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Oiran were courtesans in Japan. The oiran were considered a type of yūjo "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.
The oiran arose in the Edo period (1600–1868). At this time, laws were passed restricting brothels to walled districts set some distance from the city center, known as yūkaku. 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.
The word "oiran" appeared in the Yoshiwara in the 1750s as a polite term of address for any woman of courtesan rank. At the time, the highest rank of courtesans was the tayū, followed by the kōshi. However, both ranks were in decline in the Yoshiwara, priced out of the market by lower-ranking courtesans. In 1661, the last tayū of the Yoshiwara retired, marking the end of the tayū and kōshi ranks in that pleasure quarter. The lower ranks of courtesans became the top-ranking courtesans of the Yoshiwara, and were collectively referred to as oiran. Because of the Yoshiwara's preeminence, "oiran" eventually became a general term for any courtesan.
While oiran were prostitutes, and were grouped with lower-ranking prostitutes under the term "yūjo", they constituted a distinct class. They were, first and foremost, entertainers. In order to become an oiran, a woman had to be educated in a number of skills, including in the traditional arts of sadō (Japanese tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), and calligraphy. In addition, clients expected them to be knowledgeable in scholarly matters, so it was essential that courtesans could carry witty and intelligent conversation and write eloquently. Courtesans were also skilled in the performing arts. Before women were banned from the stage, courtesans were often public performers, the divas of their age. While beauty was an essential characteristic of an oiran, oiran were always more than just a pretty face.
The isolation within the closed districts resulted in the oiran becoming highly ritualised in many ways and increasingly removed from the changing society. Strict etiquette governed appropriate behavior. Their speech preserved the formal court standards rather than the common language. A casual visitor would not be accepted; their clients would summon them with a formal invitation, and the oiran would pass through the streets in a formal procession with a retinue of servants. The costumes worn became more and more ornate and complex, culminating in a style with eight or more pins and combs in the hair, and many prescribed layers of highly ornamented garments derived from those of the earliest oiran from the early Edo period. Similarly, the entertainments offered were derived from those of the original oiran generations before. Ultimately, the culture of the oiran grew increasingly rarefied and remote from everyday life, and their clients dwindled.
The rise of the geisha ended the era of the oiran. Geisha practiced the common entertainments enjoyed by the people of that time and were much more accessible to the casual visitor. Their popularity grew rapidly and eclipsed that of the oiran. The few remaining women still currently practicing the arts of the oiran (without the sexual aspect) do so as a preservation of cultural heritage rather than as a profession or lifestyle.