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Significance of Shin-yoshiwara

Another aspect of the damage with a strong psychological impact was the devastation of the elite brothel district, Shin-Yoshiwara (often “Yoshiwara” in documents). As Markus explains, “The earthquake struck as activity in the district was at its height, its alleys most crowded with lights and pleasure seekers. As buildings crumpled and fires erupted simultaneously in all five divisions of the quarter, a throng of prostitutes, entertainers, clients, and sightseers stampeded toward the single main exit, the O-mon, 'Great Gate.' However, the gate was twisted and would not open; efforts to lower the emergency 'gangplanks' over the moat that ringed the quarter were unavailing. Of all the scenes of surprising horror that night, the New Yoshiwara [Shin-Yoshiwara] was the most vivid in the collective consciousness.”[1]

Nearly every earthquake account dwells on the devastation of ShinYoshiwara. According to After the Shaking, for example, “Yoshiwara is widely known to have been horribly charred. All that is left of it is two or three earthen storehouses.”[2] Record of the Times explains that “particularly in Yoshiwara,” because the earthquake struck at the peak of activity, “thousands of men and women in the midst of reveling in the upper and lower levels were instantly shaken down to the ground, soon to be consumed in fi e. Survivors were rare.”[3] Saitō Gesshin explains that the earthquake “leveled Yoshiwara all at once,” and that the dead were “too numerous to count.” In a subsequent passage, he points out that an investigation on the fifth day (the survey ordered by the City Magistrate) put the death toll at 630, and that adding in visitors and others from outside areas, the grand total would probably amount to one thousand or slightly less.[4] Fujiokaya Diary describes the “heavenly world” of Yoshiwara as turning to hell in an instant on the night of the second day.[5] Miyazaki Narumi pointed out that the stench from the burning objects and bodies was diffi ult to endure. He also told a strange tale of the charred remains of a Western-style military drill team found among the Shin-Yoshiwara carnage, whose weapons included thirty Gewehr guns and seven Japanese-made fi earms. An investigation determined that this drill team, one of several in Edo at the time, had been showing off its skills for the amusement of the courtesans that night. None of its members survived.[6] On the fourth day of the eleventh month, the City Magistrate dealt with the destruction of Shin-Yoshiwara by issuing a directive permitting the establishment of temporary brothels (karitaku) in twenty-four locations for five hundred days.[7] Following the destruction of Shin-Yoshiwara in 1812 by fire, the bakufu adopted a similar policy.[8] Word of this development spread quickly. Several earthquake accounts mention the temporary brothels, listing their locations in some cases. The brothels were also a prominent theme in catfish prints.[9] Customers frequenting such establishments soon after the main shock were not elite merchants but townspeople in the construction trades or other lines of work that enjoyed windfall profits. The earthquake created a temporary transfer of wealth from elite merchants to ordinary townspeople and often subsequently to the temporary brothels.[10] The devastation of the outer precincts of Edo Castle and the offshore artillery batteries appeared as a cosmic assault on the bakufu. Similarly, the charred ruins of the elite brothel district appeared as an assault on the playground of Edo's wealthy men. The temporary replacing of wealthy merchants by townspeople who in ordinary circumstances could never afford to visit the licensed quarters was, in the eyes of these townspeople, the quintessential meaning of world renewal.


The Ansei Edo earthquake had an affinity for smashing storehouses. Even areas of Edo that suffered little or no damage to other structures usually experienced collapsed storehouses. Nearly every account of the earthquake discusses storehouses, and collapsed or badly damaged storehouses litter the landscape in many visual images, whether in books or broadsides. Record of Strange Earthquake Tales (Jishin kidanroku) begins with a tale in which the collapsing storehouse of a pawnbroker's residence killed eighteen people.[11] According to After the Shaking, large houses with plaster walls suffered great damage in the earthquake. Owing to fire danger, storehouses also feature plaster construction, “but in an earthquake they become exceedingly dangerous.”[12] Heavy, plaster-walled structures like storehouses were especially susceptible to the short-period seismic waves associated with many of Japan's inland earthquakes (chokkakei jishin). Moreover, in 1855 nearly all storehouses were of heavy construction because in 1842 the City Magistrate issued orders to the neighborhood heads that in the interest of fire safety, henceforth all storehouses must be constructed with mud plaster walls and tiled roofs. The roofs on all house extensions and outbuildings were also to be tiled. The collapse of such structures caused approximately half the earthquake injuries and many deaths.[13]

