The Literary World of Women in the Yoshiwara

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    Utagawa Kunisada / Toyokuni III (1786-1865). 'The Lady of the Plum Blossom Courtyard' (detail). Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), 1853. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert A. Levy, 2001 (27064).

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    Santō Kyōden / Kitao Masanobu (1761–1816). 'The Courtesans Hinazuru and Chōzan of the Chōjiya Brothel in the Yoshiwara, Accompanied by their Attendants.' From the series A Compendium of the New Beauties of the Yoshiwara, Mirrored in their Writing. Japan,

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    Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1792). 'Chapter Six' (detail). From the series The Tales of Ise in Fashionable Brocade Pictures. (Fūryū nishiki-e Ise monogatari). Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1772–1773. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Gift of James

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September 18, 2014 - November 16, 2014
Honolulu Museum of Art

Exhibition Overview

The Yoshiwara, a government-sanctioned brothel district on the outskirts of Edo city (modern-day Tokyo), officially opened in March of 1617, and was closed down as a venue of prostitution in 1958. In that time, the district’s atmosphere and the way in which it functioned within the context of the Japanese sex industry changed radically. During the 17th and 18th centuries, courtesans of various ranks as well as teenaged apprentices (shinzō) and adolescent attendants (kamuro) were expected to be functionally literate and have a profound understanding of Chinese and Japanese classical literature. 

This print rotation focuses upon the academic training and intellectual lives of women in the Yoshiwara district. Depictions of these courtesans by Kitao Masanobu (1761–1816, known also as the author Santō Kyōden) emphasize the women’s skills in poetic composition and calligraphy, while other prints quote passages from the Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari, 10th century) and the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari, early 11th century), literary works with which courtesans were intimately familiar. In lieu of authentic autobiographies written by these women, a careful consideration of the texts that they read—and produced—may offer us a better understanding of their public personas if not their individual personalities.