(source of good luck)
If you mention this place to a Japanese person they have a flood images run through their head; Edo Period nightlife, geisha, drinking sake, oiran, traditional entertainment, prostitution, and even political intrigue in old Japan. It used to be the “pleasure quarters” (遊郭) of Edo and also in Tokyo until the American Occupation which decided that somehow having a place dedicated to adult entertainment was a bad idea.
What a bunch of assholes.
Anyways, the name is made of 2 kanji, 吉 (kichi, yoshi) and it means good luck. The second kanji is 原 which means “source,” “primary” or “raw.” Knowing that, you can see why I translated the name as I did.
The original location may have pre-dated the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate and it just happened to be located near Nihonbashi, the epicenter of many roads flowing into/out of Edo. After the Meireiki Fire which devastated that area of Edo, the pleasure quarters were moved to a located surrounded by moats…. either to protect them from outside fires, or more directly to protect the rest of the city from the craziness that might start fires there.
For most of the Edo Period, it was an isolated area only in terms of the moats. Customers came and went casually. That said, the girls who worked there were in a state of semi-slavery (a little social mobility was possible, but I guess in the west we would call them indentured servants). But the girls were basically forbidden to leave unless their freedom was purchased by a rich merchant or samurai. Most of the women who worked in the Yoshiwara had either been sold by their families and thus disowned or had no one else financially responsible for them upon death. Most of them were interred/enshrined at Joukanji. It’s depressing.
Today, there is no official address called Yoshiwara. There is no train station called Yoshiwara. This was all by design of MacArthur and his cronies, whose puritanical sensibilities managed to persist on paper and geography, but in some ways were totally ignored in that today the former Yoshiwara is still very much red light district. There are residences here now, but none of those people use the word Yoshiwara, except as a reference to history or a joke.
Today, girls who have decided to make a career in the Japanese sex industry sometimes even refer to themselves as Yoshiwara girls.
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One thought on “What does Yoshiwara mean?”
Nooooo I wrote a comment here but I’ve just realised that it may not have actually got posted!!!!
First of all, I need to say that I was flicking through you blog and really like all articles! I lived in Tokyo and I don’t think I ever questioned by “Suidobashi” was even called that :’)
I did have a comment on the translation of 吉原 (I’m a language student so I like discussing these things and it’s not to say that your translation was wrong per se).
– “吉” = good luck, joy, congratulations (jisho.org)
– “原” = meadow, original, primitive, field, plain, prairie, tundra, wilderness (jisho.org)
This basically is to probably give other Japanese the idea that it is a “wild, open area” you can go to (without feeling restricted) in order to find your “joy” (in the euphemistic sense). In this way, it becomes your “source” of “joy” as well, but this is only perhaps a more secondary, hidden meaning (considering that “原” is more often used to refer to a place rather than a source in Japanese). Depends on the interpretation I guess.
The dual meaning of “open area” and “source” presents a real problem for English translation; however, I would be more inclined to lean towards prioritising a translation that refers to a “place” rather than “source”.
Although not perfect, this is my attempt at a translation of “吉原” (if you’re interested :’) ) = “field of joy”
Interesting to note : ‘Yoshiwara was originally written with a compound meaning “reed field” (葦原), but the first character of the pair was soon changed to a more felicitous homophone meaning “good luck” (吉 instead of 葦)’
Source : https://www.asianart.com/exhibitions/seduction/intro.html#:~:text=Yoshiwara%20was%20originally%20written%20with,homophone%20meaning%20%22good%20luck.%22