Most people will know Tokyo’s red-light district as Kabukicho, but this wasn’t always the case. Throughout a huge chunk of history, Old Tokyo’s red-light district actually lay nearby to Asakusa, in an area once known as Yoshiwara.
It goes against the grains of social norms today to speak casually and openly about the activities commonly associated with red light districts.
Yet back in the days when Yoshiwara was arguably the most popular destination across Japan, visitors were rampant and it was not uncommon or even stigmatised to marry a woman from the district.
This relatively unknown part of Tokyo’s history is full of eye-opening, albeit some dark, facts that you might find interesting to learn. Let’s discover more Yoshiwara!
History Of Yoshiwara
Whilst most areas of Old Japan have carried over to current areas that exist today, Yoshiwara is not one of them. Circa medieval Japan, prostitution was widespread, and growing. The Edo shogun then confined it to somewhere on the outskirts of today’s Ningyocho.
This became known as Japan’s first ever red-light district.
However, it didn’t last long as in 1657, the Great Fire of Meireki burnt the entire place to the ground. Yoshiwara was then moved to a new district, somewhere within the north of today’s Asakusa, and thus became the greatest entertainment district across all of Edo.
At one point in time, it is believed that Yoshiwara employed more than 9000 women in this district. Most lived out their lives as prostitutes, waiting behind bars at establishments until men chose them to spend the night with. Some, however, were lucky enough to become apprentices to high-ranking oirans and thus were given the chance to become one themselves.
Today, the area of Yoshiwara is a skeleton of the once bright and rowdy district. Building exteriors and secretive doormen whisper at what was once rampant red light district activities. If you do stumble upon the streets of Yoshiwara, you won’t be able to tell what it is if you don’t look close enough.
7 Interesting Facts About Yoshiwara
Here are some interesting facts to eat up about Yoshiwara:
1. It used to be accessible only via a moat
To keep children and criminals out of the district, the area was enclosed and was only accessible via a moat. This was fitting as it was originally a marshland that was drained to build the district.
To visitors coming from the outside, Yoshiwara looked just like a ‘floating world’.
2. By law, patrons were only allowed to stay for 1 night.
Whilst this is technically true, it was never enforced by officials. You would have customers stay at establishments for days on end at a time.
3. Fashion, pop culture and Kabuki trends originated there back in the day
The red-light district of that time was a culmination of sensuality, elicit imagery, colourful costumes and a chance to slip out of reality for a moment or two. It became an unofficial trend-setter for fashion, pop culture and Kabuki of the time.
Read More: 10 Interesting Edo Period Facts
4. The earliest ages of workers arriving at the brothel started at just 12 years old
The sad reality of Yoshiwara was that children as young as 12 years old were sold as indentured servants to the brothers by impoverished parents.
Often, the terms of their contracts meant they were required to serve for between 5-10 years. However, the debts they racked up whilst there often meant that they had to stay there for the rest of their lives.
5. The average life expectancy of women there was around 23 years old
The lack of education of sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) back in those days meant that many practices going on behind closed doors were done so unsafely. This resulted in many courtesans passing at the average age of 23.
Courtesans of those times often went to the shrine to pray for safety.
6. Oiran were the most sought-after positions, both by Yoshiwara prostitutes as well as clients
Oiran were the highest-ranked courtesans of the red-light district. Beauty was a given for them, and their status meant that they were often superbly educated, having learned how to read and write as well as having studied music, the arts and history.
Back in the day, to be in the company of an oiran, you didn’t select them; there was a process to go through in which they would deem you worthy of their time or not.
7. The Anti-Prostitution Act of 1958 made prostitution illegal
From the 17th century until the mid-1900s, Yoshiwara was simply thriving. However, the Japanese government passed the Anti-Prostitution Act in 1958, severing most, if not all, the open activities of the red-light district.
What You Can See in Yoshiwara Today
Whilst prostitution is now deemed illegal, there is still one way to get around it: a “private agreement” between a man and a woman in a brothel is still acceptable. This loophole has allowed for the district to continue its age-old activities, however it’s now mostly behind closed doors and/or underground.
Gone are the days when women would line up behind gates to be chosen; nowadays, reserved doormen would quickly usher in clients who pull up in cars to continue their experience within the confines of the building walls.
The establishments themselves have dwindled down to a small fragment of the number that they used to be, with more and more unrelated businesses popping up around them as time goes by.
Today, prostitution related businesses in Yoshiwara are mostly Soaplands. It’s a place where you get on a mat (usually inflatable) and someone would clean you with soap… everywhere!
A good time to visit would be during mid-April, or second Saturday of April to be exact. This is when the Yoshiwara Matsuri is held annually, and is a great opportunity to witness the oiran parade.
How To Get To Yoshiwara
To get to Yoshiwara today, you will need to head to the Taito Ward of Tokyo. Take the train to Minowa station and alight there to explore the former streets of Yoshiwara.
The old Yoshiwara is gone, but you can explore this area here to get a feel for what it was.
If you’re a history buff and want to witness first hand a district that has helped shape many aspects of Japan’s entertainment and pop culture, we highly suggest you give Yoshiwara a visit!