Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans, and the Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo


5.0 out of 5 stars Lust will not keep. Something must be done about it

It is amazing to me that a place like the Yoshiwara actually existed. An island of sensual pleasure surrounded on all sides by a moat, the only entrance way being through the guarded gates. At the gates, all weapons and social status were checked, and inside was a different realm where the only significant status was the amount of coin you carried, where peasant could pass drinking cups to a lord on one side and a priest on the other, and everything you could see was for sale; it was only a matter of negotiating the price. When you hear stories of the Yoshiwara, if you are a moralist you are filled with deep disgust, but if you tend to the hedonistic side of life you are filled with a bitter envy that such a paradise no longer exists.

Authors Stephen and Ethel Longstreet seem to fall somewhat in between the two sides. Longtime collectors and commentators on art (Stephen Longstreet wrote the various “Drawings of…” Master Draughtsman Series , such as Drawings of Raphael and Drawings of Goya ) they amassed a collection of ukiyo-e woodblock prints dealing with the Nightless City of the Yoshiwara, where the finest artists of Japan made their home.

Written in 1970, “Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans, and the Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo” compiles all that the Longstreets have learned during their collecting, which includes manuscripts and tourist guides written during the height of the Yoshiwara. As collectors of erotica, the Longstreets seem to have a hedonistic streak themselves, although the language of the book is tinged with words like “perversions” and “sins,” one senses that they admired more than condemned the society that created and approved of an island whose sole permanent inhabitants were prostitutes and their keepers.

The Longstreets share their insight, quoting long passages from these ancient manuscripts and tourists guides in an attempt to give you an honest look at the Yoshiwara, what it was and also what it was not. They frame a picture of a country that did not know sexual sin, and where it was felt that indulging in physical pleasure was a natural and necessary part of life but one better contained it on a single island rather running rampant. At a time when every aspect of Japanese society was regulated, the Yoshiwara provided the only zone of freedom of indulgence and expression, where the only rules were a prohibition against violence and failing to pay your bill.

All aspects of the Yoshiwara are presented, from the high-ranked courtesans known as the Oiran, or the “Castle Toppers” for their ability to bring down even a Lord with their beauty and abilities, to the non-prostitute Geisha (both male and female) who provided song and dancing entertainment before sending their guests of the final event of the evening. There is the hard life of the low-ranking simple prostitutes, serving the needs of those who could not afford the veneer and fineries that accompanied a night with an Oiran, and open acceptance of homosexuality and lesbianism, of sex toys and bondage games that seem like modern inventions but are as old as time.

The Longstreets do not hide that most of these women were sold by their parents at a young age into the world of the Yoshiwara, but shows us through their diaries that most of them did not despise their profession. The book details the religious practices and dreams of the lovely ladies, and what they dreamed and gossiped about during the day before the customers came. Concepts like sexual shame and romantic love would not appear later when the Americans came in to Japan and were shocked at the openness of what they saw, and forced the Yoshiwara closed.

In fact, the Western letters home are some of the most interesting parts of this book. They are dripping with superiority and condemnation, but also show a familiarity with the Yoshiwara betraying that they were more than simple observers. The biggest difference between the Western societies and Japan was the façade of “morality,” where one would condemn in public the very thing that one did in private. Times have not changed very much.

I loved reading “Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans, and the Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo.” The Longstreets approach is one that is half-scholar, half-ribald storyteller and the mix is just right for the subject. There is probably a more in-depth and scholarly analysis of the citizens of Yoshiwara I have no doubt, but few that are as readable and fun.

And just in case you couldn’t tell, I fall firmly in the camp of those filled with bitter, bitter envy…


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