Edo’s Floating World District

The newly established Tokugawa shoguns, who were consolidating power in Japan, also legalized and regulated a blended urban environment of prostitution and the arts, including drama, dance, and music. Idle samurai and merchants of the capital were thus relieved from boredom and tension, which also kept them out of trouble. Through several centuries, the unique atmosphere of the Floating World district stimulated the development of major genres of fine and performing arts in Japan that blended traditions of elite Japanese culture with more-colorful popular styles.

Summary of Event

With peace and prosperity in the first decade of the seventeenth century, the capital of the new Tokugawa shogunate Tokugawa shogunate;Edo in Japan, Edo Edo , expanded rapidly and was soon bustling with merchants as well as samurai, the feudal knights that were now united in the shogun’s service. To maintain power, the shogun required that the samurai stay in the capital for extended periods, which attracted prostitutes, some of whom also were skilled in dance or other forms of art. With peace, though, came boredom and a demand for entertainment. One of the earliest of the popular entertainers in Edo was Izumo no Okuni Izumo no Okuni , a former shrine maiden and courtesan. Okuni created provocative dances that celebrated the sexually charged atmosphere of the time. Out of her creation came Kabuki Kabuki theater. [kw]Edo’s Floating World District (1617)
[kw]Floating World District, Edo’s (1617)
Cultural and intellectual history;1617: Edo’s Floating World District[0720]
Organizations and institutions;1617: Edo’s Floating World District[0720]
Laws, acts, and legal history;1617: Edo’s Floating World District[0720]
Government and politics;1617: Edo’s Floating World District[0720]
Japan;1617: Edo’s Floating World District[0720]
Floating World district (Japan)

It did not take long for government authorities to become concerned about the criminal behavior and public disturbances associated with the brothels, dance performances, and skits. They preferred an orderly and controllable society, and so decided to license and restrict prostitution and popular entertainment to special zones near major cities. These walled areas were based on Chinese models developed during China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Edo’s entertainment center, established in a wetland area by Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada Tokugawa Hidetada in 1617, was called the Yoshiwara (field of reeds). To manage the Yoshiwara, Hidetada chose Jinemon Shoji Jinemon Shoji , a prominent brothel owner who had led a group of associates in petitioning Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu for the regulation of prostitution. Similar entities existed in other Japanese cities: the Shimabara in Kyōto and the Shinmachi inŌsaka.

The first Yoshiwara was relatively small. The entire structure, with high walls and a single gate for entry and exit, was designed to make it easy for government agents to keep track of potentially troublesome characters and for brothel owners to prevent their prostitutes (many of whom were kept against their will) from escaping. From the beginning, the rules were very strict. Courtesans could not travel except to visit gravely ill relatives, and they could go beyond the walls of the district only once per year to attend the cherry blossom festival. No guest could stay beyond a single evening, and brothel keepers were required to report any suspicious person immediately.

In spite of these restrictions, culture flourished in this new environment. While the government encouraged an inflexible division of classes and social functions, the Yoshiwara offered a chance for people to step outside these roles. With the right combination of beauty, artistic skill, and psychological manipulation, a clever prostitute could rise to the status of tayu, who would be showered with gifts but could decline propositions. There was a considerable overlap between the roles of the most prestigious courtesans and female hostess-entertainers known as geisha, who were talented in the arts and well versed in poetry, chess, and other subjects. At the other extreme were those forced to serve multiple clients in a single evening. In general, an air of mystery and glamour prevailed, in which patrons could hide their identities under straw hats sold for that purpose. A complex system of etiquette emerged, which prolonged and delayed the consummation of relationships, often causing wealthy merchants to lose their entire fortunes in the pursuit of pleasure.

Encouraged by Jinemon Shoji, performers of music and dance flourished in the district as well. A special genre of song, the kouta, Kouta was developed by the geisha. Kouta performers would accompany their own singing with the samisen. Rather than use the heavy plectrum to play the instrument, the geisha would pluck the strings with her fingers, producing a more delicate sound. Music;Japan Both male and female actors built upon the popular dances and plays developed by Izumo no Okuni, who had blended upper-class and vernacular elements in a style that was described as kabuki. At first, kabuki was an adjective suggesting something outside the norm, but the word was eventually applied to the exciting new genre that combined music, dance, and theater. Kabuki became the main performance genre in the district. In 1629, after samurai began fighting over the Kabuki actresses (who were also prostitutes), the government, under the third Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu (r. 1623-1651) banned women from performing on the stage, and public performances were taken over by all-male troupes of actors, including handsome young boys playing female roles. Theater;Japan
Women;Japanese performers

