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The Nightless City: Geisha and Courtesan Life in Old Tokyo

The Nightless City: Geisha and Courtesan Life in Old Tokyo

by J. E. de Becker

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Written over a century ago, this pioneer study was the first to venture behind the teahouse doors of the Yoshiwara quarter, Tokyo's red-light district. It remains unsurpassed as the definitive survey of geisha and courtesan life, with meticulous descriptions of traditional training, dress, social hierarchy, and erotic practices. 49 black-and-white illustrations; 2


Written over a century ago, this pioneer study was the first to venture behind the teahouse doors of the Yoshiwara quarter, Tokyo's red-light district. It remains unsurpassed as the definitive survey of geisha and courtesan life, with meticulous descriptions of traditional training, dress, social hierarchy, and erotic practices. 49 black-and-white illustrations; 2 maps.

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The nightless city

By J. E. De Becker

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12281-6


History of the Yoshiwara Yukwaku.

T was not until after the City of Yedo had become the seat of the Tokugawa government that regular houses of ill-fame were established, and up to the period of Keicho (1596–1614) there were no fixed places set apart for brothels and assignation houses. Under these circumstances, the brothels of Yedo were to be found scattered all over the city in groups of twos or threes, but among the many localities in which such stews were situated were three spots where the houses were to be found in larger numbers plying their shameful trade side by side.

(1.)—In Kojimachi, hat-cho-me, there were fourteen or fifteen houses: these had been removed from Roku-jo in Kyoto.

(2.)—In Kamakura-gashi (Kanda district) the numbers of houses was the same as in Kojimachi: these had been removed from Miroku-machi of Fuchu (now Shidzu- oka?) in Suruga province.

(3.)—In Uchi-Yanagi-machi, near Ohashi (Ohashi is now the Tokiwa-bashi gate, and Yanagi-machi is now Dosangashi-dori) there were twenty houses. This group was inhabited by Yedo women exclusively. It is stated by some writers that the name of this street "Yanagi- machi" (Willow Street) was derived from the fact that at the entrance of the street stood two gigantic weeping willows. Prior to this date, in the period of Tensho (1573–1591), a person named Hara Saburozaemon had established a brothel quarter at Made-no-Koji, Yanagi- no-baba, in Kyoto, but although it is true that the name of Yanagimachi was given to this place, the Yanagi- machi of Yedo did not derive its title from the one in the Western city.

In the 10th year of Keicho (1605) Yanagi-machi was selected by the Government in connection with the construction of the castle of Yedo, and consequently all the brothels were removed to a place in front of the Moto-Sei- gwanji (temple).

As Yedo prospered and her population increased, various enterprising individuals gradually arrived from Shumoku-machi in Fushimi, Kitsuji-machi in Nara, and other places near Kyoto, and established themselves in the brothel-keeping business.

But as Yedo still grew more and more prosperous and thriving, and her marts busier, various municipal improvements were projected, numerous new roads were opened, and bridges constructed, and, as gradually the work of organizing the urban districts progressed, many houses had to be pulled down; consequently large numbers of persons were forced to remove their residences. Under these circumstances, the brothel-keepers considered the moment to be an opportune one for the presentation to the powers that were of a petition requesting the Government to allow of the collection, into one special locality, of the Yedo demi-monde. They therefore petitioned the authorities to establish a regular Keisei-machi, but their petition was unsuccessful and matters remained in statu quo.

In the 17th year of Keicho (1612) a certain Shoji Jinye- mon (a native of Odawara in Sagami province) conceived the idea of collecting all the brothels and assignation houses of Yedo into one special quarter of the city, and after many consultations with his confrères (for this gentle "reformer" was in the "profession" himself) he made a representation to the Government to the effect that:—

"In Kyoto and in Suruga, and also in all other thickly populated and busy places (to the number of more than twenty) there have been established, in accordance with ancient custom and precedent, regular licensed Keisei-machi, whereas in Yedo, which is growing busier and more populous day by day, there is no fixed Yujo-machi. In consequence of this state of affairs houses of ill-fame abound in every part of the city, being scattered hither and thither in all directions. This, for numerous reasons, is detrimental to public morality and welfare, etc., etc."

The petitioner further enumerated the advantages which would be gained by the system he advocated, and he submitted a memorandum of reasons and arguments divided into three headings, the substance of the same being:—

"(1.) As matters stand at present, when a person visits a brothel he may hire, and disport himself with, Yujo (filles de joie) to his heart's content, give himself up to pleasure and licentiousness to the extent of being unable to discriminate as to his position and means and the neglect of his occupation or business. He may frequent a brothel for days on end, giving himself up to lust and revel, but so long as his money holds out the keeper of the house will continue to entertain him as a guest. As a natural consequence, this leads to the neglect of duty towards masters, defalcations, theft, etc., and even then the keepers of the brothels will allow the guilty guests to remain in their houses as long as their money lasts. If brothels were all collected into one place a check would be put to these evils, as, by means of investigation and enquiry, a longer stay than twenty-four hours could be prohibited and such prohibition enforced.

"(2.) Although it is forbidden by law to kidnap children, yet, even in this city, the practice of kidnapping female children and enticing girls away from their homes under false pretences is being resorted to by certain vicious and unprincipled rascals. It is a positive tact that some evil-minded persons make it a regular profession to take in the daughters of poor people under the pretext of adopting them as their own children, but when the girls growup they are sent out to service as concubiness or prostitutes, and in this manner the individuals who have adopted them reap a golden harvest. Perhaps it is this class of abandoned rascals that even dare to kidnap other people's children? It is said to be a fact that there are brothel-keepers who engage women knowing perfectly well that they are the adopted children of the parties who wish to sell the girls into prostitution. If the prostitute houses be all collected into one place, strict enquiries will be made as to the matter of kidnapping and as to the engagement of adopted children, and should any cases occur in which such reprehensible acts are attempted, information will be immediately given to the authorities.

