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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Seduction: Japan's Floating World Exhibit

I gave myself a dose of culture on my last morning in San Francisco at the Asian Art Museum's feature exhibit, Seduction: Japan's Floating World. The exhibit highlights art and treasures from the Edo era.

Japan's "Floating World" was a famed entertainment center, part Vegas, part red light district. It was incredibly expensive and famous for its thousands of courtesans. There were many tiers of stature for the courtesans. The ones at the top were like celebrities, to procure an evening of entertainment from them would require multiple meetings with their handlers and exorbitant amounts of money. The high tier courtesans were also the trendsetters of decor and fashion.

Floating World Courtesans were trendsetters and slaves

This exhibit displayed intricately embroidered bedcovers and garments made of the finest silk that were representative of the period. There were carved precious incense burners that perfumed their quarters and inlaid mirror cases that courtesans used to fix their elaborately coiffed hair and makeup.
One of the centerpieces of the exhibit is a long illustrated scroll that depicts scenes of life in the Floating World. There are tea houses, ladies performing various arts, client negotiations to final payments (in today's money, a night depicted in the scroll would come to about $13000).

There were also woodblock illustrated guidebooks for tourists visiting the Floating World on how to behave and what to expect. The courtesans it was noted, were not common prostitutes. They had a lifetime of strict education in multiple techniques in the arts, music, calligraphy, dance, etc.

While the (male) executed literature and artwork described this world as glamorous and pleasurable, the exhibit itself noted that this culture was NOT the same for the courtesans involved. Typically, the women were procured from poor rural families who had sold them into servitude to houses to serve the courtesans. If they showed talent, they would be trained in the arts or courtesan skills. The costs of being a top tier courtesan (or even lower tiers) were extremely high, between paying entourage servants, sponsoring house, grooming, wardrobe, etc. This ensured that the courtesans were perpetually mired in debt, keeping them a slave to the profession.  The only hope these women had in earning their freedom was to land an extremely wealthy client who could pay off their debts.

The gorgeous items worn or used by the courtesans of the era would be prized possessions that were passed down through generations. They might be gifts from VIP clients. A spectacular kimono might be the signature look of famous courtesan. The exhibit didn't shy away from both the beauty of the artwork from the period and also the dark side of the society that made it possible.

Are you reading to take the journey to Japan's Floating World? The exhibit runs until May 10, 2015.

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