The floating world on Wanton Weekends

Last week’s post was about a woman of business at the top of her profession. For today, I’m moving to the other side of the Eurasian land-mass, two thousand years forward in time, and to the bottom of the pecking order.

In 17th Century Japan, new laws restricted brothels to specific quarters, where they could be regulated and taxed. Men regarded a visit to ‘the floating world’ as an opportunity to escape their highly regulated lives. Their wives were expected to dress modestly and serve their husbands. For passion and love, the warriors, merchants, and lords of Japan looked to the floating world.

Women were sold into the brothels, often from poor farmer or fisher families, aged 7 or 8, and grew up doing chores and tending the courtesans. Compared to where they came from, the brothels were better – sufficient food, light work, a clean place to sleep.

Those that showed ability began their courtesan training at 11 or 12. A courtesan needed to be well read, talented at music and drawing, able to entertain in and out of bed. Every lesson they learned; every item of clothing they wore, every hairclip and pot of cosmetics was charged to the debt they owed the brothel.

Once they ‘graduated’ (by having their virginity auctioned to the highest bidder), they worked long hours, even when they were sick or menstruating. They had quotas to fill, with most of the purchase fee for their time going to the brothel and little finding its way into their hands.

Their only hope of a different life was to attract the attention of someone willing and able to buy their debt.

Some, of course, reached the top of their profession, becoming high-ranking courtesans with some choice about who they entertained. Most remained low-ranking prostitutes, available to lower-ranked and poorer men. In Yoshigawa in 1642, 102 courtesans were listed, compared to 881 prostitutes.

Many prostitutes died by the time they were 20, of venereal disease or lead poisoning from the cosmetics they wore, or during or after childbirth. In one graveyard, more than 21,000 prostitutes were buried ‘without connection’; that is, without anyone to pay their funeral costs.

For more, see:…/the-tragic-life-of-the-c…/


7 thoughts on “The floating world on Wanton Weekends

    • Yes. And even those who are not coerced into prostitution are probably not there because they want to be. Some courtesans may have been able to parlay their skills into wealth and social standing, though most don’t. But it is still not a desirable career choice. And even where prostitution has been legal and sanctioned, and men have been expected to avail themselves of the service, it is still seen as something to keep secret, and to keep from the ears of ‘respectable’ women. In this morning’s newspaper, we had an article about a New Zealand real estate agent who failed to obey the law that requires all clients having sex with a prostitute to wear a condom. He fought for and lost the right to name suppression. The judge said the man would be embarrassed by disclosure but not destroyed, since prostitution is legal in New Zealand. The man says his life has been destroyed. He has resigned his job, and feels he needs to move town.

  1. Thanks, Jude. A lot of this awful stuff about prostitution in old Japan also applies to prostitution nowadays in my country, the U.S. Including the bit about working girls being in debt to their pimps. And never able to pay it off.

    As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    • It happens everywhere, particularly to illegal immigrants, who are terrified that they’ll be sent home to worse if they seek help.

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