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Oiran (花魁) were courtesans in Japan. The oiran were considered a type of yūjo (遊女) "woman of pleasure" or prostitute. However, they are distinguished from the yūjo in that they were entertainers, and many became celebrities of their times outside the pleasure districts. Their art and fashions often set trends among the wealthy and, because of this, cultural aspects of oiran traditions continue to be preserved to this day.
The oiran arose in the Edo period (1600–1868). At this time, laws were passed restricting brothels to walled districts set some distance from the city center, known as yūkaku (遊廓、遊郭, pleasure quarter). In the major cities these were the Shimabara in Kyoto, the Shinmachi in Osaka, and in Edo (present-day Tokyo), the Yoshiwara. These rapidly grew into large, self-contained "pleasure quarters" offering all manner of entertainments. Entertainment establishments were known as ageya. Within, a courtesan's birth rank held no distinction, which was fortunate considering many of the courtesans originated as the daughters of impoverished families who were sold into this lifestyle as indentured servants. Instead, they were categorized based on their beauty, character, education, and artistic ability.
The word "oiran" appeared in the Yoshiwara in the 1750s as a polite term of address for any woman of courtesan rank. At the time, the highest rank of courtesans was the tayū (太夫), followed by the kōshi (格子). However, both ranks were in decline in the Yoshiwara, priced out of the market by lower-ranking courtesans. In 1661, the last tayū of the Yoshiwara retired, marking the end of the tayū and kōshi ranks in that pleasure quarter. The lower ranks of courtesans became the top-ranking courtesans of the Yoshiwara, and were collectively referred to as oiran. Because of the Yoshiwara's preeminence, "oiran" eventually became a general term for any courtesan.
While oiran were prostitutes, and were grouped with lower-ranking prostitutes under the term "yūjo", they constituted a distinct class. They were, first and foremost, entertainers. In order to become an oiran, a woman had to be educated in a number of skills, including in the traditional arts of sadō (Japanese tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), and calligraphy. In addition, clients expected them to be knowledgeable in scholarly matters, so it was essential that courtesans could carry witty and intelligent conversation and write eloquently. Courtesans were also skilled in the performing arts. Before women were banned from the stage, courtesans were often public performers, the divas of their age. While beauty was an essential characteristic of an oiran, oiran were always more than just a pretty face.
The isolation within the closed districts resulted in the oiran becoming highly ritualised in many ways and increasingly removed from the changing society. Strict etiquette governed appropriate behavior. Their speech preserved the formal court standards rather than the common language. A casual visitor would not be accepted; their clients would summon them with a formal invitation, and the oiran would pass through the streets in a formal procession with a retinue of servants. The costumes worn became more and more ornate and complex, culminating in a style with eight or more pins and combs in the hair, and many prescribed layers of highly ornamented garments derived from those of the earliest oiran from the early Edo period. Similarly, the entertainments offered were derived from those of the original oiran generations before. Ultimately, the culture of the oiran grew increasingly rarefied and remote from everyday life, and their clients dwindled.
The rise of the geisha ended the era of the oiran. Geisha practiced the common entertainments enjoyed by the people of that time and were much more accessible to the casual visitor. Their popularity grew rapidly and eclipsed that of the oiran. The few remaining women still currently practicing the arts of the oiran (without the sexual aspect) do so as a preservation of cultural heritage rather than as a profession or lifestyle.
Tayū, unlike geisha, also offered conservative intimacies. They were courtesans as opposed to prostitutes as they provided traditional entertainment (dance, music, conversation) much as the geisha did. (Courtesan is the preferred term as prostitutes do not provide these services.) Tayū were supposed to be as an ideal wife, at least for a single night. As married women in the Edo period would have, they blackened their teeth and tied their obi in front. It is thought by some that this was for easy removal, but it was also just another common practice for married women, symbolic and akin to the modern practice of wearing a wedding ring. They only entertained the noblest of samurai and ruling lords and often went to the Palaces of Kyoto. Unlike common prostitutes of the day, they could refuse customers, and usually did not have sex on their first meeting. In the Yoshiwara, tayū went extinct and were replaced by oiran in the 1760s. During World War II, when any show of luxury was seen as negative, tayū culture suffered also. Increasingly strict rules on prostitution made continuation of the vocation difficult.
Today, there are tayū who entertain as geisha do, no longer providing sex. However there are fewer than five, in comparison to the three hundred geisha in Kyoto today. There used to be six "Flower Towns" but in the mid-20th century, the accepted number became five, dropping Shimabara after the fall of tayū. Some still recognize Shimabara as a "Flower Town", as geisha still work there with the tayū often and the activity of the tayū is slowly growing.
The word oiran comes from the Japanese phrase oira no tokoro no nēsan (おいらの所の姉さん) which translates into "my elder sister." When written in Japanese, it consists of two kanji, 花 meaning "flower", and 魁 meaning "leader" or "first." Technically, only the high-class prostitutes of Yoshiwara were called oiran, although the term is widely applied to all.
The Bunsui Sakura Matsuri Oiran Dōchū is a free event held in Tsubame, Niigata. Dōchū is a shortened form of oiran-dochu, also the name for the walk the top courtesans made around the quarter or the parade they made to escort their guests. This parade features three oiran in full regalia—Shinano, Sakura, and Bunsui—among the cherry blossoms in April with approximately 70 accompanying servants. Each oiran in 15-cm tall geta parades in the distinctive gait, giving the procession an alternate name, the Dream Parade of Echigo (Echigo no yume-dochu). The event is extremely popular across the country, with many people in Japan applying for the three oiran and servant roles.
The Ōsu Street Performers' Festival is an event held around Ōsu Kannon Temple in Nagoya yearly around the beginning of October. The highlight of this two-day festival is the slow procession of oiran through the Ōsu Kannon shopping arcade. Thousands of spectators crowd the shopping streets on these days to get close enough to photograph the oiran and their retinue of male bodyguards and entourage of apprentices (young women in distinctive red kimono, white face paint and loose, long black hair reminiscent of Shinto priestesses).
- Hickey 26-27
- Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900. Columbia University Press, 2008.
- The life of an amorous woman. Taylor & Francis. Commentary "APPENDIX III. THE HIERARCHY OF COURTESANS" p. 286.
- Swinton 37
- Hickey 27
- Hickey 28.
- Dalby 64
- 2006-1-27, 藤田 真一, 京都・角屋の文化 ―学問の手伝えること―, Kansai University. Quote: 「花魁は、江戸の吉原にしかいません。吉原にも当初は太夫がいたのですが、揚屋が消滅したのにともなって、太夫もいなくなりました。その替わりに出てきたのが、花魁なのです。ですから、花魁は江戸吉原専用の語なのです。」
- Dalby, Liza Crihfield. “Courtesan and Geisha: The Real Women of the Pleasure Quarter.” The Women of the Pleasure Quarter: Japanese Paintings and Prints of the Floating World. Ed. Paul Anbinder. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1995. 47-66. Print.
- Hickey, Gary. Beauty and Desire in Edo Period Japan. New York: National Gallery of Australia, 1998. Print.
- Swinton, Elizabeth de Sabato. “Reflections on the Floating World.” The Women of the Pleasure Quarter: Japanese Paintings and Prints of the Floating World. Ed. Paul Anbinder. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1995. 13-46. Print.
- DeBecker, J.E (1971). The Nightless City or The History of the Yoshiwara Yukwaku.
- Longstreet, Stephen and Ethel (1970). Yoshiwara: The Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo.
- Seigle, Cecilia Segawa (1993). Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan.
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