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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

A visit to the Yoshiwara
late 1680s
by Hishikawa Moronobu (Japanese, d. 1694)
Handscroll; ink, colors, and gold on paper.

This long and unusually large handscroll presents the Yoshiwara, Edo's premier brothel district, as a glamorous site for sensual gratification. Well-tended shops, bordellos, and an upscale house of assignation (ageya) provide the settings for fifteen episodes — spread across nearly 58 feet of scroll paper — that recount the special customs and rituals of the quarter. Carefree pleasure seeking is tempered only at the very end where, in a nod to the economics of the floating world, the scroll concludes with a scene of clients settling their bills the morning after a lavish party with top-ranked courtesans.

The scroll opens along a path thronged with visitors making their way toward the Yoshiwara's main gate. Once inside the gate, we see snapshots of bustling commerce along four streets that intersect with Nakanochō, the Yoshiwara's main boulevard. Samurai with swords in black scabbards, their faces concealed under sedge hats, mingle with merchants seeking the company of prostitutes who lounge in lattice-front brothels or parade through the streets in fashionable attire. The scroll's second half brings the viewer to a fifth cross-street, Ageyachō. The view moves inside, to a house of assignation where top-ranked courtesans meet their clients. Cooks in a bustling kitchen ready delicacies for partygoers, and clients eat, imbibe, and bed down (see the essay by Eric Rath in this volume for descriptions of the assignation process and of the sumptuous food on offer). The furnishings of this upscale establishment include luxurious bedding and folding screens with Chinese-style ink paintings and inscriptions, the latter adding an aura of refinement appropriate for wealthy visitors.

Although the signature and seal at the end of the scroll are thought to be later additions, scholars attribute the paintings to the hand of Hishikawa Moronobu. This early master of floating-world subjects was at the peak of his career when this scroll was painted and had an insider's knowledge of the quarter, being married to a former courtesan. The elaborate vignettes are rendered in luminous pigments of crushed minerals—rich malachite and vermilion play off each other and guide the action indoors and out. Labels identifying the settings and accents of clothing and objects are picked out in gold ink. The lavish treatment suggests that Moronobu made it for someone who harbored fond memories of time spent in the Yoshiwara, possibly a member of the military elite. David Waterhouse has proposed Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (1658–1714) as a possible candidate.[1]

Moronobu depicted the same subject matter in a set of woodblock prints, Scenes in the Yoshiwara (Yoshiwara no tei), and was probably also the artist responsible for another related work, the illustrated book A Guide to Love in the Yoshiwara (Yoshiwara koi no michibiki; see the translation by Helen Nagata on pages 219–237 of this catalogue). Using the inexpensive medium of woodblock prints, publishers spread the fantasy of Yoshiwara pleasures to a broad audience of ordinary townsmen, some of whom might never have the opportunity or means to venture there.

For further information about this scroll, see the essays by Melinda Takeuchi and Eric Rath in this catalogue.

1. Waterhouse, "Hishikawa Moronobu," 49–51.

John C. Weber Collection

Image © John Bigelow Taylor.