Before Geishas were the Oirans

2019年 11月22日

If geishas are now symbols of grace and elegance, they have in fact become popular for the opposite, meaning for being less refined, wearing clothes and ornaments less ostentatious and therefore practicing cheaper prices than their sisters of the time, the Oiran.

These appeared at the beginning of the Edo era, in the 17th century, when it was decided that the red-light districts should be removed from the cities, walled up to delimit their existence. Soon enough, these places developed their own culture, cut off from the evolution of the city, women working there not being allowed to escape or even exit it, imitating the court of the time decadently, and also offering all kinds of entertainment in addition to those of the pleasures of the flesh.
Yoshiwara, Tokyo's Red-Light District, circa 1872
In these famous districts called yūkaku, a strong hierarchy was then in place, the "basic" prostitutes being shown at the ground floor of the houses, behing wooden bars, so that the customers can choose them easily, but the Oiran, being at the top of this pyramid were generally available only by appointment and even allowed themselves to refuse certain guests. Increasingly richer, more and more famous and more and more fashionable, the Oiran developed a flamboyant fashion combined with a language of court that was sometimes not even spoken in the city. Multi-talented artists, they were expected to be as capable in the art of Ikebana (traditional flower arrangement) as tea ceremony or calligraphy, playing music being of course a very appreciated additional skill.
Women "displayed" in Yoshiwara
Known throughout the country for their beauty, extravagance and taste, every year were held festivals in different cities, named Oiran Dochu, that could almost be described as a catwalk during which they performed a slow and skillfull march accross the city, followed by their maids called kamuro. These events were widely watched and had a strong influence on the fashion and good taste of the time. Even today, we can still find some festivals reproducing this march through Japan, one of the most famous being that of Tsubame, in the prefecture of Niigata, but also in the big city of Nagoya or Tokyo.
Oiran Dochu in Susukino ©Miki Yoshihito under CC 2.0 license
As romantic as their story may seem up till now, their decline, forecasted by the rise in popularity of geishas, cheaper and therefore more accessible, but also dressed in simpler ways and corresponding better to the evolution of Japanese tastes of the time, was just as dramatic as their story. Among these famous red-light district, one of the most famous was without surprise that of Tokyo, called Yoshiwara. Like other red-light districts, the latter was delimited by walls that limited access, and made it almost impossible to escape. However, in 1923, during the Great Kanto earthquake, a fire broke out, causing the death of a large number of workers in Yoshiwara and ravaging almost the entire districte, the door of the neighborhood only opened too late and mad it almost impossible to escape. In spite of this, and although the geishas in the meantime became much more popular than the Oiran, they continued to practice until the 1950s, although their luxurious toilet became rather frowned upon with the misery that accompanied the post-war period. But the regulations on prostitution of the 50s extincted their art, putting an end to a culture which was dying for a long time already, and which had a few hundred years of history.
The Oiran, and especially the Yoshiwara district, obviously made the contemporary imagination flourish, as there are many films referring to it, such as one of the famous Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, Street of Shame (1956), which takes place at the very end of the neighborhood activity, while the government discusses the status of prostitution, or Tokyo Bordello (1987) and more recently Sakuran, which describes the rise of a young girl sold by her father to the neighborhood, which will gradually become a highly respected Oiran. Good references for anyone who wants to know more about Oiran or Yoshiwara!
Machiko Kyo in Street of Shame ©under CC 2.0 license

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