In addition to the physical danger that it poses, the psychological stress caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic over the past few weeks is undeniable. Because we are, whenever possible, secluding ourselves within our homes and avoiding direct interaction with others, many of us now struggle with feelings of boredom and loneliness. Fortunately, at times such as these, works of fine art and the stories to which they refer can inspire conversation–not only verbal dialogue with other viewers, but also a silent, empathic connection with either the artist or the individual who he or she depicts.

Few subjects were more often depicted in Japanese prints and paintings from the Edo period (1615–1868) than the courtesans who lived and worked in the Yoshiwara brothel district, and few other subjects in that field embody as keenly a sense of isolation and loneliness. This was particularly true of the tayū—the highest-ranking courtesans in the Yoshiwara during the early 18th century. These women—depicted in the book Beautiful Courtesans of the Northern Quarters (1701) by Okumura Masanobu (1686­–1764)—were celebrities whose fame was credited not only to their physical beauty but to their cultural sophistication. This was expressed through witty humor, charm, and deep understanding of classical poetry, contemporary fashion, and other subjects. Men would pay astronomical amounts—between 70 and 90 pieces of silver (momme) or approximately USD $2,100 and USD $2,700—for a mere conversation with a courtesan. Yet these women were frequently sequestered in parlors, and even if the wooden lattices on windows merely served a decorative purpose, the degree to which these women’s movements were restricted was difficult to overlook.

Such seemingly contradictory aspects of the lifestyle of a tayū—her social status and confinement—were in fact integrally interconnected. In the minds of those who valued the Yoshiwara as a place of artistic expression, at least, it was through such a regulated lifestyle, in combination with intense study and artistic training, that such a woman achieved her fame.

In many cultures throughout the world, self-isolation has been highly respected for centuries as a means by which individuals can spiritually purify themselves. In Japan, more austere examples of this practice have been long associated with religious communities such as the ascetic hermits (yamabushi ) of the Shugendō doctrine of Buddhism. Internationally, contemporary secular forms of hermetism include residence at rehabilitation centers, attendance at meditation retreats, and “going off the grid” in order to express environmentalist concerns. Perhaps the most common instances, however, are when an individual minimizes social interaction in order to focus upon a challenging project, be it studying for an upcoming test or expressing oneself through the creation of visual art.

At this time, when our community leaders have instructed us to stay indoors and avoid social interaction, it is worth adding that sometimes opportunities to focus upon our own self-betterment arrive without our invitation.

Okumura Masanobu (1686–1764)
Beautiful Courtesans of the Northern Quarters
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), 1701
Woodblock-printed book; ink on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1991 (31105B)