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.
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).
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.
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
1 De Becker, J. E. (1905). The Nightless City or the History of the Yoshiwara Yukwaku. Max Nössler & Co, 350.
Gorgeously dressed prostitutes are standing in the windows of the Nectarine brothel in Yokohama, a world-famous house of prostitution also known as No.9 or Jimpuro (新風楼, occasionally romanized as Jinpuro or Shinpuro).