Here’s How Japan Marketed Its Sprawling Red-Light District Hundreds Of Years Ago

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Hosoda Eishi (1756–1829) Contest of Passion in the Four Seasons (Shiki kyo-en zu), late 1790s–early 1800s; one of a set of four hanging scrolls; ink, colour and gold on silk, Michael Fornitz collection.

It was a stroke of marketing genius on the part of the madams and pimps of Japan’s 17th century red light district to call their digs the Floating World. Ukiyo in Japanese, the phrase came to signify not only a locale distinct from the rest of Edo, the city known today as Tokyo, but a singular state of mind. Entering the Ukiyo — technical name: Shin Yoshiwara, meaning “New Lucky Field” (the old Yoshiwara fell to the Great Fire of Mereiki) — became synonymous with a certain kind of sensual transcendence.

The marketing of this illusion is the subject of a clever new exhibit at the Asian American Museum in San Francisco. Aptly titled “Seduction,” the lavish show brings together more than 50 works from the collection of John C. Weber, a New Yorker who has spent the better part of the last 20 years amassing one of the foremost Western collections of Japanese art. The works, which include kimonos, fans, and scrolls, make a double edged statement. For all their cherry-blossomed, old world romance, their existence speaks to the hard-edged winners’ mentality of Edo period citizens.

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