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Oiran (花魁, Oiran?) were high-class courtesans in Japan. The word oiran consists of two kanji, 花 meaning "flower", and 魁 meaning "leader" or "first." 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. In the major cities these were the Shimabara in Kyoto, the Shimmachi in Osaka, and in Edo (present-day Tokyo), the Yoshiwara. These rapidly grew into large, self-contained "Pleasure Quarters" offering all manner of entertainments. Within, a courtesan's birth rank held no distinction but there arose a strict hierarchy according to beauty, character, educational attainments and artistic skills. Among the oiran, the tayū (太夫 or 大夫, tayū?) was considered the highest rank of courtesan or prostitute, and were considered suitable for the daimyo. Only the wealthiest and highest ranking could hope to patronise them.

To entertain their clients, oiran practiced the arts of dance, music, poetry and calligraphy, and an educated wit was considered essential to sophisticated conversation.

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 ruled the standards of 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 also were derived from those of the original oiran generations before. Ultimately, the culture of the tayu 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 last recorded oiran was in 1761. 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.

Source: Wikipedia
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