The British Museum has a new small exhibition in Room 3 – the one on the right of the main entrance as you go in. It’s a screen painted by Toyoharu Utamaro depicting the courtesans of the Kado-Tamaya (The Jewel House on the Corner) waiting for customers. If you want to know what the life of a courtesan in eighteen century Japan was like, this is a good place to find out.
Pause here while I have a little rant. These women are courtesans (or prostitutes if we’re calling a spade a spade). They are not geisha. Geisha were skilled entertainers. At the end of a social evening they didn’t sleep with the customers, they went back to the geisha house, leaving the courtesans (oiran) to take over. Though elaborately dressed and trained in music, flower arranging and poetry, an oiran was basically a sex worker.
The exhibition is clear about the economics of the Yoshiwara, which was a licensed pleasure quarter in Edo, the forerunner of present day Tokyo. It was visited by samurai, who were the highest rank of Japanese society, and who might spend the equivalent of several thousand pounds on a night’s entertainment to cover food, drink, dancers, geisha and oiran.
It sounds glamorous, but girls who became oiran were often sold into prostitution by their impoverished families. The family got a lump sum; the girl worked for ten years to pay off the debt. It wasn’t much fun, despite the lovely clothes; malnutrition, disease, and pregnancy all took their toll.
There were compensations – a high-class courtesan, whose good looks, charm and accomplishments brought her status and position might have a better life and even achieve the pinnacle of having her contract bought by an admirer, enabling her to leave the brothel.
This lady looks to have been pretty successful, judging by the many sumptuously-emproidered silk kimonos she wears layered on top of each other. They would all have been gifts from her patron, who would also supply kimonos for her attendants.
The screen shows five oiran and eight apprentices waiting for customers in a latticed display room, heated by a little charcoal brazier, suggesting the season is spring.
It was tedious waiting for customers. The girls on the screen pass the time by smoking, folding paper cranes, dressing a doll (maybe for the Doll’s Festival in March) like the one in the picture at the top of this post, playing the samisen or simply dozing off.
This is the high-status oiran, Komurasaki. Unfortunately we know nothing about her life.
The great thing about these small exhibitions in Room 3 (sponsored by the Asahi Shimbun) is that you can just pop in for a quick look on your way past and then head on to see the rest of the museum. The screen will be on show until 3rd November.
Oh, and by the way, in case you were wondering, Toyoharu Utamaro is not the great woodblock print artist Utamaro. That was Kitagawa Utamaro.