When Yedo suddenly rose into splendour at the beginning of the seventeenth century, people of all classes and from all parts of the country flocked thither to seek their fortune. The courtesans were not behindhand. From Kyōto, from Nara, from Fushimi, they arrived-so the native accounts inform us-in little parties of threes and fours. But a band of some twenty or thirty from the town of Moto-Yoshiwara on the Tōkaidō were either the most numerous or the most beautiful; and so the district of Yedo where they took up their abode came to be called the Yoshiwara. At first there was no official supervision of these frail ladies. They were free to ply their trade wherever they chose. But in the year 1617, on the representations of a reformer named Shōji Jin-emon, the city in general was purified, and all the libertinism in it-permitted, but regulated-was banished to one special quarter near Nihombashi, to which the name of Yoshiwara attached itself. This segregative system, which became general and permanent, has had at least one excellent result:-the Japanese streets at night exhibit none of those scenes of brazen-faced solicitation to vice which disgrace our Western cities. Later on, in A. D. 1656, when the metropolis had grown larger and Nihom-bashi had become its centre, the authorities caused the houses in question to be removed to their present site on the northern limit of Yedo, whence the name of Shin (i.e. New) Yoshiwara, by which the place is currently known. Foreigners often speak of "a Yoshiwara," as if the word were a generic term. It is not so. The quarters of similar character in other parts of Japan are never so called by the Japanese themselves. Such words as yūjoba and kuruzwa are used to designate them.
Japanese literature is full of romantic stories in which the Yoshiwara plays a part. Generally the heroine has found her way there in obedience to the dictates of filial piety in order to support her aged parents, or else she is kidnapped by some ruffian who basely sells her for his own profit. The story often ends by the girl emerging from a life of shame with at least her heart untainted, and by all the good people living happily ever after. It is to be feared that real life witnesses few such fortunate cases, though it is probably true that the fallen women of Japan are, as a class, much less vicious than their representatives in Western lands, being neither drunken nor foul-mouthed. On the other hand, a Japanese proverb says that a truthful courtesan is as great a miracle as a square egg.
In former times, girls could be and were regularly and legally sold into debauchery at the Yoshiwara in Yedo and at its counterparts throughout the land,-a state of things which the present enlightened government hastened to reform. Towards the close of the nineteenth century, an agitation against the whole system was begun by the missionaries, notably by the Japan branch of the Salvation Army, supported by a section of the Tōkyō press. It bore fruit in 1900, in the passing of a new law enabling any girl to free herself at once from the fetters of shame by a mere declaration of that intention to the police. Over 400 in Tōkyō alone immediately had recourse to the means of liberation thus unexpectedly provided, and before the end of the year over 1,100 had left with or without the consent of the keepers of the brothels. In fact, the rush became so great that many houses had to close their doors. When we add that a weekly medical inspection of the inmates of all such places had been introduced as early as 1874 in imitation of European ways, that each house and each separate inmate of each house is heavily taxed, and that there is severe police control over all,-we have mentioned all that need here be said on a subject which could only be adequately discussed in the pages of a medical work. Those interested in this particular department of sociology will find full and curious details in The Nightless City, published anonymously at Yokohama in 1899.