This society and lifestyle of sensual pleasure soon came to be known as the ukiyo (floating world), a term used by the writer Asai Ryōi Asai Ryōi (1612-1691) in his tales of the Floating World district. Originally a Buddhist term denoting the transience of everything, ukiyo’s meaning changed (or evolved) to “transient pleasure seeking.” It also came to represent a new genre of art called ukiyo-e
Ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world). Depicting everyday life in Edo (scenes with courtesans, Kabuki actors, and dancers), these pictures, mostly woodblock prints, were popular with the townsman class of merchants and artisans. Hishikawa Moronobu Hishikawa Moronobu , the “father” of ukiyo-e, refined the technique of woodblock printing Printing;woodblock for mass production, thus generating affordable artwork. The ukiyo-e tradition continued into the next century with artists such as Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Utamaro. Art;Japan

In 1657, a terrible fire destroyed the entire Yoshiwara complex. The district was then rebuilt in a much larger area of almost 20 acres, with its walls enclosed in a moat. Its streets were lined with willow trees—associated in literature with prostitution—and cherry trees, whose blossoms suggested the transient beauty of life. The people of Yoshiwara set trends in fashion, arts, and language that spread through urban Japan. While most people could not afford courtesans, Kabuki theater was very accessible. Ukiyo-e glamorized the Yoshiwara celebrities, stimulated the fantasies of the general population, and fascinated observers with gossip and stories about the actors, courtesans, and patrons.


By the early nineteenth century, the Yoshiwara was declining because of competition from illegal prostitution. However, its art forms flourished in new contexts. On March 31, 1854, Japan and the United States signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened Japan to foreign trade, thus ending more than two centuries of Japanese isolation. Soon, Japanese objects and woodblock prints flowed into Europe, where a craze developed for all things Japanese. In 1872, the French art critic Philippe Burty coined the term “Japonisme” to describe the Japanese influence on French art and design. Many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists admired Japanese woodblock prints and assimilated ukiyo-e subject matter, modeling, and design elements into their own works. The Japanese influence is apparent in works by Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.

The Yoshiwara burned to the ground during the bombing of Tokyo by the United States in March, 1945, and hundreds of the women who were locked inside perished. Yoshiwara later opened for business, but it was shut down after prostitution became illegal in Japan in 1958. However, some illicit sex trade continued in the neighborhood, now officially renamed Senzoku. The more positive cultural achievements of the old Yoshiwara live on worldwide through the continued cultivation and oral transmission of Yoshiwara’s artistic and performance genres, including Kabuki and kouta.

Further Reading

  • American Haiku Archives. The Floating World: An Evocation of Old Japan. New York: Universe Books, 1989. A collection of Edo period poetry. Illustrated with ukiyo-e prints.
  • De Becker, J. E. The Nightless City of the Geisha. New York: Kegan Paul, 2002. A fascinating in-depth account of the Yoshiwara geishas and courtesans. Illustrated. Bibliography.
  • Downer, Lesley. The Secret History of the Geisha: Women of the Pleasure Quarters. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. A very readable intimate portrait, including stories of the Yoshiwara geisha. Illustrated. Glossary and bibliography.
  • Kita, Sandy et al. The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dreams, and Substance. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. This text showcases ukiyo-e works in the Library of Congress. Illustrated. Bibliography.
  • Lane, Richard. Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print. New York: Dorset Press, 1978. An illuminating account of ukiyo-e. Illustrated dictionary. Bibliography.
  • Neuer, Roni, and Herbert Libertson. Ukiyo-e: Two Hundred Fifty Years of Japanese Art. New York: Mayflower Books, 1979. A comprehensive book with beautiful color illustrations, a chronology, and a bibliography.
  • Seigle, Cecilia Segawa. Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993. An impartial, comprehensive study based on both historical and literary sources. Illustrated. Bibliography.
  • Swinton, Elizabeth de Sabato. The Women of the Pleasure Quarter: Japanese Paintings and Prints of the Floating World. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1995. This book features more than two hundred pieces of artwork depicting the Edo pleasure quarters. Includes a bibliography.

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Hishikawa Moronobu; Tokugawa Ieyasu. Floating World district (Japan)