Medieval Japan was rife with wars between the great clans. The Tokugawa family took control in 1600, after which came the 250 years of peace we call the Edo period. This time was characterized by a rigid class structure and the “closing” of Japan to other nations. The classes were: samurai, peasants, and artisans, with merchants at the very bottom.
The Tokugawa family moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo, (now Tokyo). The lords were suppressed through a clever combination of enforced neoconfucian values of loyalty and order, and a system requiring them to maintain two residencies, one in their domain, and the other in Edo. The expenses involved ensured that they could not afford to wage wars.
A by-product of the system of two residences was the rise of the city of Edo, full of idle samurai needing entertainment and with a growing merchant class that came in from the countryside to supply them. This burgeoning city culture with its newfound freedoms—despite official censorship and banning—eventually led to the toppling of the feudal order.
The growth of a new money economy gave unexpected power to merchants, whose temporary escape, urban festivities, and pleasures developed around the “floating world” of the Yoshiwara. Ukiyo-e pictures and books captured that world. Prints conveyed new codes of social power—fashion, actors, festivals and kabuki theatre. Many displayed attitudes of delight in the body and in sexual play.
Ukiyo-e prints were extremely popular, and the bakufu regularly set out edicts limiting or criminalizing their production. They were never successful.
Some words about the Yoshiwara:
As a centre for licensed prostitution the Yoshiwara endured for centuries, both tolerated and officially despised. A culture developed there which has been said to represent “the brightest and darkest aspects of Japanese life during Edo.” It was to a degree a bohemian and rebellious enclave, full of artists and writers who opposed the ancient ways. And yet the enslavement of women was its operating principle: girls as young as six were sold and kept there, forced to pay the wages of their prostitution back to their owners.
It had its own colourful dialect, where sentences ended with “there is.” The courtesans’, or prostitutes dressing, and looking at life fascinated the rest of the city. Yellow-cover books told stories about the lives of the characters who lived there. The ukiyo-e prints of beautiful women who were courtesans glamorized what was in fact a remorselessly cruel life; prostitutes were worked half to death and only sent home if they were about to die. It was not until 1872 that a law was passed forbidding the trade in human beings. Specifically it said that owners could not demand payments from cows and horses, so why could they do the same from prostitutes and geisha who they had bought? The Ct came to be known as the “Cattle Release Act.”
Many books exist on these topics. To name a few:
Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680- 1860, ed, Julia Meech and Jane Oliver, University of Washington Press
Art of Edo Japan, Christine Guth Yale University Press
Yoshiwara, Cecilia Seigle, University of Hawaii Press (1993)
Hokusai and His Age, ed John T Carpenter, Hotei Publishing 2005
Ukiyoe, Gian Carlo Calza, Phaidon