Disappeared: Oiran

This beautiful picture was made in 1915. It’s labeled Japanese prostitutes, yet the description refers to the subjects as geisha girls. Geishas were misunderstood for a long time as being a prostitutes, which probably accounts for the title and description mismatch.

I wondered about the girls’ hair ornaments, and in researching them, quickly discovered that this was not a photograph of geisha girls! The subjects are oiran. They were prostitutes that catered to a very elite clientele.

circa 1915 (LOC)


The oiran wore brightly colored kimonos, lots of gold jewelry, and heavy stylized makeup. The ornaments for their hair called kanzashi–and an oiran typically wore more than half a dozen.. The higher the class of the oiran, the more elaborate, heavy, and expensive her attire was! Unlike “common prostitutes”, the oiran were known as refined women who were talented in singing and dancing. And unlike a Geisha, Oiran tended to be flashy. It’s hard to see the flashiness in black and white, so take a look at this modern oiran in a parade.

Oiran from tsunaguJapan.com


This social class has since disappeared in Japan, as a group their glamour faded as geishas became more popular. The passage of a law outlawing prostitution put a definitive end to the Oiran.

It makes me sad to see something unique to a particular culture disappear! The Oiran can only be found now in parades and old pictures.