Vegder's Blog

September 27, 2017

A brothel is a brothel is a brothel – Matsubaya (松葉屋)

I find there [in Yoshiwara] so many kind hearts,
and I have discovered that even the women people call “trashy whores”
are in a true sense the really authentic high-class courtesans.

This quote is from Baba Bunkō (馬場文耕:  1718-59). I found it at A Christian Samurai by William J. Farge.

Baba Bunkō did not die a natural death – In Bunkō’s time the Bakufu (幕府) was the governing body of the shogunate. Sometimes they were moderately liberal, but most of the time they were arch-conservatives, reactionaries, right-wingers, callous hardliners. Bunkō like to tell stories. He even published some of them himself and circulated them privately. The Bakufu found out about one of these publications and felt that Bunkō had crossed the line. So they executed him. So much for tolerance.

Matsuharu (増春) of the Matsubaya (松葉屋)
Kunisada – ca. 1830
The Lyon Collection

I was admiring the print shown above when it occurred to me that I had never written a post specifically about Japanese ‘courtesans’, prostitution, the treatment of woman and other delicate matters. So, I decided to focus in more narrowly on ukiyo woodblock prints that dealt only with the House of Matsuba , the House of Pine Needles – my loose translation – as a single example meant to address a much larger topic. What I didn’t realize was how many great, great prints I would find even after I had narrowed my parameters to this one whorehouse. It has been a wonderful eye opener for me and I hope will be for you, too.

The third rail of ukiyo-e studies

So much of Japanese art, woodblock prints in particular, deal with the ‘ladies’ of the red-light districts. If it weren’t for changing tastes and the success of such genres as landscapes by Hiroshige and Hokusai, warrior prints by Kuniyoshi and kabuki prints by almost everybody then courtesan imagery would take up almost 100% of the oxygen in the room. As is pictures of beautiful women who made their living by sex still dominates whole fields of study – some aesthetic and some just plain salacious. In an age of feminist rage others study Japanese prints as an insult to more than half of the planets population. They are something that cannot be ignored.

Japan is a male-dominated society. Sexist and often brutal in its history, its domination of men over women is one of the world’s great shameful extended moments. Of course, this has been true almost anywhere there are men and women together – which, of course, is everywhere. Lust and love often go hand in hand. Violence and tenderness cohabitate the same space. And yet, one good, no great, thing has come out of this disgraceful situation and that is the abundance of beautiful works of art which mask from most contemporary viewers the underlying ugliness that underpins its conceptions.


So just how glorious was it to become a prostitute? An ugly system revealed.

“Most women were sold into prostitution when they were sixteen or seventeen years old, and since the standard
period of service was ten years, this meant that they could “retire” when they were in their mid- to late twenties.
This was well past the usual marriageable age, however, and many women, discovering that after ten years in the
quarters they were well-equipped for life on the outside, decided to stay on to work in some other capacity – if they
were lucky, perhaps as a courtesan’s manager (yarite). There was always the chance that one of a courtesan’s
customers would offer to purchase her freedom, but this was costly – brothel owners preferred to get a full return
on their investment – and happened only rarely.”

Quoted from The Floating World Revisited

Hatsugiku (はつきく) of the Matsubaya – 1711
Masanobu (政信: 1786-1864)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Myōseki (名跡) or what’s in a name?

When you look at a list of popes you will notice that there have been 16 Benedicts, 2 John Pauls, 23 Johns – depending on how you are counting them – 12 Piuses, 1 Francis, 1 Agatho, 1 Hormisdas, 1 Telesphorus, 1 Hyginus, et al.  That’s just a few of the popes. How did they get their names? For the early ones, I don’t have a clue. For the later ones, they choose their own name as something with a bit of symbolism mixed with a dash of history. Now that covers the popes, a group of men who ARE said to be holier-than-thou. [No disrespect intended. I only thought of that line because I am comparing the names of popes to those of prostitutes.]

When it comes to royalty, the issues are a bit more challenging. There has only been one king of England named John and we all know why. But then again there have been 8 Henrys, 8 Edwards, 1 Victoria, 2 Elizabeths, 6 Georges, 2 Aethelreds – the second one was called ‘the Unready’ who ruled for about 38 years, an awful long time to be unready, don’t you think? These days when they come to the throne some monarchs choose one of their christening names, but sometimes they just end up ruling with their first name they received.

