Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Feb 20, 2015 – May 10, 2015

Explore Japan's "floating world"

In Edo Period Japan (1615-1868), the “floating world” was a phrase that referred to both the pleasure quarters in major cities and a pleasure-seeking way of life. The most famous of these pleasure quarters was the Yoshiwara—a walled and moated district in Edo (present-day Tokyo) where one could abandon the rigors of daily life in pursuit of sensual delights.

Like Las Vegas today, the Yoshiwara was a destination that traded in sex, excess and fantasy, and its reputation as such—spread by the stories and artworks it inspired—was critical to its economic success and hold on the popular imagination.

Enter this complex world through more than 60 works of art, including paintings, woodblock prints and kimonos, and featuring a spectacular 58-foot painted scroll by Hishikawa Moronobu (d. 1694). Purposefully excluding the harsh realities of the sex trade, floating world artists created an idealized realm of high style and exquisite beauty. Produced by some of the most talented artists of their time, these artworks afforded vicarious pleasure to the many who could not access the Yoshiwara directly, while luring others to spend more freely. Seduction offers you the opportunity to explore the intersection of art and desire, and to consider how fantasy can attract and obscure. 


The Floating World

The concept of the “floating world” originated from a Buddhist term, ukiyo, used to describe the suffering caused by desire.

During Japan’s Edo period (1615–1868), the term took on a secular meaning, and was used to evoke an imagined universe of stylish extravagance—with overtones of hedonism and transgression.

For some urban residents of the time, the “floating world” was realized in popular Kabuki theaters and red light districts, where short-lived pleasures were sold and savored. Though these venues were accessible only to a fraction of the population, the floating world provided vicarious pleasure to many others in the form of song, story, gossip and pictures.

Seduction: Japan’s Floating World | The John C. Weber Collection features a selection of paintings from this popular realm, by some of the most talented artists of the time. This kind of art was critical to the success of the entertainment districts. Using virtuoso techniques, sensual designs and sophisticated styles, floating-world pictures supported escapist—and often erotic—fantasies about popular venues and their stars. Notably, pictures of the Yoshiwara—Edo’s legendary, government-sanctioned brothel district—ignore the harsh realities of the sex trade in favor of elegant, carefree settings inhabited by alluring beauties.

The Yoshiwara

The Yoshiwara—a walled and moated brothel district covering about 20 acres—was the sole government-sanctioned brothel district in Edo (present-day Tokyo).

It was first established in 1617, near the center of the city. Forty years later, after fire damaged much of the city, the Yoshiwara was relocated to the northeast edges of Edo.

More than 100 brothels were located within the Yoshiwara’s walls, along with teahouses, shops and other businesses serving the needs of the quarter. At its peak, the quarter housed thousands of prostitutes, most of them sold by poor families in the countryside and brought to the district at age 7 or 8. They began by serving their “sister” courtesans, but if a child attendant showed signs of talent, she would be trained in the etiquette and cultural accomplishments required for an elite courtesan. More commonly, Yoshiwara women ended up as lower-level prostitutes assigned to work in latticed showrooms and stalls throughout the quarter. The Yoshiwara operated until 1958, when the Japanese government outlawed prostitution.

Ignoring the psychological and physical realities of life in the Yoshiwara, floating-world artists constructed idealized, erotically charged images of iconic courtesans and establishments. Seduction: Japan’s Floating World | The John C. Weber Collection invites you to consider this complicated intersection of art and desire—to unpack these beautiful and heavily coded images, discover their richly sensual styles, and reflect on how these dynamic compositions might have seduced potential clients of the quarter.

Costumes and Desire

Artists used visual cues like clothing and props to communicate a great deal about the characters and situations typically encountered in the floating world.

Such details carried a special sexy appeal within a culture that celebrated double identities, gender reversal and hidden agendas. Courtesans, attendants and apprentices paraded through the quarter in distinctive, elaborate costumes that signaled their high status and the wealth of their patrons. In Kabuki, the popular stage art of the time, male actors playing female roles wore women’s clothing, and their sleeves bore special decorative crests associated with famous acting lineages. Samurai—not officially permitted in the Yoshiwara—visited the quarter hiding their identities beneath large straw hats. Seduction: Japan’s Floating World | The John C. Weber Collection explores the language of Edo clothing, including the erotic and romantic undertones understood by Edo viewers. For example, two sisters from the 10th century Tales of Ise are shown by the artist Utagawa Toyoharu (1735–1814) awaiting the return of a handsome courtier. Their costumes have been modified to re-contextualize them as courtesans, as if to suggest that prostitutes similarly yearned for the return of their “lovers.”

In addition to pictures of the floating world, Seduction features a selection of exquisite Edo-period textiles. While few courtesan costumes survive to this day, the robes displayed in this exhibition, made for wealthy warrior and merchant families, offer a glimpse of the material splendor of Edo-period fashion in the pleasure quarter.

Organizers & Sponsors

Seduction: Japan’s Floating World | The John C. Weber Collection was organized by the Asian Art Museum. Presentation is made possible with the generous support of Hiro Ogawa, Atsuhiko and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation, The Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation, The Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Fund for Excellence in Exhibitions and Presentations, Anne and Timothy Kahn, and Rhoda and Richard Mesker.

Media sponsors: ABC7, SF Media Co., KQED, and San Francisco magazine.