From SamuraiWiki
Revision as of 02:56, 13 December 2012 by LordAmeth (talk | contribs) (some expansion)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to navigationJump to search
Mannequins of the courtesan Agemaki and her kamuro (child attendant) from the kabuki play Sukeroku.
A bijinga painting of a courtesan by Kaigetsudô Dôhan.
  • Japanese: 遊女 (yuujo), 女郎 (jorou), 花魁 (oiran)

Courtesans of Edo period Japan, known by a variety of Japanese terms including yûjo and jorô, were more than simple prostitutes. They were experts in dance, music, conversation, and other entertainments, and those who operated within the licensed quarters, such as the Yoshiwara in Edo, Shimabara in Kyoto, Shinmachi in Osaka, Maruyama in Nagasaki, and in Furuichi near Ise, had a complex system of ranks, etiquette, and procedures. At the time of the Yoshiwara's cultural height, prior to 1750 or so, only the most tsû, that is, those with the greatest cultural capital, could secure an appointment with the top courtesans; even then, few could afford it, as the prices for a night with even a middling-ranking courtesan were quite expensive, serving as the source of income not only for the courtesan one was hiring, but for her entire entourage (i.e. attendants, younger courtesans-in-training) as well.

Select classes of courtesans in Nagasaki's Maruyama district were dedicated to serving either the Chinese districts, or the Dutch settlement on Dejima. Courtesans were, along with officials on official business, among the only Japanese permitted to enter Dejima, and were allowed to remain there overnight; courtesans serving the Chinese districts, however, were not permitted to remain in those districts overnight.

Guides called hyôbanki were regularly published, usually on the occasion of the new year, containing rankings and critiques of the courtesans of a given district for the previous year.

Ranks in the Yoshiwara

Prior to 1750

  • Tayû (太夫) - the top rank of courtesans. The term had its start in the Shimabara district of Kyoto, and its usage later spread to Osaka, Edo, and Nagasaki. The term has its origins as a title in the Imperial court, though how it was appropriated into the pleasure quarters remains unclear. Young courtesans-in-training required extensive training throughout their youth, as they progressed from kamuro, to shinzô or hikifune (引舟), and then to tenjin (天神), on their way to becoming tayû. Obtaining the "services" of a tayû required, first, a lengthy set of procedures and rituals, including a recommendation letter from one of the Yoshiwara teahouses, and an application submitted to the ageya (揚屋, house of assignation) to which that tayû belonged. Even after one's application was accepted, one would meet with the tayû and her entourage three times, paying a hefty fee each time, and engaging in a ritual exchange or ceremonial performance, and only after that, if the tayû chose to go further with the client, would one be able to enjoy the services of the tayû in question. Being rejected by a tayû was quite common, even expected, and competitions for the affection of a given tayû were quite common.
  • Kôshi (格子, lit. "lattice") - the second rank of Yoshiwara courtesans. Obtaining the services of a kôshi required a set of procedures similar to that of requesting a tayû, though less lengthy or difficult. A prospective client needed a letter of recommendation from a Yoshiwara teahouse, and would submit an application to the ageya, just as when requesting a tayû. However, the kôshi and her attendants would meet with the client only once, not three times, before deciding whether to take him on as a client. The ritual exchange was far less complex, and the cost roughly half that of a tayû. Rejections from a kôshi were less typical, and once one was accepted by a kôshi, one could proposition her services directly, at the latticed front room of her brothel.
  • Tsubone (局) were lesser-ranking courtesans, costing roughly 1/10th the price of a kôshi. They had no power to reject customers, and required no special application process, but simply sat on display in the latticed front-room of a brothel, waiting for customers. Each tsubone, however, had a room set aside for their (and their clients') use.
  • Hashi (端) were the lowest-ranking courtesans, costing roughly 1/3rd the price of a tsubone, or 1/30th that of a kôshi. Like the tsubone, they had no application process, and no power to reject customers, but sat on display in the latticed front room, and accepted whichever customers chose them. Unlike the tsubone, however, they had to borrow or rent rooms in which to entertain their customers.

Ranks after 1750

The Kyôhô Famine, which began in 1732, had a profound effect on a myriad aspects of Japanese society; this, combined with a variety of other developments, led to the decline of the tayû, and of the complex rituals and procedures of the earlier period of the Yoshiwara. The 1750s-1760s then saw the rise of a new system and hierarchy centered around the oiran, members of the top three ranks in a new hierarchy, who developed out of the position of teahouse waitresses called sancha.

  • Oiran (花魁) - any courtesan of the top three ranks, yobidashi chûsan, chûsan, or tsukemawashi. An oiran had two shinzô (courtesans-in-training), and two kamuro (child or adolescent attendants) in her entourage. The term appears as early as the Genroku era (1688-1704), but only becomes common around 1760, after the decline of the tayû. The origins of the word are unclear, though one explanation has it deriving from the phrases oira no or oira ga toko used by kamuro and shinzô to refer to the courtesan as "elder sister." A variety of kanji for "oiran" appear in sharebon publications from the time, but eventually the ateji 花魁 stuck as the dominant written form.
  • Yobidashi chûsan (呼出昼三, lit. "a chûsan called-out, summoned") - the top courtesan rank in the new hierarchy. A client seeking the services of a yobidashi chûsan would be required to make an appointment ahead of time at the teahouse. A yobidashi chûsan cost roughly the same amount as a kôshi in the old system.
  • Chûsan (昼三) who were not yobidashi could be hired without a private appointment, but cost the same as the yobidashi chûsan. Unlike the yobidashi, they sat in the latticed front room of the teahouse, on display.
  • Tsukemawashi (付け廻し) were the lowest-ranking oiran, requiring no appointment, and costing slightly less than hiring a chûsan.
  • Zashikimochi (座敷持, lit. "chamber-holding") were courtesans below the rank of oiran who possessed a small apartment where they could entertain clients. They typically had one or two shinzô and one or two kamuro. A visit with a zashikimochi could cost half as much as a tsukemawashi, or sometimes just as much.
  • Heyamochi (部屋持, lit. "room-holding") were courtesans below the rank of zashikimochi, who possessed a single room in which to entertain clients. They typically had no attendants. A visit with a heyamochi could cost half as much, up to just as much, as an inexpensive zashikimochi.
  • Shinzô (新造, lit. "newly made") were courtesans-in-training, usually 13 to 23 years of age, who usually served as attendants to higher-ranking courtesans. Younger shinzô were identified by the long-sleeved furisode of a young girl, while those who had earned a certain degree of popularity with clients wore the tomesode (short sleeves) of a full-fledged courtesan. Though prior to 1761 shinzô attendants to tayû were forbidden from engaging in sexual relations with clients, after that year, they began to serve clients themselves. A visit with a shinzô could cost roughly the same as with an inexpensive heyamochi.
  • Kamuro (禿) were children, usually seven to fifteen years of age, who served as courtesans' attendants. Generally, a courtesan had only one kamuro in the 1600s, while in the 1700s, each courtesan (above a certain rank) came to have two kamuro accompanying her.


  • "Arts of the Bedchamber: Japanese Shunga." Honolulu Museum of Arts, Exhibition Website. Accessed 10 December 2012.
  • "Oiran." Sekai daihyakka jiten 世界大百科事典. Hitachi Solutions, 2012.
  • "Tayû." Sekai daihyakka jiten 世界大百科事典. Hitachi Solutions, 2012.