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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

A conversation through the latticed wall of a brothel
Hishikawa Moronobu (d. 1694)
A Visit to the Yoshiwara, section 5 (detail of cat. no. 1)
Edo period (1615–1868)
Handscroll; ink, colors, and gold on paper

This grand handscroll, almost fifty-eight feet in length, presents the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter as a glamorous site for sensual gratification. The scroll reads from the right, opening along a path thronged with visitors making their way toward the Yoshiwara's main gate. Inside the gate, we see snapshots of bustling commerce on the streets of the quarter. Samurai with swords, their faces concealed under sedge hats, mingle with merchants seeking the company of prostitutes who lounge in lattice-front brothels or parade through the streets in fashionable attire. Later in the scroll, the view moves inside to a house of assignation where top-ranked courtesans meet clients. Cooks in a bustling kitchen prepare delicacies for partygoers, and clients eat and imbibe before bedding down with courtesans. The scroll concludes with a scene of clients settling their bills the morning after an opulent party.

Married to a former courtesan, Moronobu had an insider's knowledge of the quarter, reflected in the handscroll's meticulously detailed customs and fashions. He rendered the elaborate vignettes in expensive mineral pigments and labeled the settings in gold ink, now barely visible. This lavish treatment and the grand scale of the scroll suggest that Moronobu made the painting for an important patron, probably a high-ranking samurai.