Now, what about famous Japanese courtesans? That issue will eventually dawn on you as you look at this post, so why not just deal with it here and now. Below you will see – in time – several images of women – yes, that’s right, women, plural – named Segawa of Matsubaya. They can’t all be the same woman, especially when their images are separated by an enormous length of time. The first Segawa is semi-quasi-sort of mythical, because we don’t actually know anything substantive about her – if she did exist at all. However, “In the hundred years between the early part of the eighteenth century and the great fire in 1824, the Matsubaya produced at least nine Segawas…”

Most famous prostitutes only held their name for a few years. That brings us to the term myōseki which can also stand for ‘a family name’, but not here. Allen Hockley wrote: “When a prominent, high-ranked courtesan led an illustrious career, the brothel to which she was indentured often retained her name after she retired. Eventually the name would be passed on to a promising shinzō when she was formally elevated to to the rank of courtesan. Names used in this way were known as myōseki. The passing of a myōseki to a newly ranked courtesan was often accompanied by a great celebration, the considerable expenses of which were borne by the patron who was first to secure her services. This event was known as a tsukidashi, or coming out.”

Courtesan of the Matsubaya and her entourage – 1769-70
Suzuki Harunobu (1725-70)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The chigai-takanoha

The man who is leading the group is holding a lantern with the crest or mon of the Matsubaya house – two crossed feathers (the chigai-takanoha – 違い鷹の羽) shown within a circle. Behind him are two shinzō wearing matching robes with a plum blossom design and their obi are patterned with dragonflies. The house mon is repeated on the courtesans sleeve, but it is hard to see. Behind her are two kamuro followed by the procuress of yarite. Behind is the lattice or kōshi of the house itself.

A confession: I don’t always get a point the first time I read or encounter something. But when it comes to the crossed feathers crest nothing brings it more into focus than the print shown below. Look at the screen behind the courtesan.

Somenosuke (染之助) of the Matsubaya – ca. 1795
Chōbunsai Eishi (鳥文斎栄之: 1756-1829)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The demographics of Edo (now Tokyo) in ca. 1800 –

Edo was a first and foremost a city of men. It would take up too much time and space to explain why, but trust me on this one. There were far more men than women there. Henry D. Smith II in an essay in The Floating World Revisited gives us some information and guesses as to the make up of the population of Edo. In ca. 1800 there were approximately 135 men for every 100 women. In earlier times the ratio may have even been more skewed toward the male side. Anyway, he points out that when trying to figure out the demographics everything should be taken with two grains of salt. Samurai were not counted, but the common man was and in the middle of the 18th century there were about 500,000 of them. In ca. 1798 those numbers were down slightly, but not by much. Edo was a large, thriving city and Smith has tried to figure out just who they were. Below are some of his guesses.

Shogunal retainers: By this time this group was nearly all born Edoites and number about 250,000.
The artist and merchant class: About 125,000.
Property superintendents:  About 80,000.
Petty merchants and artisans: About 220,000.
Daimyō mansion staff: About 50,000.
Domain samurai on sankin kōtai duty: About 300,000. [This is the part that I felt was too long to explain here.]
Male contract laborers: About 80,000.
Priests: About 50,000.
Resident of the official red-light district, the shin Yoshiwara: About 10,000. “About one-third of this population were prostitutes…” Note that a lot of unlicensed prostitutes* that would not have plied their trade in the Yoshiwara district.
Outcasts and vagrants: About 20,000.

Total: Close to 1,200,000

*Cheap(er) unlicensed prostitutes outside of the Yoshiwara would cost about 1/40th that of a ranked courtesan. But, as you know, you get what you pay for.

Two charming prints from the year the Americans declared independence, 1776 – aren’t they charming

Matsunoi (松の井) of the Matsubaya – 1776
Isoda Koryūsai  (礒田湖龍斎: 1735-90)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Somenosuke of the Matsubaya – 1776
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Somenosuke, seated, is putting on a lilac uchikake lined with pink. A shinzō is assisting her. It isn’t the primary figure I want you to concentrate on. Look instead more closely at the shinzō‘s kimono and how it is a cherry-blossom pattern with a peacock on its sleeve. It is the peacock that I want to stress. Cecilia Segawa Seigle noted in Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan: “In the eighteenth century, at large bordellos all women, including kamuro, received from their employer a costume with the respective house’s traditional decorative pattern — such as falcons (Tsutaya), lattice and flowers (Naka-Omiya), peonies (Corner Tamaya), peacock in tie-dye (Matsubaya)…” [The bold type is my choice.]

