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Yoshiwara quarter of Edo (Tokyo), Japan

Yoshiwara, on the northern edge of the city of Edo (modern Tokyo), was the single government-licensed prostitution quarter in the Edo period (AD 1600-1868). At any one time between 2,000 and 3,000 women were indentured there as prostitutes, from lowly streetwalkers to exclusive high-ranking courtesans (oiran). Brothel-owners, young apprentices, servants and tradesmen completed the population. Many geisha of both sexes also worked there, primarily as singers, dancers and entertainers. The purpose of such licenced districts was to try to contain and control prostitution in a city with an overwhelmingly male population.

Officially Yoshiwara was out-of-bounds to the samurai classes, but they went disguised under large straw pilgrims' hats, leaving their swords at the gate and mingling with lower class, but often richer, merchants. This was the ukiyo, the 'floating world' of fleeting pleasures and conspicuous consumption where the distinctions between classes could be blurred and government regulations suspended.

However, even in the pleasure quarters there were strict protocols: in order to approach a high-ranking courtesan, a fixed procedure of visiting, entertaining and gift-giving had to be followed.

For the women, life during their ten-year indenture was often far from pleasurable. Most of them had been sold into prostitution by their poverty-stricken families. Conditions for low-ranking prostitutes were often squalid and the incidence of venereal disease was understandably high. Yet the aura of beauty, elegance and wit that surrounded them was so powerful that the women of the Yoshiwara, together with the actors of the Kabuki theatres and neighbouring teahouses were icons in the cultural world of the Edo period, and an inspiration to poets, writers and artists.

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