A Low Class Prostitute (Gun [teppo]), from the series “Five Shades of Ink in the Northern Quarter" ("Hokkoku goshiki-zumi")

Art Institute of Chicago

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Sex workers in the urban pleasure districts of Edo-period Japan were governed by a strict hierarchy, regulated by the brothels and the state. Girls started working in brothels as assistants, receiving an education in deportment and if they showed potential, the arts. Women from the three highest ranks of sex workers were called oiran. Lower-class sex workers were called shinzo. Furisode shinzō had the possibility of rising through the ranks to become oiran; tomesode shinzō did not have the opportunity for mobility and thus had difficult working conditions and lesser wages. While oiran were celebrated as artists and literary figures, lower-ranking sex workers had less access to literacy and creative notoriety. This woodblock print of a lower-ranking sex worker is from a series detailing different classes of courtesan. Her simple kimono, relatively unadorned hairstyle, and exposed breasts mark her low rank as shinzo. Learn more about class among Edo-era sex workers.

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