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!
Geisha as Courtesans
It was the 1990’s. Memoirs of a Geisha had just come out. The debate was raging. Everyone wanted to know. Are Geisha prostitutes? Are they simply artistic creatures? I admit, I was fascinated by this question and the radio silence imposed within the Geisha community seemed to fan the flames. Mineko Iwasaki, on whom the book is loosely based was ostracized for speaking out about this topic. I have my own opinions. I don’t think sex was a job requirement, yet I question the relationships that arose between the men who supported their geisha. The truth may never be known, and isn’t that part of the mystique?
It certainly wasn’t in the beginning.
The geisha quietly rose to prominence in feudal Japan somewhere at the end of the Eighteenth century as tea house entertainers. They often worked in teams, hired out for parties, they stayed in the background dancing and singing, while the courtesan held court over her suitor. A typical evening with a courtesan could break a man, and required a near bottomless income that only daimyo and the shogun’s could afford.
The courtesan was required to sleep with her patrons, like the geisha she was highly trained in the arts. The stars of the day, with endless subjects of woodblocks that were devoured by a public hungry for more. There was a glamor around the courtesan, with her bare feet and her high geta shoes, she walked in an air of untouchable glamor, yet like the geisha they were deeply in debt. The only escape was being married to a prominent daimyo who would then buy out their contract from the brothel. The geisha hoped to find a prominent patron, or danna who would support her, and enable to pay off her debts to the okiya, the house who sponsored and trained her.
For the courtesans, the cost of maintaining their precarious lifestyle, layer after layer of priceless kimono, ensured they were stuck in the life. Times changed. As prices for the most famous courtesan rose too high for even the daimyo to afford, their reign ended, and the reliable, quiet entertainer in the background proved she could take up the slack of the courtesan, for a whole lot less. But they were never supposed to be prostitutes. And there lies the question, did she open kimono or didn’t she?
A pleasure city rises in a city that was once a swamp
“Lust will not keep…Something must be done about it.”—so said doggerel scrawled at the entrance to Yoshiwara’s great gate.
The Yoshiwara was not Japan’s only Pleasure Quarter. There were several licensed areas where men came to carouse, entertain themselves and seek out the company of women. The Shimabara district in Kyoto, and just over the bridge leading out of Nagasaki are a few, but the Yoshiwara was arguably the most famous. With quintessential lantern-lined boulevards and wafting cherry blossoms, Edoites who wanted to get away from it all, daimyos, wealthy merchants with their wives, and gate-hopping monks, would wend their way toward the crowded entrance of the pleasure quarters.
For women living on the inside, enslaved to brothels who wiled away late nights in tea houses, the gate was a solemn reminder they were never allowed to leave.
A man ready for love would stop here, check his clothes and run his hands though the jungle in his kimono wad, just outside the Yoshiwara was known as Primping Hill.
His choices were limited to the amount of coins he possessed, unless he could afford to buy his evenings on credit. If he wasn’t lordly, he couldn’t arrange a meeting with the regal, high-ranking courtesan-Tayu-later Oiran, who walked with her own court in attendance. Every man dreamed of Tayu, but few could attain such moments of sublime for themselves.
Instead, he patrolled the avenues of the lower house courtesans, who showed off their wares behind latticed walls.
I owe so much to the Geisha. She’s such a powerful symbol, isn’t she, for something largely dying out; she’s still iconic; still alluring; unbelievably dedicated; enigmatic and somehow very very shrewd, I imagine. She enthralls us and has become part of our own pop culture. When I saw Katy Perry channeling her inner geisha at the AMA I had to smile. I’m also a really, really big fan of KP. But getting back to the Geisha….
I was searching for a project I would have passion for, something to sustain me over the long haul of writing and editing. I discovered the hidden, erotic world of the Japanese courtesan. They existed long before the Geisha, and are even more revered in Japan than the Geisha. I was smitten. But in doing my research for Concubine, I could never have gotten there without my love of the Geisha. The rustle of silk like water down her back, inches of bare flesh at a gaping neckline and that shy smile tucked behind a tilted sensu fan.
Going back fifteen or so years, too many to count, I became an ardent admirer and fascinated by this culture of Kyoto. This ancient, artistic and somewhat mysterious order of women who hand down the secrets of the tradition, and guard them well delighted me with a desire to know more. The glamor of these artistic creatures-for Geisha means just that-”artist” seemed to make my pulse beat a bit faster when I dreamed of beautiful silks rippling down backs, heard the tinkle-tinkle of teasing hair flutters and clip-clop of dainty little steps bustling on their way to tea houses.
I was hooked.
It also occurred to me that there are things I can borrow from this culture to make my life more magical, to feel more glamorous and to pamper myself just a little bit. In that way we best honor the Geisha. One day, I had to put this to the test. I decided to walk like a courtesan of Edo, doing four steps to the one to see if I could get my husband’s attention, it worked in the grocery store. I was doing an experiment for my book. I wanted to see how difficult this was to sustain on the foot and the body, in public, and to see how actively the conscious mind must engage oneself in order to adopt an extreme method of walking. I’m sure for the women of the Yoshiwara, it was like breathing, but it was not easy and my husband did notice. You don’t have to do that kind of experiment like I did to get something out of the Geisha or live like the courtesan. You can keep it soft and subtle, maybe only you know about it, maybe that’s part of the fun until someone else notices. Like my walk in the produce aisle. We all live these days life on a fast track and it can leave us feeling black and white, that we are living in a world devoid of color and mystery.
I have a collection of rich kimono and some of the best beauty products coming out of Japan that have made my skin feel amazing. Camellia oil of course is a must for making hands and feet feel like butter.
Men do look at our feet. In Asian cultures, the foot was intensely erotic, and courtesans in Japan walked barefoot-even in winter to show they were hearty and hale, and also to showcase their erotic appendages. Sometimes they painted a pale pink wash over their toes, like my character Miyako did when she rose as top courtesan at the House of Great Muirya. Next time you give yourself a pedicure rub your feet with Camellia oil and wrap them in a pair of cozy aloe socks. The next morning, they will be like meat falling off the bone and lets see who notices after a date.
Will you be bold enough to paint a pale pink wash?
About Me: JM Ledwell is the author of CONCUBINE, a duaology set in samurai Japan. Her second book, the sequel is A DUTCH COURTESAN TAKES EDO.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geisha If you’d like to read more.
“Your time will come, if you wait for it, if you wait for it. It’s hard, believe me, I’ve tried…”
– Imagine Dragons