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130129-0051 - Oiran Courtesan

Oiran Courtesan

Artist Shuzaburo Usui
Publisher Shuzaburo Usui
Medium Albumen Print
Period Meiji
Location Studio
Image No. 130129-0051
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An oiran (花魁, high class courtesan) of the yūkaku (遊郭, red light district) of Yoshiwara in Tokyo. Her kimono and hairstyle may be gorgeous, but her life could be harsh.

Although engaged in prostitution, oiran were accomplished entertainers and not common prostitutes. Since childhood, the highly educated oiran were thoroughly trained in the classical arts, waka poetry, calligraphy, tea ceremony, incense burning, and the strategy board game of Go. They were also accomplished musicians who had mastery of instruments like the koto and the shamisen.

70621-0002 - The Yoshiwara Brothel District of Tokyo, 1890s
Opulent architecture at the Yoshiwara brothel district of Tokyo in the 1890s.

The services of the oiran were beyond the reach of ordinary people. In addition to knowledge and culture, it took enormous amounts of money. A customer had to be introduced through an appointed teahouse, after which he had to impress the oiran with extravagant spending during several lavish introductory meetings. Even then, a top oiran could reject a potential suitor.

Oiran could be easily recognized by their appearance, which differed significantly from that of geisha and regular women. Their elaborate and heavily oiled hairstyles were decorated with sumptuous kanzashi hair ornaments made from tortoiseshell, gold, silver, and gemstones.

Her kimono consisted of several layers with the heavily decorated outer one worn unbelted over the underkimono, which was belted with an obi tied at the front. During special processions, known as Oiran Dōchū (花魁道中), the oiran wore 20 cm (7.9 in)-tall koma geta that forced her to walk with a slow moving sliding step. The complete outfit could weigh as much as 30 kg (66 lb).

110831-0010 - Oiran Dochu
A courtesan and her kamuro (禿, child attendants) at the Daimon main gate of the amusement district of Shimabara in Kyoto.
71206-0001 - Illustration of an Oiran parade in Yoshiwara
Illustration of an Oiran parade in Tokyo's Yoshiwara prostitution district, 1927 (Showa 2).

In spite of all the splendor, life could be inhumanely hard for the inmates of Japan’s strictly controlled brothel districts. They were in effect trafficked women with little control over their own lives.

Horrifying diseases that could disfigure and kill were a constant threat. Yūkaku hospitals had separate wards for syphilis, gonorrhea, chancres, skin diseases, infectious diseases, as well as other diseases.1

Between 1892 and 1901, an average of 3.31% of examined prostitutes were affected with syphilis. Infections of all diseases fluctuated between 4 and 7 percent.2 These figures are likely relatively accurate, as prostitutes were required to be checked once a week at specialized hospitals that the government set up in the late 19th century.

220114-0001 - Prostitute inspection day at the Yoshiwara red light disctrict, ca 1900
Outside the Yoshiwara Lock Hospital on Inspection Day. De Becker, J. E. (1905). The Nightless City or the History of the Yoshiwara Yukwaku. Max Nössler & Co, 346.

British lawyer Joseph Ernest De Becker (1863–1929) did a thorough study of the Yoshiwara brothel district (The Nightless City or the History of the Yoshiwara Yukwaku) that was first published in 1899 (Meiji 32). The third edition published in 1905 (Meiji 38) features a sobering account of a courtesan dying a lonely death because of sickness. The account was taken from the book Yūkaku no Rimen (遊郭の裏面, Behind the scenes in the brothel district) published in Tokyo in 1903.3

Even in the case of a courtesan who for a time has been famous as the star of her brothel, and who has become so skillful that she has robbed many men of their very souls, what will her ultimate fate probably be when suddenly attacked by a serious disease? I believe that there is no fate more piteous than that of a courtesan whose body has been sold to this prostitute quarter from a distant province, and who finds herself, sad and lonely, without a single acquaintance or relative, and with none to whom she can look for aid!

Now that she is sick and has given up her business for one or two months, the myriads of guests, who formerly came crowding to see her in a never-ending stream while she was yet elegantly attired and beautiful to behold with her comely face and perfectly pencilled eyebrows, do not send her even a single letter. The servants who called her ‘Oiran , Oiran’ when she was in the zenith of her pride and popularity, and who served her obsequiously in consideration of the many gilts she lavished upon them, gradually become unaccommodating and churlish. But that is by no means all, for they even speak ill of her and backbite her.

Then she falls into low spirits, and alone by herself she writhes in solitary agony. Her debit account for medicine increases. There is no one to soothe or comfort her, and indeed it is impossible to imagine how great is her misery as she dozes uneasily upon her pillow, in this unhappy place, among things hard to bear and painful to hear.

In this manner her sickness increases in severity, and finally, falling into a state which offers no hope of recovery, she can only await the awful approach of death. Our imaginations fails to picture the unhappy state of the wretched courtesan who is about to draw her last breath, Iying on a cold hard thin mattress in a miserable and lonely little room beneath the back staircase of the brothel, without a soul in the world to help the absolutely forsaken creature.

When death is about to enter through the torn paper-covered windows of her room, there is no light in the chamber, and all is dark as pitch. In the upper portion of the house singing girls are probably playing merrily upon their samisen (banjo), while dancing-girls are dancing and frisking to the music. The sounds of boisterous laughter, music, and cheerful voices pierce the ears of the sick woman and grate upon her nerves, and she, lying in misery at the very point of death, with none to attend or nurse her, totters on the brink of the grave writhing and struggling in pain and anguish, and when she breathes her last she is mocked in the hour of her mortal agony by the babel of voices telling of licentious joy and happiness and voluptuous pleasure. Her limbs grow cold and rigid, her eyes, which have lost the light of life, become dull and glazed, and, remaining wide open, stare horribly into the darkness.

Just at this moment some courtesan who has come down the stairs for a sitz-bath, or a brothel hag (yarite) coming along the passage, noticing that the faint noise of breathing has ceased, and wondering if anything has happened, may open the door and look in and exclaim — ‘Ah ! all is over.’ That is about all the expression of astonishment which will be ejaculated, and although perchance two or three of her courtesan friends may shed a few tears of sympathy and pity, this ends the matter.

The brothel keeper immediately states that there is no one to take delivery of the corpse, and, without even waiting for the dawn, the mortal remains are hurriedly born away to the crematorium and disappear forever in the smoke of the furnace. Ah ! what a fearful and cruel thing this is to contemplate!

91204-0002 - Tayuu and Kamuro, 1900s
A courtesan and her kamuro performing the tea ceremony, 1900s. Kamuro were usually bought from their parents when they were between five and nine years old. An oiran generally had two kamuro who were taught special cultural skills. A horrifying practice, the girls were nonetheless usually well-cared for, and often married above their original social status, resulting in a much better life than they could have had with their parents.


1 De Becker, J. E. (1905). The Nightless City or the History of the Yoshiwara Yukwaku. Max Nössler & Co, 350.

2 ibid, 359, 360.

3 ibid, 373–375.


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Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). 1870s: Oiran Courtesan, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on October 1, 2022 (GMT) from

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