Ukiyo-e Prints


Port Townsend, Washington




Keisai Eisen





Series Title:

"The Seven Greatest Beauties of the New Yoshiwara"

"Shin Yoshiwara zen sei kenjin"





Oiran with two kamuros

"The Courtesan Shiratama from the Tamaya House"





14 7/8" x 10"


Kawaguchi-ya Uhei



Date: ca. 1820s






The Tamaya brothel was one of the oldest and most prestigious of the Yoshiwara institutions. Traditionally referred to as the Corner Tamaya it was the first house to be seen on the left on the first cross street after entering the great gate. It had pride of place: location, location, location.


Although I can't be sure --- and this question comes up often --- but "Is this an advertisement?" Basically I would have to say "Yes!" Just look at here. Perhaps this is simply a visual encomium, but if it is it works like a great restaurant review. After that it is hard to get a reservation.





At the beginning of the 1958 movie "Gigi" Maurice Chevalier sings "Thank heaven for little girls for little girls get bigger every day... and without them what would little boys do?" Later in the film Hermione Gingold instructs Leslie Caron in the ways of the courtesan --- which if I remember correctly include the choice of a fine cigar and how to light it for him.


On September 23, 2003 President Bush addressed the the General Assembly of the United Nations. While the beginning of the speech dealt with the issues surrounding the war in Iraq the end concluded with the horrors of trafficking in human beings. Bush said "There's another humanitarian crisis spreading, yet hidden from view." He added that "Among them are hundreds of thousands of teenage girls, and others as young as five, who fall victim to the sex trade."


Although not much attention has been placed on the President's remarks they struck  a chord with me as I was preparing to write about the life and role of the kamuro.  Isn't it amazing the cultural divide that exists when it comes to time and place?


By and large women entered into prostitution because of poverty and starvation. Once the system of pleasure quarters and bordellos had been established and codified --- including government licensing --- procurers were sent out into the countryside to purchase the most promising and beautiful prospects among the ever-hungry peasantry. Generally young girls from the ages of seven to nine were bought from their parents, but occasionally if the child was especially striking she might be considerably younger. These events were usually traumatic for both the parents and the child, but paraphrasing the Ronald Coleman character in "A Tale of Two Cities" the parents felt that their sacrifice "...was a far, far, better thing than they had ever done before." They knew what was in store for their daughters if they remained impoverished and living as they did. They also knew that in many ways the lives of their children would be immeasurably better as a kamuro.


By the beginning of the eighteenth century the pattern was well established. The highest order of courtesan would have two young assistants and 1) the girl would be taught skills --- other than sexual --- that would come later --- that she could never have learned at home; 2) she would be well fed, clothed and her health care would be the concern of the house who owned her and the courtesan whom she accompanied; 3) she could eventually marry above her social level which would never have happened if she had remained with her parents. Even very beautiful untouchables could rise above this stigma; and 4) she would have a sense of place and worth --- albeit skewed by our contemporary standards --- much higher than what she had been born into. However, if the girl was a slow learner than life would be far worse, but possibly still better than if she had remained at home.




Recently I was able to purchase another version of the print being offered on this page. That is a great joy for me since I already loved this one and the new one has qualities of its own which help it stand independently. The one I am showing below is a slightly later edition. Click on it to go to its own page for further information and commentary.