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The Yoshiwara

The Yoshiwara—a walled and moated brothel district covering about 20 acres—was the sole government-sanctioned brothel district in Edo (present-day Tokyo).
It was first established in 1617, near the center of the city. Forty years later, after fire damaged much of the city, the Yoshiwara was relocated to the northeast edges of Edo.

More than 100 brothels were located within the Yoshiwara’s walls, along with teahouses, shops and other businesses serving the needs of the quarter. At its peak, the quarter housed thousands of prostitutes, most of them sold by poor families in the countryside and brought to the district at age 7 or 8. They began by serving their “sister” courtesans, but if a child attendant showed signs of talent, she would be trained in the etiquette and cultural accomplishments required for an elite courtesan. More commonly, Yoshiwara women ended up as lower-level prostitutes assigned to work in latticed showrooms and stalls throughout the quarter. The Yoshiwara operated until 1958, when the Japanese government outlawed prostitution.

Ignoring the psychological and physical realities of life in the Yoshiwara, floating-world artists constructed idealized, erotically charged images of iconic courtesans and establishments. Seduction: Japan’s Floating World | The John C. Weber Collection invites you to consider this complicated intersection of art and desire—to unpack these beautiful and heavily coded images, discover their richly sensual styles, and reflect on how these dynamic compositions might have seduced potential clients of the quarter.