea ceremony.

Sold by filial duty
by undutifulness. 12

Young girls were often sold into prostitution by their poverty-stricken families. Tokugawa mores (and Confucian precepts) applauded such sacrifices on the part of young girls. In this poem the girl sacrifices herself because of filial duty but her debts are paid and she is redeemed by a young man who is spending his inheritance in an undutiful manner.

The night she was redeemed,
she feels as if
she had been sold. 13

A young prostitute’s debts are paid and she is free, but strangely, she feels as if she has been sold into slavery again.

Smiling at the nun
with no little finger,
She just smiles. 14

The nun was formerly a courtesan and cut off her little finger in a pledge of undying devotion to her lover. At the end of her indenture she was released and became a Buddhist nun. The man knows this and the nun knows he knows. Hence, no words are needed.

She goes to see the face
her husband is
mad about. 15

“This,” says Blyth, “is perhaps the shortest short story ever written.” A woman peeps into a male paradise and finds her own private hell.

The magnet points to the Yoshiwara
from any place whatsoever. 16

“This,” says Blyth, “is Freud’s doctrine in a nutshell.”

In its opulence and entertainments the quarter emulated Heian court life of 794-1185. Sex per se was easily attainable, but what aficionados longed for was glitter, romance, and an escape from the strictures of Tokugawan life. The Yoshiwara offered all these and more. The Yoshiwara was already in decline by the beginning of the Meiji Period in 1868, and in 1958, when the government made prostitution illegal, the Yoshiwara closed its doors forever.

Despite all it stood for, the Yoshiwara made an indelible imprint on the art and literature of the nation as well as on the thousands who spent their time and money and left their hearts there.

Cold winter rain
In the sky,
the red Yoshiwara. 17



1 Blyth, R.H. Japanese Life and Character in Senryu (Hokuseido Press: Tokyo, 1961).

2 Blyth, R.H. Haiku vol. 4 (Hokuseido Press: Tokyo, 1971).

3 Gallagher, John. Geisha (PRC Publishing Ltd: London, 2003).

4 Blyth, R.H. Japanese Life and Character in Senryu.

5 Blyth, R.H. Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies (Hokuseido Press: Tokyo, 1961).

6 Blyth, R.H. Japanese Life and Character in Senryu.

7 Ueda, Makoto. Light Verse from the Floating World (Columbia University Press, New York, 1999).

8 Ibid.

9 Blyth, R.H. Japanese Life and Character in Senryu.

10 Ibid.

11 Blyth, R.H. Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies.

12 Blyth, R.H. Japanese Life and Character in Senryu.

13 Ibid.

14 Blyth, R.H. Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses (Hokuseido Press: Tokyo, 1949).

15 Blyth, R.H. Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies.

16 Ibid.

17 Blyth, R.H. Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses. 

Further Reading

De Becker, J E. The Nightless City, Geisha and courtesan life in old Tokyo (Dover: Mineola, 2007).

Downer, L. Women of the Pleasure Quarter. (Broadway Books: New York, 2001).

Lane, R. Images from the Floating World (William S Konecky Assoc.: Old Saybrook, CT, 1995).

Ringdal, NJ. Love for Sale: a world history of prostitution (Grove Press: NY, 1997).

Seigle, CS. Yoshiwara, the glittering world of the Japanese courtesan. (University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1993).

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Prune Juice 11 (November 2013) and appears here with the permission of the author.

Bruce Boynton is the former features editor of Prune Juice, an online journal of senryu, kyoka, haiga and haibun, and is the current editor of The Journal of Health and Human Experience. His senryu and kyoka have been widely published. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi and La Mesa, California.