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Getting Kinky in Kimonos

The Asian Art Museum's seductive new exhibition opens on the 20th.

 

Seventeenth-century Japan: a time of peace, prosperity—and explosive growth in the sex trade? Yup, you read that correctly. This month, the Asian Art Museum peers into that bygone era with Seduction (Feb. 20–May 10), an exhibition detailing the “floating world,” Japan’s more delicate term for a red-light district. Was it as wild as modern-day Amsterdam? Well, let’s just say that Holland got the idea from somewhere. And this handmade scroll from 1680 gives us a hint of what Yoshiwara, the most glamorous of the pleasure quarters in Edo (now Tokyo), was really like.

Lattice-Window Peep Shows
Windows like this were status symbols for brothel owners, who used them to display the enticing comforts of their establishments to passersby. “Yoshiwara visitors could eye the courtesans lined up in their finery and flirt with or chat up old favorites,” says curator Laura Allen.

Home Sweet Bordello
Brothel owners in Yoshiwara wanted their samurai customers to feel at home—literally. The interiors were often modeled after the estates of notable warriors and decorated with art tailored to samurai tastes.

Keeping it cultured 
High-priced courtesans were intensively trained in arts like poetry, painting, and music—giving them an air of “elegant accomplishment” that allowed clients to feel that they were buying access to cultured and erudite companionship as well as sexual favors.

Samurai, incognito
The warrior classes were required to live in the capital for extended periods, often with little to do and lots of money to spend. So even though warriors were officially restricted from visiting courtesans, the pleasure quarters marketed directly to them. “That’s why you see them wearing straw hats and concealing their apperance,” says Allen.

The original pretty woman
Most courtesans were sold into contracts by their poor rural families, sometimes entering training at only seven or eight years of age. While a few achieved true celebrity status rivaling that of great actors or musicians, most were relegated to personal poverty,  despite their lavish surroundings.

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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