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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 ordinary yūjo in that they were entertainers, and many became celebrities outside the pleasure districts. Their art and fashions often set trends and, because of this, cultural aspects of oiran traditions continue to be preserved to this day.
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.
Rise to Prominence
Courtesan culture arose in the early 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, including fine dining, free performances, and frequent festivals and parades.
Status and Rank
Compared to "yūjo" or "prostitutes," whose primary attraction was their sexual favors, all courtesans were first and foremost entertainers. In order to become an oiran, a woman had to be educated in a number of skills, including the traditional arts of sadō (Japanese tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), and calligraphy. Oiran also learned to play the koto, shakuhachi, tsuzumi (hand drum), and shamisen. 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.
Within the pleasure quarters a courtesan's birth rank held no distinction, which was fortunate, as many of the courtesans originated as the daughters of impoverished families who were sold to brothels as indentured servants. Instead, courtesans were categorized based on their beauty, character, education, and artistic ability.
The highest rank of oiran or courtesans was the tayū (太夫?), followed by the kōshi (格子?). Because of her desirability the tayū, unlike common prostitutes, had the privilege of turning down any client she disliked. Her high status also made a tayū extremely pricey—"the fee for the appearance of a tayū for one evening was between one ryo and one ryo three bu. This was well beyond was a laborer could earn in an entire month, and it was during a period when a shop assistant in a large merchant household might not earn as much as five ryo in an entire year. One might pay such a large sum of money for the presence of a tayū and still be rejected by her. The guest could hardly afford to behave shamelessly with such expenses at stake."
In 1761, the last tayū of the Yoshiwara retired, marking the end of the tayū and kōshi ranks in that pleasure quarter. The word "oiran" therefore appeared in the Yoshiwara as a polite term of address for any remaining woman of courtesan rank. 
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. Geisha also appealed to many people because of their proficiency in the arts and focus on that as opposed to sexual activity, something that the oiran, who had started the same way, increasingly strayed from in their desperation to retain clients.
During World War II, when any show of luxury was frowned upon, courtesan culture suffered. Increasingly strict laws regarding 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 tayū, in comparison to the three hundred geisha in Kyoto today. The last remaining tayū house is located in Shimabara, which lost its official status as a hanamachi in the late 20th century because of the tayūs' decline. However, some still recognize Shimabara as a "flower town," since geisha and tayū still work there and the activity of the tayū is slowly growing. The few remaining women still currently practicing the arts of the tayū (without the sexual aspect) do so as a preservation of cultural heritage rather than as a profession or lifestyle.
There are no remaining oiran. The women who play the roles of oiran in courtesan parades are actresses.
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).
- 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。」
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