Matsunoi and Matsui (松井) of the Matsubaya
Notice particularly the peacock feathers
Koryūsai – ca. 1776-81
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Nakanochō (中ノ町): the main drag

The Nakanochō at night – the 1770s
Utagawa Toyoharu
Library of Congress

Donald Jenkins wrote:

The Nakanochō served as a kind of main street or public square in the Yoshiwara. It was lined on either side
by teahouses, known as hikitejaya, whose primary function was to arrange appointments with courtesans in
the more prestigious brothels. The brothels themselves were on the quieter side streets. The Nakanochō was
at its liveliest during the early evening hours when the oiran, the highest-ranking courtesans known as yobidashi
or chūsan, appeared in full regalia, accompanied by their apprentices and attendants, for their nightly promenade…

For another look at the Nakanochō from 1810 –

Naka-no-chō in the New Yoshiwara
Utamaro II
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The highest order of courtesans were incredibly accomplished – and not just in the sack

There are many factors which draw men to women. There is chemistry and external beauty. Some modern studies say that has something to symmetry, facial symmetry. I can believe that. In 2008 the National Geographic ran an article that lead off with “Symmetrical Bodies Are More Beautiful to Humans”. The author of that article, Ker Than, said: “A new study finds that the more symmetrical a person’s body is, the more appealing that person is to the opposite sex.” But in the case of the highest ranking prostitutes symmetry was not the only attraction. Baba Bunkō wrote about the fifth Segawa of Matsubaya. She was at her peak in four or five years in the early to mid-1750s – hence a predecessor of the Segawa shown in the print below. Bunkō wrote that Segawa V [?] was…

The daughter of an impoverished family from Shimōsa Omigawa… recruited by Matsubaya Hanzaemon, who
taught her well. She became proficient at samisen and jōruri, of course, also at the tea ceremony, haikai, go,
and kemari. In addition, she could play the hand drum and flute, as well as sing and dance.

Bunkō added that she was skilled at divination, having studied with the master of that craft, “…but that her greatest accomplishments were in poetry and music. These talents were the result of her own hard work, determination and intelligence. She had received no formal education in these arts in childhood.

Note: William J. Farge said that Bunkō was writing about Segawa V, but Cecilia Segawa Seigle says that it was actually Segawa III. I find Seigle’s information more credible.

The lady had a mind of her own – and at times it could be quite prudish

“Segawa III was always proper and well mannered, considerate of her servants, and good to her patrons. But she seems to have had a puritanical and domineering streak. She disliked the new genre of popular song, Bungobushi, which was the rage of Edo and the Yoshiwara. Segawa ruled that it should not be sung at the Matsubaya because the lyrics tended to be suggestive. She also prevented those whom she considered vulgar from visiting the Matsubaya. Generally, each house had its own jargon for secret communications among courtesans and staff. Thanks to Segawa, Matsubaya courtesans had no inelegant words in their vocabulary. Their argot, invented by her, instead used chapter titles from The Tale of Genji, such as “sagebrush” for tobacco, “broom tree” for a secret lover, “flare” for yarite, and heart-vine” for money.” (Seigle, p. 123.)

Segawa (瀬川) of the Matsubaya with her kamuro Sasano (ささの) and Takeno (竹の)
from the series Models for Fashion: New Year Designs as Fresh as Young Leaves – ca. 1782
Torii Kiyonaga (鳥居清長: 1752-1815)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The myth behind the story of the first famous Segawa –

Supposedly, the first Segawa’s father was Ōmori Uzen, a samurai who served an aristocratic family in Kyoto. While in their employ he fell in love with a lady-in-waiting, but such relationships within single households were forbidden. They could have been put to death for this, but instead they were sent into exile together. Uzen settled in his hometown Nara where he gave up being a samurai and instead began practicing medicine and selling medicinal herbs. Soon thereafter the couple had a little girl that they named Taka.

