Image of Japanese print showing Party in the Yoshiwara, from Twelve bouts of lovemaking


Edo in Colour

Prints from Japan’s Metropolis


Edo’s prints and printed books reveal an endless procession of the elegantly chic. Fashion was formulated as much on paper as in the bustling shops and city streets. Many Edo icons were drawn from the Yoshiwara, the city’s licensed brothel district. First opening in 1618, this floating world space welcomed clients according to the weight of their purse rather than their rank in society. The women staffing its sex trade, meanwhile, were typically sold into service by their families to work under contracts of indenture. In promoting the Yoshiwara, print helped clothe its realities in glamour.

Back to Edo in Colour

Party in the Yoshiwara
From Twelve bouts of lovemaking
Isoda Koryūsai
Japan, c. 1777
CBL J 2405

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Youth holding branch of cherry blossoms

    Youth holding branch of cherry blossoms
    Torii Kiyohiro
    Japan, 1751–57
    CBL J 2454
    From the early 18th century, narrow format prints shared floating world fashions with the wider city. These pictures of beauties (bijinga) include depictions of both male and female beauty. Handsome male youths (wakashu) might be pictured in fashions just as rich and colourful as those worn by young women. A checked jacket slung over his shoulder, this fashion-minded youth wears a robe patterned with boats and waves.

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  • Image of Japanese printed Picture book contest of beauties of the green houses

    Picture book contest of beauties of the green houses
    Suzuki Harunobu
    Japan, 1770
    CBL J 1653
    The Yoshiwara’s elite brothels (known by the literary name ‘green houses’) presented an image of charmed cultivation. The women assembled by artist Suzuki Harunobu in this picture book contest read novels, write poetry, smell incense and play matching games with cards and shells. They also engage with print culture. As prints of beauties did not attempt to show true likeness, these images of women reveal ideals of beauty as constructed by the artist and their times.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Matsukaze of the Ōgiya house

    Matsukaze of the Ōgiya house
    Komai Yoshinobu
    Japan, 1770
    CBL J 2461
    Information about the Yoshiwara was circulated through simple guidebook directories. In its upper section, this full-colour print mimics a guidebook listing of women and their attendants at the Ōgiya brothel. The double-mountain shaped marks were used in guidebooks to indicate yūjo (prostitutes) of the highest ‘rank’, and so fee. The rank of a yūjo determined how and where she met her clients, the number of attendants she might have, and whether she had the luxury of a room.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Kayoiji of the Echizenya house

    Kayoiji of the Echizenya house
    From the series Models for fashion: New year designs fresh as young leaves
    Isoda Koryūsai
    Japan, 1778–80
    CBL J 2407
    The series 'Models for fashion' made its debut in 1776, proving so popular that new prints were issued until 1784. Images from this series resemble fashion plates, dressing women of the Yoshiwara in the latest styles. The series’ first 140 designs were created by artist Isoda Koryūsai. Taking advantage of the large ōban format, Koryūsai showcased women and their outfits in a radically different manner to the willowy figures previously popularised by Suzuki Harunobu.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Reading a Yoshiwara guidebook

    Reading a Yoshiwara guidebook
    From the series Humorous poems of the willow
    Torii Kiyonaga
    Japan, 1790
    CBL J 2470
    Three city women study a guidebook to the brothel district. As the page is turned, one catches sight of the name of her husband’s lover printed on the page. A short comic poem above (written from the husband’s perspective) registers her surprise:
    Looking through the guidebook
    ‘it’s her!’
    my wife exclaims.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing celebration of good harvest

    Celebrating good harvests
    From the series Niwaka festival in the green houses
    Katsukawa Shunzan
    Japan, c. 1793
    CBL J 2635
    The Niwaka festival was one of several events used to promote the Yoshiwara. First initiated in the mid-18th century, it was revived in 1776 in elaborate style and became a highlight of Edo’s calendar. The festival was particularly noted for its lively skits and dances in which female entertainers (geisha) playfully dressed as men. Here the women are dressed as diviners of Kashima shrine who travelled to share the oracle of their deity.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Tomimoto Toyohina

    Tomimoto Toyohina
    From the series Renowned beauties likened to six immortal poets
    Kitagawa Utamaro
    Japan, c. 1795
    CBL J 2526
    In 1793, publishers were banned from naming women in prints unless they were prostitutes in the licensed district. This rule may have been intended to prevent promotion of unlicensed prostitution. Tomimoto Toyohina was a skilled singer and one of the most celebrated beauties of her day. As a trained entertainer (geisha) in the Yoshiwara, she was not a prostitute. Utamaro spells out her name in a picture puzzle in the upper left, identifying her without formally breaking the rules. In 1796, the ban was extended to include picture puzzles.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Tsukasa of the Ōgiya house

    Tsukasa of the Ōgiya house
    Utagawa Kuniyoshi
    Japan, 1830–44
    CBL J 2587
    In the years leading up to 1830, the price of the imported pigment Prussian blue dropped significantly. Extensively used in landscape prints, Prussian blue also became the star of ‘blue-printed pictures’ (aizuri-e) and is likely to be a key colourant in this print. An earlier impression of this work is titled Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya house. As fashions and circumstances changed, the names, hairstyles and other details of a print were sometimes updated by replacing sections of the printing block.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Visiting the Yoshiwara

    Visiting the Yoshiwara
    From the series Modern sparrows of Edo
    Utagawa Kunisada
    Japan, 1836–38
    CBL J 2596
    The series 'Modern sparrows of Edo' highlights activities that defined life in the metropolis: going to the theatre and temples, viewing cherry blossoms and, here, a visit to the Yoshiwara. The cartouche framing the inset of the Yoshiwara is shaped as a toshidama: a twist of cloth or paper containing four coins. This emblem of good fortune was adopted by artists of the Utagawa school, and Kunisada often used it as his seal. In woodblock prints, there was always room for self-promotion.

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