Oiran (花魁) were courtesans in Japan. The oiran were considered a type of yūjo (遊女) "woman of pleasure" or prostitute. However, they are distinguished from the yūjo in that they were entertainers, and many became celebrities of their times outside the pleasure districts. Their art and fashions often set trends among the wealthy and, because of this, cultural aspects of oiran traditions continue to be preserved to this day.
HistoryEdo period (1600–1868). At this time, laws were passed restricting brothels to walled districts set some distance from the city center, known as yūkaku (遊廓、遊郭, pleasure quarter). In the major cities these were the Shimabara in Kyoto, the Shinmachi in Osaka, and in Edo (present-day Tokyo), the Yoshiwara. These rapidly grew into large, self-contained "pleasure quarters" offering all manner of entertainments. Entertainment establishments were known as ageya. Within, a courtesan’s birth rank held no distinction, which was fortunate considering many of the courtesans originated as the daughters of impoverished families who were sold into this lifestyle as indentured servants. Instead, they were categorized based on their beauty, character, education, and artistic ability.
Oiran rank was established after the tayū (太夫) (previously highest level) and koshi (格子) (second level) ranks' glory dwindled. Tayū were considered the highest rank of courtesan or prostitute and were considered suitable for the daimyo. In the mid-1700s (specifically the Meiwa era 明和, 1764–1772), courtesan ranks disappeared and courtesans of all classes were collectively known as "oiran".
Negative misconceptions are often attached to the oiran of Edo Japan due to the stigma given to modern prostitutes, but the two professions differed. As oiran were also entertainers they were valued for much more than just their looks and sexual prowess. In order to be considered an oiran, a woman had to be educated in a number of skills, including in the traditional arts of chadō (Japanese tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), and calligraphy. In addition, clients expected them to be knowledgeable in scholarly matters, and so it was essential that courtesans had the abilities to carry witty and intelligent conversation and write eloquently. It was evident then that “the [popularity] of a bimbo, no matter how gorgeous, would have been limited [in Edo society]."