"(3.) Although the condition of the country is peaceful, yet it is not long since the subjugation of Mino province was accomplished, and consequently it may be that there are many ronin prowling about seeking for an opportunity to work mischief. These ruffians have, of course, no fixed place of abode and simply drift hither and thither, so it is impossible to ascertain their whereabouts in the absence of properly instituted enquiries even although they may be staying in houses of ill-fame for a considerable number of days. If the authorities grant this petition, and permit the concentration of the existing brothels in one regular place, the brothelkeepers will pay special attention to this matter and will cause searching enquiries to be made about persons who may be found loafing in the prostitute quarters: should they discover any suspicious characters they will not fail to report the same to the authorities forthwith.

"It will be deemed a great favour if the august authorities will grant this petition in the fulness of their magnanimous "mercy."

In the following spring (1613) Shoji Jinyemon was summoned to the Magistrate's Court and examined on various points by Honda Lord of Sado, after which he was informed that the result of the petition would be made known at a later date. He was then dismissed.

In the spring of the 3rd year of Genna (1617) Jinyemon was again summoned to the Court and, in the presence of several other judicial officials, Honda Lord of Sado notified him that the petition was granted. He was also informed that two square cho of land would be devoted to the purpose of founding a prostitute quarter, and that the site had been selected at Fukiya-machi. In return for this privilege, Jinyemon promised that no prostitutes should be allowed in the city of Yedo and neighbourhood except in the licensed quarter, and further covenanted that in case of any of the women being found elsewhere the matter should be communicated to the authorities, as in duty bound, either by himself or by the other brothelkeepers. At the same time, Shoji Jinyemon was appointed Keisei-machi Nanushi (director of the prostitute quarter) and was instructed by the Bugyo (Governor possessed of administrative, military, and judicial functions) to observe the following regulations:—

"(1.) The profession of brothel-keeping shall not be carried on in any place other than the regular prostitute quarter, and in future no request for the attendance of a courtesan at a place outside the limits of the enclosure shall be complied with.

"(2.) No guest shall remain in a brothel for more than twenty-four hours.

"(3.) Prostitutes are forbidden to wear clothes with gold and silver embroidery on them; they are to wear ordinary dyed stuffs.

"(4.) Brothels are not to be built of imposing appearance, and the inhabitants of prostitute quarters shall discharge the same duties (as firemen, etc.,) as ordinary residents in other parts of Yedo city.

"(5.) Proper enquiries shall be instituted into the person of any visitor to a brothel, no matter whether he be gentleman or commoner, and in case any suspicious individual appears information shall be given to the Bugyo-sho (office of the city Governor).

"The above instructions are to be strictly observed.

"(Date...........) The Bugyo."

On the low land of Fukiya-cho, which was thus granted by the authorities, now stand Idzumi-cho, Takasago-cho, Sumi- yoshi-cho, and Naniwa-cho, and the ko-hori (or small ditch) at Hettsui-gashi which was once the outer moat of the prostitute quarters. The present O-mon-dori (Great Gate Street) was formerly the street leading to the O-mon (Great Gate). At the time about which I am writing the place was one vast swamp overrun with weeds and rushes, so Shoji Jinyemon set about clearing the Fukiya-machi, reclaiming and filling in the ground, and building an enclosure thereon. Owing to the number of rushes which had grown thereabout the place was re-named Yoshiwara ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]=Rush-moor) but this was afterwards changed to Yoshi-wara ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]=Moor of Good luck) in order to give the locality an auspicious name.

The work of filling in and levelling the ground, and the construction of houses, was commenced in the 3rd year of Genna (1617) and by November of the following year "business" commenced. The work of laying out the streets and completing the quarters was not however finished until the 9th day of the 10th month of the 3rd year of Kwan-ei (28th November 1626).

The following were the names of the wards of the Yoshiwara:—

Yedo-cho, It-cho-me: This was the pioneer prostitute quarter established in the city after the Tokugawa government had made Yedo the seat of their administration; and in the hope and expectation of sharing in the prosperity of the city itself the felicitious name of Yedo-cho (Yedo ward) was chosen as appropriate for the new ward. All the houses at Yanagi- cho removed to this Yedo-cho, and among them was the "Nishida-ya" (House of the Western Ricefield) which was kept by Shoji Jinyemon himself.

Yedo-cho, Ni-cho-me: To this ward (Second ward of Yedo-cho) were transferred all the houses formerly kept at Moto-Kamakura-gashi.

Kyomachi, It-cho-me: To this ward were transferred the houses at Kojimachi. The majority of these establishments having had their origin in Roku-jo, Kyoto, the ward was named Kyo-machi, thus using the first character [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Kyo) of Kyoto and preserving the old association with the capital.

Kyomachi, Ni-cho-me: The brothelkeepers of Hisago- machi in Osaka, Kitsuji in Nara, and other localities, having heard of the opening of the Yoshiwara, many of them immigrated to this place. The buildings in this ward were completed two years later than those in the other streets, and accordingly this ward was commonly called Shim-machi ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] New Street).

Sumi-cho: The brothels at Sumi-cho, Kyobashi, having been removed to this ward, the name of the original place was copied when "christening" the new street.


Excerpted from The nightless city by J. E. De Becker. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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