There is much deception uncovered in the Sackler’s “Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered.” There is the question of whether the show’s three central paintings are really by Kitagawa Utamaro, famous mostly for his ukiyo-e prints. For that matter, was Utamaro himself the 17th-century Don Juan of the pleasure quarters that his marketers made him out to be? And, last but not least, we have to wonder whether and how much we can trust the depictions of geisha houses and brothels where women don beautiful silks and delight in the arts. “The scenes,” as I wrote in a WSJ review, “advertise a fantasy version of a world in which, as a poignant final display reminds us, thousands of women lived as indentured servants.”
Here is that final and most effective display — the books date from 1804 and contain Utamaro woodblock prints of annual celebrations in the pleasure quarters of Yoshiwara.
The wall text next to the blow-up photograph reads:
Behind the Brocade of the Yoshiwara
Paintings and prints that marketed Edo’s prostitution districts obscured a darker reality. The sex workers served under contracts that typically lasted ten years. Throughout the eighteenth century, about three thousand of these female workers were in service in the Yoshiwara. By 1844, that number had climbed to more than six thousand.
Many women died during their term of service. Those whose families could not collect their remains were granted a pauper’s funeral and interred at a nearby temple. One of these temples, Jōkanji, lists the names of more than twenty thousand women who died between 1664 and 1926. Syphilis was the most common cause, and the average age at death was twenty-one. A memorial to these individuals stands today at Jōkanji.
An 1872 emancipation act released the sex workers from indenture, but many remained in the trade. Legislation banning prostitution was passed in 1956, and the Yoshiwara was closed two years later.