Japanese Courtesans 101
So now you know that the geisha is not the same as the historical courtesan who ruled the Pleasure Quarters over three hundred years ago, and the geisha was a little opportunist who slid into the vacuum created by the decline of the courtesan. You’re interested in the Flower and Willow world of the Edo period. Great. Don your kimono and geta but don’t don’t call a Tayu an Oiran. Here’s why.
In Cecile Segawa Seigle’s definitive book, Yoshiwara, she makes the case that early prostitutes of Edo’s red light district Yoshiwara, were daughters of displaced daimyo and high-ranking samurai who were disgraced and fell on hard times, dismissed as ronin, masterless. In other words, these women already possessed some of the skills necessary to become a high-class courtesan; grace, extraordinary manners, refinement, classical training in the arts, calligraphy, and if they were lucky, pleasing beauty. Many brothels rose up in the shrewd hands of wily ronin who carved out alternative livings as brothel owners or scouts for potential new blood.
In the beginning there was the yujo, or sex worker with no distinction, other than the anecdotal evidence that the prostitute was easily recognizable by her sash or obi which was tied in the front.
With the later modern period, the brothels began to be licensed as a way to control what the government could not stop and had very little will to do so. It should be understood that Japan had no shame or condemnation of sexual relationships outside of marriage. A wealthy man was encouraged to take a mistress, and visit his courtesan, if he could afford it. Prostitutes, like kabuki and other fringe elements of society were looked down upon as low cast, yet that didn’t stop the men from visiting or the artists from singing their praises. They came in droves and soon a subtle caste system began to rise within the brothels and tea houses themselves.
The more money a man could pay, the higher ranking beauty he might obtain.
The ranking system was well underway by the 1700’s. It worked like this. A girl might grow up in a brothel, she might show great promise, work as a kamaru, child-helper to a high-ranking courtesan, carry her tobacco box and wait on her while the courtesan entertained her clients, hope to find a sponsorship, an Onee-chan or Big Sister as she climbed the ranks to teenage apprentice, or shinzo. But she might be pretty, she might be smart that doesn’t necessarily mean she had that special something, the X Factor, to become a Tayu. Sometimes your little sister could grow to become your greatest rival.
Cream Rises to the top
The Tayu was the top courtesan of her day, a precursor to the famous Oiran. She was a woman of singular grace, beauty and charm, a woman so sought after, if she played her cards right, she had her pick of any man, and could turn down anyone not to her liking. Of course, the unwritten rule, that new Tayu, very indebted Tayu, didn’t turn anyone down..in the beginning until she built some political clout in the brothel. This could take years. Time and tide were a courtesan’s worst enemy. It was a race to beat the clock before time took away her greatest assets, and only the most beautiful and sought after could hope to attain the prize; to be bought out of one’s contract by a wealthy benefactor.
The Tayu dressed beautifully, in layers of billowing, rare kimono of exquisite weave, though less ostentatious than the Oiran, with less kanzashi hair sticks and the trappings we associate with the over-the-top Japanese Courtesan.
The Tayu like the Oiran, walked in a grand procession down Nakanocho Boulevard in her impossibly high shoes. So high, she needed the assistance of men workers at the brothel, wakamono. When she wasn’t sleeping till ten, or entertaining clients, she walked barefoot-with a pale pink wash over her feet. The foot was erotic, but the bare feet was to show a courtesan’s toughness and fortitude.
“Those who walk barefoot in life hold their pain inwards and withstand much.” JM Ledwell
The Oiran-Something old is new
By 1750 things were shifting. The Yoshiwara was a bastion as well as a den of iniquity, often called the Nightless City, it thrived, despite several run ins with reactionary councilmen and near fatal fires. The Oiran, etered the stage. The sumptiary laws were written during the Kansei Era by a man named Matsudaira who wanted to stamp out what he saw as dangerous displays of silk by the lower order of society. People loved the courtesans, they came watch the processions, or Dochu and artists like Utagawa and Utemaru only served to spread their popularity. The most famous courtesans, like Tamigiku and Takao sold out in hours. Efforts to proscribe what was seen as ostentatious dressing, even certain colors, gold threads and certain silks were never successful for long. As a result of these waxes and wanes in the laws, the Oiran was poised to take the center stage.
Dochus became ever longer, shoes became taller, and courtesans hair-gigantic knotted wigs stuffed with kanzashi– became the Oiran’s stock and trade. The obi, tied in front for tradition to showcase her very availability, seemed to cascade like a mountain to the knees.
There are a few ladies today in Tokyo who are keeping the Tayu tradition alive. If you go to Kyoto, and know where to look, you may just see a living, breathing artifact from he past.
Today, the Oiran’s popularity show’s no sign of stopping. She’s frequently the topic of manga and anime. One of my favorite movies, Sakuran, stars the lovely Anna Tsuchiya who plays Kiyoha, a kamaru sold to a brothel as a child only to work her way up and find heartbreak in love, where she only wants to see if the cherry blossoms bloom the same outside her prison walls. Fantastic costumes. Fantastic soundtrack, the whole package.
If you are interested in Tayu and Oiran, you must see this movie. If you’ve seen Sakuran, let me know what you think.
This is the trailer. The opening song, Gamble fits the film in so many ways, Enjoy, peeps!