Women of the pleasure quarters: A Japanese painted screen on view at the British Museum

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Women of the pleasure quarters: A Japanese painted screen on view at the British Museum
Utagawa Toyoharu (attributed to), Courtesans of the Tamaya House, a screen painting, Japan, Edo period, late AD 1770s or early 1780s. Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- This beautiful large-scale painted screen evokes the world of pleasure and entertainment created for men in Japan of the Edo period (1600-1868). During this time almost every aspect of daily life was regulated by a military government promoting duty and hard work, but the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo) of the brothel and theatre districts presented a more seductive message – surrender to the pleasures of the moment.

The message of the ‘floating world’ became a central theme of city life and culture, particularly during the relatively liberal 1780s, when the screen was painted. Combining evidence from popular prints and specialised guidebooks, this exhibition offers insights into the culture, etiquette, and sexual economy of the so-called ‘pleasure quarters’ (yūkaku) of the period. The screen depicts five high-ranking courtesans (oiran), or female sex workers, seated on a red carpet and accompanied by four pairs of ‘trainees’ (shinzō) dressed in matching robes with long hanging sleeves. The women are presenting themselves to attract clients in a display room (harimise) at Kado-Tamaya, a brothel within Yoshiwara – the most famous brothel district of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Their faces are idealised, rather than portraits, and are done in the style of Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1814), who is thought to be the painter of the screen.

Yoshiwara was designed for the entertainment of bureaucrats and wealthy merchants seeking to escape the burdens of officialdom and military regulation. Surrounded by a wall and moat – and locked at night – the quarter functioned as a city within a city. Its permanent residents included several thousand courtesans, alongside many other brothel and teahouse employees, both men and women. Visitors included men of all ranks, among them soldiers and officials (samurai), who were required to leave their long swords at the gate. When the screen was made Yoshiwara was also a meeting place for Edo’s cultural elite. A girl typically entered the quarter between the ages of 10 to 15 as a child servant, usually after being sold by her impoverished family. While the relatives received a lump sum, the daughter was generally contracted for ten years. During this time she would receive training in polite arts, ranging from calligraphy and the performance of the traditional tea ceremony, to flower arranging and poetry. Musically, her studies usually focused on the three-stringed shamisen, the main instrument of the pleasure quarters. In her mid-teens she would become a trainee sex worker, joining the courtesans in the display room. Through good looks, charm and accomplishments, a courtesan could earn a high reputation, not only within her brothel, but throughout Yoshiwara.

The most prestigious courtesan names (myōseki) were handed down to successive well-regarded courtesans. One such was Komurasaki, who appears in the screen. She is identifiable by the crane with outstretched wings decorating a small lacquer box, located near her at the front of the scene. Komurasaki’s bird emblem is also shown in a picture album, and her name features in a Yoshiwara guide published in 1783, about the time the screen was painted. Apart from these few tantalising facts, however, nothing is known of her personal life. This is generally true for other famous Yoshiwara courtesans too. In reality, a courtesan’s life could be fraught with difficulties, such as maintaining a steady clientele, and physical hardships including malnutrition, venereal disease and unplanned pregnancy.

Today the art of the ‘floating world’ is known mostly through woodblock prints and hanging scrolls. This is one of only a few surviving screens to depict the subject. As a work of art, this screen offers important insights into the Edo period, one of the most fascinating and complex periods in Japanese history.

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