The earthquake caused architectural change as the city rebuilt, as Miyazaki Narumi explains: “In the present earthquake, the majority of tile roofs collapsed. Therefore, those dwellings whose roofs remain are discarding the tiles. Tiles set on top of a thin wood lattice [doibuki] are lined up in a manner called 'ichimatsu,' which works for wind, rain, and earthquakes.

Deeming two-story structures unsuitable, people are removing the top story to make the structure flat and then roofing with thin boards [kokerabuki]. Roofers are very busy these days and their wages keep rising more and more.”[14] Elsewhere in his account, Narumi comments on high prices for materials, high wages, and the enthusiasm with which members of the construction trades pursued these wages.[15] Many residents rebuilt their roofs with boards or thatch, just in time for the great typhoon of 1856 to blow them away.[16]

Storehouses were associated with the bakufu insofar as the city government dictated their design. They were also associated with wealth for the obvious reason that the wealthiest residents of Edo required large or multiple storehouses. The particularly severe and extensive damage to storehouses, therefore, would have contributed to a sense of the cosmic forces redistributing wealth. There was no looting or other serious civil disorder in the wake of the earthquake, but there was plenty of work at high wages for those who would repair the storehouses and residences of the wealthy.

  • [1] Markus, “Gesaku Authors,” 57.
  • [2] “Nai no nochimigusa,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 573.
  • [3] “Jifūroku,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 538.
  • [4] Saitō, Ansei itsubō bukō chidō no ki, 9. See Markus, “Gesaku Authors,” 57–58, for a lengthy, vivid description by Saitō Gesshin from a different work.
  • [5] “Fujiokaya nikki (ge),” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 386.
  • [6] “Ansei itsubō jishin kibun,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 443. See also Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 141.
  • [7] NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 73–74.
  • [8] Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1993), 207.
  • [9] For a list of temporary brothel locations, see print #150, Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 332–333; “Yabure mado no ki,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 565–566; and NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 73.
  • [10] The basic cost at these brothels was 1 bu (one-fourth of a ryō). See Kitani Makoto, Namazue shinkō: Saigai no kosumorojii (Tsuchiura-shi: Tsukuba shorin, 1984), 57. For comparison, the basic cost of a night with a zashikimochi (one rank blow an oiran) at Shin-Yoishiwara was 1 or 2 bu, and a night with a heyamochi (one rank lower) ranged from 0.5 bu to 1.0 bu. See Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1993), 231.
  • [11] “Jishin kidan roku,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 508. This tale is reminiscent of an account by Asai Ryōi in 1662 of a collapsing storehouse killing all the women of a wealthy household. See Asai Ryōi, Kaname’ishi (1662), in Taniwaki Masachika, Oka Masahiko, and Inoue Kazuhito, eds., trans., Kanazōshishū (Shōgakkan, 1999), 21–22.
  • [12] “Nai no nochimigusa,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 570.
  • [13] Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 118–120.
  • [14] “Ansei itsubō jishin kibun,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 432–433. See also 454, 455. Noguchi points out that according to official allowances, the wages of roof thatchers rose 50 percent, while roof tile installers’ wages rose only 9 percent because tiled roofs lost their popularity. Ansei Edo jishin, 202. Actual wage rates were higher, but the official figures indicate the approximate relative differences.
  • [15] See, for example, “Ansei itsubō jishin kibun,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 431, 441–442, 454, and 455–456.
  • [16] Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 217.
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