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An oiran preparing herself for a client, ukiyo-e print by Suzuki Haronubu (1765).

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 rather than simply sex workers, 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. 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. Within, a courtesan's birth rank held no distinction but there arose a strict hierarchy according to beauty, character, educational attainments and artistic skills. Among the oiran, the tayū (太夫 or 大夫 ?) was considered the highest rank of courtesan or prostitute, and were considered suitable for the daimyo. Only the wealthiest and highest ranking could hope to patronise them.

To entertain their clients, oiran practiced the arts of dance, music, poetry and calligraphy, and an educated wit was considered essential to sophisticated conversation.

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 ruled the standards of 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 also were derived from those of the original oiran generations before. Ultimately, the culture of the tayu 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 last recorded oiran was in 1761. 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.


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, meaning "flower", and meaning "leader" or "first." Technically, only the high-class prostitutes of Yoshiwara were called oiran, although the term is widely applied to all.[1]

Courtesan parade

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 sandals parades in the distinctive gait, giving the parade an alternate name, the Dream Parade of Echigo (Echigo no yume-dochu). The event is extremely popular across the country, with many people from all over Japan applying for the three oiran and servant roles of the parade.

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ 「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。」
  • 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.

External links

Simple English

[[File:|thumb|250px|An oiran preparing for a client, ukiyo-e painting by Suzuki Haronubu (1765)]] Oiran (花魁?) were courtesans in Japan. The word "oiran" is made of two Japanese words, 花 meaning "flower", and 魁 meaning "first." Oirans disappeared in the 18th century, but the tradition is still remembered.

The oiran appeared in the Edo Period, (1600–1868). In those years, some laws were created that made prostitution legal, but only in some neighborhoods that were closed from the outside. Like many things in Japanese culture, the world of courtesans became very complicated. Different kinds of oirans appeared, depending on their beauty, skills in art, education and more. The more important rank of oirans was called tayū (太夫?). Only nobles could be with one. Tayū had many servants, and when they went outside, many servants carried them and followed them, like a procession. They used very rich and expensive clothes and jewelry. Every man who wished to be with an oiran had to follow difficult rituals and etiquette, and only the very rich and noble could.

When the geisha appeared, the era of the oiran ended. Geisha practiced the common entertainments enjoyed by the people of that time. They became very popular, much more than oiran. The last known oiran was in 1761. The few women who still practice the arts of the oiran today (without the sexual aspect) do so to keep the cultural heritage, and not as a profession or occupation.

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