Misconception – Geisha, Tayū, Oiran?

The Orientalist misconception that Geisha are essentially high-class courtesans is utterly untrue.

To clarify the women in the “world of flower and willow” who are commonly mistaken for one another, I made this table below:

GeishaTayūOiran
Time
(Duration of Existence)
1600s – NOW (100+ in Kyoto)1600s – NOW (10- in Kyoto and do not provide sexual services)1617s – 1957 (Destroyed twice in earthquake and war, eventually died out with the implementation of 57’ prostitution ban)
LocationGion in Kyoto & elsewhereShimabara in KyotoYoshiwara in Edo (Tokyo)
FocusArt

- Long-term art training.
- Dance and entertain at banquets.
Art

- Long-term art training.
- Perform at cultural rituals.
- Historically, Tayū used to hold governmental status (5th Rank - as high as the head of a province).
- Many had a high social status as mistress of noble men in court.
Sex

- Long-term art training.
- Provide sexual services for a living.
"Sex"?No

- Banned from selling sex and competing with sexual service providers.

- Can choose to form long-term relationships (sexual OR non-sexual) with her male patron.
Consorts.

- Top-tier of all courtesans in Kyoto.

- [Historically] Full autonomy to choose sexual partners but sex isn’t the mean to survive.

- [Now] Perform at cultural events in temples & do not sell sex.
Courtesans.

- Top-tier of all courtesans in Tokyo.

- [Historically] Elite sexual service providers.

- [Now] Non-exist.

- Historical character in Kabuki theatre, cultural parade, TV drama and movies.
Modern Appearanceayano
* Kyoto Geiko Ayano
kisaragi
* Kyoto Tayū Kisaragi
oiran-bandou-tamazaburo
* Kabuki Actor Bando Tamazaburo as an Oiran.
Historical Appearancekyoto-geisha-1946
*Kyoto Geisha 1946
kyoto-tayuu-1920
*Tayū and attendants 1920s
historical-oiran
*Oiran and attendants 1900-1915

Geisha and Tayū are similar in term of their occupational focus on arts and that they do not sell sex:

Geisha culture is born from the town culture; they master the arts of the common people (music, dance, way of tea, flower arranging);
Tayū culture is born from the court culture; they master the arts of the nobility and aristocrats (court dance, way of tea, flower arranging, incense burning, poetry, calligraphy…)

It is hard for most of the modern world to imagine how Tayū, a sex worker, used to hold an aristocratic rank high enough to give her access to the court and the imperial family. This status is, in fact, a reward for Tayū’s beauty and unbeatable skills in arts.

There are only 4 Tayū that are currently working in Kyoto who I know for 100% are real Tayū (not self-branded Tayū):

sakuragi tayuuhanaoogi-tayuukisaragi-tayuuusugumo-tayuu
桜木 太夫
Sakuragi Tayū
花扇 太夫
Hanaōgi Tayū
如月 太夫
Kisaragi Tayū
薄雲 太夫
Usugumo Tayū

They now perform at religious and cultural rituals. If I remember correctly, the Tayū parade is in April.

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Compared to the history of Kyoto, the history of Oiran’s workplace – the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter is a bit dark and saddening.

Common stories are tragedies like syphilis epidemics, suicides for love, unwanted pregnancies, fire, earthquakes and the air strike during WW2. Similar to pleasure quarters in Kyoto, most of the girls are sold into the pleasure quarter by traffickers or their own parents living on the edge of starvation. The sex workers in Yoshiwara were trained as attendants (as shown in the photos above), they worked as cheap labour while learning the skills of the trade. Once they reach the age of 16-18, the brothel will find a rich middle-aged man, someone who can be trusted to handle the girl gently to “deflower” her as her first client…

When the girl is sexually ready, she’ll join her sisters at work: sitting behind these ‘bars’ and display themselves to the men passing by. An interested client would stop by, light up a pipe, hand it to the girl he likes. If the girl chooses to accept the pipe and smoke from it, it means she accepts him as her client, otherwise, he’ll pick again.

harimise
*Yoshiwara in the 1920s

Oiran, being the top-tier of their peers, also had access to education and the freedom in choosing her clients. The ratio of Oiran and other sex workers in Yoshiwara was about 4/2000~3000. It was said that they did not have sex with a client until his third meeting. On that third meeting, she still reserved the right to reject him if she didn’t find him attractive enough. Excluding the first three meetings, one night with an Oiran would cost 40 Ryo (AUD$20,000 nowadays).

oiran-1914
*Oiran in Yoshiwara, 1914

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This page is too short to provide a fuller picture of the women in the “world of flower and willow”, each group had their special practices ranging from dress codes to relationships with the powerful…

Who are/were their clients?
What do/did they do in their leisure time?
Do/Did they get married? To whom?

What about their children and family?
What exactly do/did they do at banquets?

What do all their hair accessories mean?
Why did Tayū and Oiran walk so slow but Geisha so fast?
Why don’t/didn’t Tayū and Oiran wear tabi (socks) but Geisha do/did?

If you’re a culture-loving gentleman who’d love to know more about this world, chat with me on our date…

Let me be your guide into the mysterious and the lost.

 

Until we meet…
Yuko.