Yoshiwara (吉原), located to the north of Asakusa, has about 300 years of history as a red light district. Its historical role was abolished by the anti prostitution law after WWII and now Yoshiwara has changed to an area known for Soaplands. In April every year, Oiran Dochu (花魁道中, courtesan parade) is held by local volunteers in Yoshiwara. This is a revival of the culture of yukaku (licensed red light district) in the old days.
The courtesan parade is performed near Asakusa 4-chome Crossing on Komatsubashi Street, just outside of the Yoshiwara red light district. Women dressed in traditional costumes parade through the streets. In contrast with their flashy dresses, lives of women who were in the red light district were unfortunate.
Prostitutes in yukaku (yujo, 遊女 in Japanese) were girls who were sold for money (身売り, miuri) or born in yukaku. Girls from 7 to 15 years old were called kamuro (禿) in the period of training and learned songs and instruments from senior prostitutes. After they turned 15 years old, they became shinzou (新造, apprentices who were older than kamuro, but not taking guests yet). When they were about 17 years old, they began to take guests.
High-grade courtesans called oiran (花魁, sometimes they are also called tayu, 太夫) required not only beauty but also knowledge and being good at singing or playing music. Oiran wore elegant twelve-layered kimono clothing and high heel shoes. Oiran walked very slowly, accompanied by kamuro and shinzo toward tea houses for meeting their rich guests. It is called Oiran Dochu (courtesan parade) and the distinctive way oiran walk is called soto hachimonji (their movements in the shape of the hachi 八 character.)
When they were 27 years old, they finished taking guests and either left yukaku or stayed in yukaku as managers (遣り手, yarite). If they were lucky enough to marry a very rich men (見受け, miuke), they could finish working before the age of 27. But most of girls died by the time they were 23 because of syphilis or other diseases. They lived hard lives.
Yoshiwara Oiran Dochu has been held on the second Saturday in April every year since 2003. If you have a chance to come to Tokyo at this time, you will see parades of girls with gorgeous kimono and think about Yoshiwara’s old days.
yūkaku (遊郭, 遊廓) : licensed red light district
yūjo (遊女), joro (女郎), shogi (娼妓) : licensed prostitutes in yukaku
oiran (花魁), tayu (太夫) : high-grade courtesans
kamuro (禿) : girls from 7 to 15 years old in the period of training for yujo
sinzo (新造) : girls from 15 to 17 years old in the period of training for yujo
yarite (遣り手) : managers of yujo, usually women who retired yujo work
geisha (芸者), geigi (芸妓) : entertainers who play music or sing songs, usually geisha do not prostitute
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