By the time Taka was 16 years old she had grown into quite a beauty. One fellow, Genpachi, a friend of the chief of police, was quite smitten with her, but she wanted nothing to do with him. Out of rage, he framed her father for the killing of a sacred deer. While the police could not prove that Uzen had done it, he couldn’t prove his innocence. So, once again the family was exiled and the father died in penury in Osaka. Things looked bleak for the widow and her daughter until a friend of the father’s help arrange a respectable marriage of Taka to a samurai who worked for Lord Naitō Buzennokami.  But as we all know, all good things must come to an end. Taka’s husband was murdered and things went south from there. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong. Eventually Taka decided to sell herself into prostitution “…to support her mother…” and in an effort to find her husband’s killers.

The head of the Matsubaya house bought her services for 120 ryō in exchange for 10 years of service. 120 ryō was an insane amount. Even 40 ryō or less would have been a good price – meaning that Taka must have been quite a catch. She was given the name Segawa and “…was given her own two-room apartment on the second floor. Naturally elegant and already accomplished in various arts, she soon enjoyed top billing at the establishment.”

While Segawa was working at the Matsubaya three men from Osaka came in and purchased the favors of lower ranking prostitutes. Long story short, Segawa realizes that these men are the ones who robbed and killed her husband which subsequently forced her to work in a brothel. Strangest thing: one of the killers turned out to be Genpachi, that creep who pursued her in your teen years. She then succeeded in stabbing, but not killing Genpachi and scaring off his companions. She stabbed him with a dagger stolen from her late husband. Segawa wanted to finish Genpachi off, but was stopped by the owner of the Matsubaya. He argued that as long as Genpachi was alive she could prove his guilt.

“Segawa’s debts the House of Matsuba were annulled by the authorities in acknowledgment of her loyalty. The repudiation of her debt was also punishment for the establishment; it was the regulation of the day for bordello keepers to check the background of new clients, and in the case of Genpachi and his cronies, the Matsubaya proprietor had neglected to do so.” Segawa went on to become a nun so she could devote herself to praying for the souls of the people she had lost and those still living who had made her life better. “She is said to have died of illness at the age of twenty-eight.” [Cecilia Segawa Seigle is my source for this tale.]

Segawa of the Matsubaya with her kamuro Sasano and Takeno
from the series Edo Purple in the Pleasure Quarters
Chōbunsai Eishi
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The shinzō-dashi no zu or ‘the debut of a shinzō’ –

This is my only non-Matsubaya insertion so far, but it is too beautiful to pass up and it fits so well with the visual theme of this particular post. It is also out of place chronologically, but I judge that it fits best here. Dating from 1804 it is from a book illustrated by Utamaro with a kyōka poem by Jippensha Ikku.

Pages from the Yoshiwara Picture Book: Annual Events
Waseda University Library

Isn’t she heavenly?

Kisegawa (喜瀬川) of the Matsubaya as a celestial musician – ca. 1797-1800
Chōkōsai Eishō (鳥高斎栄昌)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Courtesans had no last names but were identified instead by the names of their bordellos. For example, the courtesan Segawa of the House of Matsuba would be Segawa of the Matsubaya. Since most commoners in pre-modern Japan did not have family names, and since most of the proprietors of houses of prostitution in the later period were commoner merchants, the proprietors were also known by their bordello names — for example, Matsubaya Hanzaemon.” This quote is also from Cecilia Segawa Seigle.

Somenosuke from the Matsubaya – 1795
Eishōsai Chōki (長喜)
The British Museum

Notice the crossed feathers crest of the Matsuba house on Somenosuke’s shoulder.

Somenosuke of the Matsubaya – 1797
Ichirakutei Eisui
Art Institute of Chicago

Fact or fiction or both?

There is a wonderful print in the British Museum – see below – which shows a famous onnagata or male actor impersonating a female figure, Ichikawa of the Matsubaya. This, of course, is in a kabuki play, Sangoku ichi imose no sakazuki (三国一纈盞). The actor’s stage name was Segawa Michisaburō I (初代瀬川路三郎).

Segawa Michisaburō I as Ichikawa of the Matsubaya – 1802
Toyokuni I
The British Museum

The Yasooi of ca. 1800 was quite a looker – see!

