This haunting set of photos of women dressed in colourful kimonos staring out of cages provides an insight into the lives of the Japanese prostitutes of Yoshiwara who faced decades of enslavement.
The notorious red light district, which was established in 1617 with the goal of restricting prostitution to certain areas of Edo – known today as Tokyo – housed more than 100 brothels within its walls.
The rare images, which were taken by an unknown photographer in the 1890s and 1900s, show elegantly dressed, high class courtesans posed outside brothels. However, among the images are also lower-level prostitutes who were displayed in wooden latticed cages known as ‘harimise’ located around the quarter.
These girls were often enslaved to the brothels by their parents from as young as seven years old. The more fortunate girls would become attendants to high-ranking or elite courtesans. However, this was not a common occurrence.
The only escape from Yoshiwara was for a wealthy man to buy a woman’s contract from the brothel and keep her as his personal wife or concubine. Another would be if she was successful enough to buy her own freedom.
Caged prostitutes in Yoshiwara: The district was established in 1617 with the goal of restricting prostitution to certain parts in Japan. The walled brothel district, which covered 20 acres and was surrounded by a moat, was the only government-sanctioned brothel district in the capital
Three prostitutes from the infamous Nectarine No. 9 brothel in Yoshiwara pose for a photograph. One way the women could escape Yoshiwara was if a rich man bought her contract from the brothel and kept her as his personal wife or concubine. Another was if she was successful enough to buy her own freedom
A high class courtesan poses with her two child assistants who will one day join her in the brothel – if they are lucky. The women were put on display to entice male customers to buy them
If the girls showed signs of talent, they would be trained in the relevant etiquette to serve an elite courtesan. But more commonly, these girls would have ended up working in the more lowly brothels or caged harimise showrooms
A rare photograph showing men entering the Nectarine No. 9 brothel with prostitutes standing on the balconies. Customers from all backgrounds and social class, as well as anyone from nobles to travellers were welcomed and given equal access to the district
Anyone was welcomed to the moated district, although Samurai had to remove their swords before entering the gates. The quarter was predominantly inhabited by female prostitutes
Girls as young as seven-years-old could be forced into prostitution to pay off family debts. Most of them were sold by poor families living in the countryside. Often, although contracts to the brothels were only supposed to last between five and ten years, the massive family debt kept them in the brothels their entire lives
Nobel-Prize nominee Hideyo Noguchi, whose face can be found on Japan’s 1000 yen bill, was such a fan of the girls of Yoshiwara that he reportedly once blew 500 yen on a single night of pleasure there
Prostitutes outside a brothel in Yoshiwara: Putting prostitutes on display in harimise was prohibited from 1916, due to intense international pressure. Yoshiwara operated until 1958, when the Japanese government outlawed prostitution
A street scene in Yoshiwara, circa 1930: The district grew rapidly from its establishment in the seventeenth century, rising from under 550 prostitutes at its inception to more than 9,000 women by 1893
The images often served as postcards to entice foreigners to try the delights of Yoshiwara. They also allowed future customers to pick the girls they wanted prior to entering the district
The luckier girls would become attendants to high-ranking courtesans, serving their so-called ‘sister’ courtesans. And if they showed signs of talent, they would be trained in the etiquette to serve an elite courtesan
Caged prostitutes look out from behind bars: The notorious red light district, which was established in 1617 with goal of restricting prostitution to certain areas of Edo – known today as Tokyo, housed more than 100 brothels within its walls
A group of women stand outside the Nectarine No. 9 Brothel – a world famous house of prostitution which was admired by Rudyard Kipling and Nobel-Prize nominee Hideyo Noguchi
Many modern-day scholars have emphasized the oppressive and exploitative nature of the work endured by the women who had been sold into service