Who Were The Oiran?
Oiran is the Japanese name for women who engage in sex work in Japan. Oirans would work in yukakus, which functioned similarly to brothels while regulated by the government.
Not just any woman could be classified as an oiran. However, only the most elite and cultured women would earn that distinction.
It would not be correct to call oirans a prostitute, though some will refer to them as such.
Oirans were always regarded as lovely women both physically and intellectually, were treated with respect and honor, and the operations of their workplace were regulated by the government.
Oirans would be free to be selective with the clientele they chose to work with, with some not engaging in sexual activity. Some would be more of a companion to clients who hired them.
The yukakus was quite an organized place, and oirans were set up into different categories, also known as grades.
Grades were known as toyu and hashijoro until they were changed to accommodate the number of women engaging in sex work. The grade of tayu came to be known as oiran later on.
Yukakus were found in the Nihonbashi region because the government would be able to keep tabs on the activity there, ensuring everyone was safe. Within yukakus, oirans would be considered the top rank.
Additionally, the term tayu was derived from a Chinese term called keisei. Keisei would refer to a woman who was very expensive and deservedly so for her beauty and her intellect.
The Differences Between Oiran And Geisha
There’s a very common misconception that oiran and geisha were the same things, though one of the only similarities between the two occupations was that women would wear kimonos.
Outside of that, while both oiran and geisha entertained people, they did so in very different ways.
Oiran would engage in sexual activity with paying clients, while geisha would only perform clothed dances and traditional tea ceremonies.
They would mingle with clients at parties, but the mingling was completely platonic. If geisha would try to offer services as an oiran would, it wouldn’t be generally accepted.
It wasn’t uncommon for geisha and oiran to work together, even though they offered completely different services. While a client was waiting for an oiran, some geisha would come out to dance or entertain clients until the oiran was ready.
An Oiran’s Role In Japanese Society
While an oiran was not the only person who could be hired for sexual purposes, they were very much what would be considered the highest class and most exclusive sex workers in Japan.
It would be very expensive to hire one, and there was a lengthy process one would have to go through to engage an oiran’s services. Not everyone could hire an oiran simply because they wanted to.
Because of how highly regarded oirans were, only the wealthiest people would be able to afford one. Since they kept such a well-known company, many of them would earn a certain level of fame themselves.
The Oiran Dress
Oiran would dress in an elaborate, elegantly designed kimono that would often be made with bright colors and patterns. It would be fairly simple to distinguish an oiran from her kimono, as she would tie her obi, or belt, in the front.
Fabrics that were usually woven into these designs were known as donsu, which was shiny and dense silk, and kinran, which featured gold thread.
Oirans would also practice wearing geta, which were very high platform sandals that were pretty difficult to walk in. They adopted a special walk to wear these shoes known as hachimonji.
The datehyougo was the name of the hairstyle that oirans would wear. It was a very bold and elaborate type of hairstyle that incorporated two buns, or top knots, as well as pieces of coral and tortoise shell.
Oiran Dochu is the name for the meticulously followed process that would occur before the client would be allowed to meet their oiran.
When the client would enter the yukaku, they would be brought into an ageya, a storefront that was somewhat like a waiting room. There would be a process that a client would have to go through before they could get to this point.
The Process Of Hiring An Oiran
As mentioned, you could not simply call a yukaku and ask to book an oiran. Instead, a lengthy process would have to be followed. It would start with the prospective client visiting a tea house, often multiple times, spending a considerable amount of money there.
The client would have to prove they could afford an oiran. The potential client would have to continue to prove their worth before they would get to meet her.
Before the client could even step into a yukaku, they would have to go through a mediator, or a yarite, to be brought in.
The Process Of Meeting An Oiran
Once a prospective client was approved for services, an oiran would arrive at a yukaku when agreed upon with her kamuro and shinzou, which were usually trainees. She wouldn’t introduce herself to the client right away; she would observe him in the yukaku to determine whether or not she would like to work with the client.
The first time an oiran would be in the same room as the client, she wouldn’t interact with him whatsoever.
Instead, she would just observe him as he mingled with yuujyo, who were also sex workers. The next time, she would observe him at a closer range. Finally, the third meeting would be when the client could interact with the oiran.
The Kamuro And Shinzou
Kamuro and shinzou were terms for women who were preparing to become oirans once at the right age and once ready to take on the role.
They would often keep an oiran company while learning from her, though they wouldn’t interact with clients at this point. Even though they would be training for the role, not all kamuro or shinzou would become oirans.
Do Oiran Still Exist Today?
Much like the geisha, oirans have essentially dwindled, though it’s not impossible to learn more about them and the way they used to dress and speak.
However, the profession of sex work is no longer legal in Japan, and for some time before it was outlawed, it started becoming less and less accessible to hire an oiran.
If you happen to be in Japan in April, there’s a festival known as Asakusa Kannon Urara Ichiyozakura Festival in Yoshiwara, the former red light district of Tokyo.
At this festival, you can see people dressed up as oiran, who looks immaculate against the cherry blossom trees of the season and see an oiran show on a stage.
There is also a similar event in Niigata known as Bunsui Sakura Matsuri Oiran Dochu in April, as well as the Osu Street Performers’ Festival in Nagoya in October.
You can see people dressed as oiran and can even get your photo taken with one, as well as enjoy music, food, and other festivities.
If you want to experience what the beauty of being an oiran feels like, you can visit Studio Nanairo if you happen to be in Asakusa, Japan.
Studio Nanairo Via Tripadvisor
You can dress up at these studios, have your hair and makeup done, and get professional portraits completed. Esperanto in Kyoto also allows you to have a similar photoshoot.
Interesting Facts About Oiran
An oiran was a very difficult position to hold, as these women would be expected to be able to do much more than be a companion or offer sexual services.
Those in this role would also be trained in Japanese musical instruments, singing, and dancing. They would also have to be able to maintain conversations with the clients they were hired by.
The oiran also had their own type of Japanese dialect known as kuruwa kotoba, which other yuujyo – or sex workers – would also use. This would not only make them indistinguishable in terms of where they were from, and it would also add to their elegance.
It’s important to note that, while the entire process of how oirans were recruited and came to be would likely not bode well today, it was the norm at the time.
Even though geisha weren’t ever sex workers, their more affordable entertainment was one of many things that contributed to the eventual downfall of oirans.