The Yoshiwara: Edo's 19th Century Red Light District: Background information when reading The Printmaker's Daughter

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The Printmaker's Daughter

A Novel

by Katherine Govier

The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier
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    Nov 2011, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Mark James

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Beyond the Book:
The Yoshiwara: Edo's 19th Century Red Light District

Print Review

Katherine Govier's The Printmaker's Daughter is historical fiction based on the real-life Japanese printmaker, Hokusai - best known for his ukiyo-e* series The Adonis Plant entitled Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji - and his daughter, Ei. The character Ei spends much of her early life in the Yoshiwara, or red light district, of Edo (modern day Tokyo) where her father helps pay his bills by producing erotica known as shunga. Ei, or Oei as he calls her, works as her father's apprentice.

In real life, just as in the book, the Yoshiwara was set off from the city, and was the only place in Edo where prostitution was legal. It was also the only place that chinen, or townspeople, could mix with samurai, members of the powerful military caste. It was an area both set off from, but inherent in, Japanese culture. Weapons were not allowed, and were collected at the district gate to be redistributed when the customer was ready to leave.

Courtesans - not to be confused with geishas who are entertainers educated in music, the arts, and current events - were required to serve an educational apprenticeship that involved physical, sexual training and plied their trade in the brothels. Many were sold by their parents to the brothels at a young age and spent their lives paying off family debt. However, they didn't all come from poor families; in the novel, Ei's friend, Shino, comes from an upper class family but is sent to the Yoshiwara as a teenager for offending her husband.

The Yoshiwara
The courtesans at the lower-end brothels were displayed behind lattice work as seen in the picture above, while those at higher-end brothels (such as where Shino worked), were not subjected to such treatment. After World War II ended, many Japanese courtesans were pressed into service as "comfort women" for American troops and, while some had their contracts bought out by wealthy patrons who then took them as wives or concubines, many lived their entire lives in the Yoshiwara. Sexually transmitted diseases and botched abortions took many courtesans' lives, and it wasn't until well after World War II, in 1956, that prostitution was officially declared illegal by the Japanese government.

Read more about the personal experiences of one "comfort woman" in a riveting article in The Japanese Times, or browse an article by the Japan Policy Research Institute to find out more about women pressed into courtesan service for allied troops.

Artwork above: detail of Katsushika Hokusai's Two Lovers

*ukiyo-e translates literally as "pictures of the floating world"

Article by Mark James

This article is from the January 12, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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