An oiran refers to a high-ranking courtesan in the pleasure quarter of Yoshiwara.
Around the mid-18th century, senior courtesans were addressed as "oiran" by their underlings such as kamuro or shinzo. Then "oiran" became the word used to refer to a high- ranking courtesan in Yoshiwara. There are several different stories about the origins of the word "oiran", such as that it came from the underlings saying "Oira no tokoro no nesan"(a big sister in our place).
In the Edo period in Kyoto and Osaka, courtesans of the highest rank were called "tayu." In its early days, there were tayu in Yoshiwara too, but they disappeared around the time the name "oiran" started appearing. Today "oiran" is sometimes used to refer generally to a courtesan or prostitute of that period.
The following is a note about oiran in the Edo period.
When the pleasure quarter was built in Yoshiwara, there still were tayu in Edo, although few in number. According to the "Yoshiwara Saiken" published in 1658, there were three tayu. Beneath the rank of tayu were several lower rank courtesans as follows: 67 koshi, 365 tsubone, 669 sancha, and 1004 jijoro.
According to the "Yoshiwara Saiken" published in 1775, in the late Edo period, the total number of courtesans was 2021 including 50 sancha (including 8 yobidashi), 357 zashiki-mochi (including 5 yobidashi), and 534 heya-mochi (courtesans who had their own private residential room).
As oiran were the highest ranked courtesans, they didn't wait for their customers in a pleasure house. Therefore, their customers had to summon them through a "hikitejaya" (a type of tea house which arranged courtesans for customers). A oiran who had been summoned moved back and forth between a "yujoya" (a courtesan's residence) and an "ageya" (a house of assignation) or a hikitejaya with her entourage of kamuro or furisode shinzo. This journey was called "suberi dochu" (later called "oiran dochu").
Since oiran were expected to be cultured women, kamuro (young girls that were candidates to become oiran) were given a comprehensive education in culture and arts such as classical literature, calligraphy, the tea ceremony, Japanese poetry, the Japanese harp, the shamisen (a stringed instrument), and igo (a Japanese board game like chess).
It was extraordinarily expensive to spend time with an oiran, and ordinary people could not afford it. Oiran also needed a huge amount of money so that they and their protégée, kamuro and shinzo, could properly attend the banquet or party they were called to. Popular oiran were featured in literature such as "Yujo Hyobanki" or drawn in ukiyo-e (Japanese wood-block paintings). Oiran in ukiyo-e paintings are depicted very glamorously, wearing so many hair picks that in reality it would be impossible to put them in the hair.
Ranks of Courtesans
Courtesans were ranked, and the fees to call them were set based on their ranks. The rankings were listed in "Yoshiwara Saiken". Pleasure houses were also categorized into omise (the first class), nakamise (the second class), and komise (the third class). The ranking of courtesans went through changes over time, and the details are still unclear. Roughly, however, the courtesans mentioned below are considered to be in the rank of oiran.
Tayu: high class courtesans whose numbers were very limited in Yoshiwara. Takao tayu or Agemaki tayu are known even until today as legendary courtesans. Tayu in Yoshiwara had disappeared by the middle of the 18th century (during the Horeki era).
Koshi: second to tayu, they also died out around the Horeki era.
Zashiki-mochi: in addition to their own residential room they had a drawing room where they entertained their customers. Zashiki-mochi were served by kamuro.
Yobidashi: these are sancha and zashiki-mochi who didn't wait for customers in a pleasure house but rather entertained them in a tea house with their entourage of kamuro or shinzo.
It is generally considered that only "yobidashi" could be truly called "oiran." Courtesans ranked lower than yobidashi were not referred to as oiran.
The top courtesan in a pleasure house was sometimes called "oshoku," but it is said that the word was used in komise, not in nakamise and omise.
Unlike spending the night with a lower ranked courtesan, to be with an oiran required a lot of customs and conventions.