Yasooi of the Matsubaya from the series
Contemporary Courtesans Drawn from Life
Utamaro – ca. 1801
Museum of Fine Arts

Yosooi was the highest priced prostitute of her day because she was acknowledged as being the greatest beauty of her age. She cost 1 ryō and 1 bu per visit. I don’t know how much that was, but you can bet it would have been and is way out of my price range.

Donald Jenkins wrote: “An evening with one of these high-ranking courtesans was expensive. The basic fee (which was doubled on festival days) ranged from the equivalent of $450 to $750 in 1993 American money, and this included none of the tips that had to be paid to the hikite-jaya, the entertainers, and the courtesan’s attendants. It has been said that the real cost of an evening’s entertainment at the high end of the spectrum was probably closer to $3,000.”

Two notes: Jenkins based this information on Seigle’s book on the Yoshiwara and 1 ryō in and 1 bu in 1993 dollars would be about $500 a pop. However, Seigle did add in her preface that “It is almost impossible to devise equivalent values for the monetary system of the Edo period.” So, of course, this is only a guess. An educated guess, but still a guess. — Bottom line: a visit to a high ranking courtesan was anything but cheap.

Yosooi writing a letter to a client
Utamaro – ca. 1801-02
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Above Yasooi is considering her next words even though we don’t know what they might have been, but we can read the first comments: “I felt sentiment so I am writing to you…” The personal touch never hurts.

And still another beauty –

Matsumura (松村) of  the Matsubaya – ca. 1815
Kikukawa Eizan (菊川英山: 1787-1867)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
(This is the right panel of a triptych.)


But the later Yasoois were nothing to sneeze at either – 

Yosooi (粧ひ) of the Matsubaya
Kunisada – 1830s
Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna

Yosooi of the Matsubaya – ca. 1831
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The print by Kunisada shown above is in the category of aizuri-e (藍摺絵) or azure picture. Blue was a special color. Prior to the mid-1820s the only blue the Japanese printers could use was aigami (藍紙), an organic dye made from the day flower. The only problem is that that blue was destined to fade from day one. The day it was printed it must have looked great. In no time at all that blue was gone, gone, gone. Then the Japanese began to import an inorganic blue from Germany and voila! Printing blues was a whole new story. The lovely could be made lovelier. Not only that, but this new Prussian blue was basically color-fast as can be seen in the examples above and below. Below is another print from about the same time from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and shows an Eisen representation of another high-ranking courtesan from the Matsubaya. Her taken or assigned name was Yoyoyama.

Yoyoyama (代々山) of the Matsubaya – 1830s
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

When life becomes theater – 

Below is an image of an actor playing a high-ranking courtesan of the Matsubaya. It is the left panel of a diptych by Toyokuni III. We have yet to identify the name of the kabuki play it is from.

Courtesan of the Matsubaya
Toyokuni III
Tokyo Metropolitan Library

The objectification of women is not exclusive to Japan. Duh!

Marily Monroe in her 501 jeans

Who was the first person to refer to prostitution as ‘the world’s oldest profession’?

To tell you the truth, I don’t know. But what I do know is that Eugene O’Neill in 1921 in Act One of Anna Christie he described her as “…plainly showing all the outward evidences of belonging to the world’s oldest profession. Her youthful face is already hard and cynical beneath its layer of make-up. Her clothes are the tawdry finery of peasant stock turned prostitute.”

About 33 years earlier Rudyard Kipling started off an 1888 short story by saying: “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world…”

In Psychology Today online Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., asked the question about prostitution in the Stone Age before there was any money. He pointed out that money wasn’t always necessary. If an undesirable male had something an attractive female might want then there was definitely a ‘price point’. He points out that male bonobos and chimps can win sexual favors from the females in exchange for a prized treat like sugar cane.


In the last week before I started this post – today is September 27, 2017 – I heard to news items which give me some hope that the world is still changing for the better. Yesterday it was announce that starting in June 2018 that women in Saudi Arabia will get the right to drive cars themselves. Unfortunately this morning I heard that they had to be at least 30 years old to do so, but it is a first baby step. Also, I heard that Yuriko Koike (小池百合子: born in 1952) , the mayor of Tokyo, is going to start her own party. While I know almost nothing about Japanese politics, I will keep my fingers crossed.


Don’t forget. I start out very slowly
and build my posts around the images I

have been able to find. So come back often 
and, at least at the beginning, it should be 
visibly different from day to day.

Next Page »

Blog at