A customer had to ask a tea house to contact an oiran. Therefore, the customer needed to be generous and spend a lot of money in the tea house.
In the drawing room, the oiran took the seat of honor and her customer always took a less important seat. The oiran-class courtesans were considered to be superior to their customers.
The first time that an oiran met a customer (called "shokai"), the oiran sat apart from her customer, not speaking to him, and not eating or drinking anything. The customer was appraised during this shokai meeting. If considered to be unsuitable for the oiran, he couldn't court her anymore. Customers needed to demonstrate their financial power by calling many geisha and being generous to them while they entertained him.
The second meeting (called "ura") was basically the same as the first except the oiran sit slightly closer to the customer.
At the third meeting, the customer was recognized as a regular (called "najimi") and served using a tray and chopsticks with his name on. The customer had to pay "najimi-kin" (money to become a regular) as a tip. Normally, consummation was finally allowed at the third meeting. However, some people think that the existence of these conventions, from the first to the third meetings, is questionable.
Once recognized as a regular, it was regarded as unfaithfulness if the customer was seen with a different oiran. When one oiran noticed that her customer went to another oiran, she caught the customer near the Yoshiwara O-mon Gate and complained to a tea house. It is said that in such a situation the customer paid some money and apologized.
As an oiran had quite a few regular customers, sometimes calls for an oiran clashed. In this case, a shinzo under the oiran served the unattended customer as the oiran's substitute but the customer wasn't allowed to sleep with the shinzo. Yet, he was charged the normal assignation fee.
An oiran dochu is a parade of an oiran, together with her subordinates, such as kamuro or furisode shinzo, walking to an ageya or a hikitejaya. Nowadays an oiran dochu is sometimes re-enacted in kabuki plays or at local festival events.
A Kamuro is a girl around ten years old who is in charge of odd jobs related to an oiran. They were educated by their mentor courtesans.
Girls not pretty enough to be courtesans, or courtesans who had finished their serving years, became banto shinzo and played a manager-like role. "Shinzo" used to refer to the wife of a samurai or a merchant, but later it was also used to refer to any unmarried woman.
Kuruwa kotoba (Quarter jargon)
Courtesans in the pleasure quarter were brought from all over the country and they used a special language (such as "-arinsu" used at the end of a sentence) to mask their original accent. Those kuruwa kotoba were different from ageya to ageya. Kuruwa kotoba were also called sato kotoba, oiran kotoba or arinsu kotoba.
Sanmaiba geta (Geta sandal with three heels)
Sanmaiba geta is a black-painted sandal worn by oiran. They were too heavy to walk normally with. Therefore, oiran walked in certain special ways such as the ones called "letter of 八 (eight) outwards "in Yoshiwara or "letter of 八 (eight) inward" in Shimabara. It is said that it took at least three years to learn to walk properly drawing the letter of 八.
Datehyogo is a magnificently glamorous hairstyle which matches the prestige of oiran. It is a derivation of the hairstyle called "yokohyogo." Datehyogo is made by swelling a bun of "takashimada" (a kind of chignon) widely to both sides and then putting six hair picks shaped like a pine or a Japanese harp, two picks with a big coral ball, and three tortoise combs in the bun. Datehyogo can be seen in the hairdo of courtesans in some kabuki plays such as Miuraya Agemaki in "Sukeroku" or Akoya in "Dannoura kabuto gunki" (The War Chronicles at Dannoura).
Miuke means that a customer of a courtesan (not only an oiran) pays off her debts, or pays money to redeem her so that she no longer needs to work as a courtesan. In the case of miuke of an oiran in an omise, the miuke fee was said to reach several thousand ryo (a unit used in the old Japanese currency system).
"Yoshiwara Saiken" is a guidebook which listed the names of courtesans in each pleasure house in Yoshiwara. It is said that this was one of the best selling books at that time.
Usugumo tayu (Yoshiwara, Edo)
Takao tayu (Yoshiwara, Edo)