Courtesans and Geisha – the Tayū

Until 1957, government regulated prostitution was legal in Japan. From the 17th century through the mid-19th century, enclosed districts called yûkaku were fashionable, exciting playgrounds for wealthy townsmen, especially of the merchant class. In these areas, high ranking women of pleasure called tayū entertained their customers. 

A tayū from Shimabara in Kyoto, c. 1890. Women of this rank were trained in tea ceremony, flower arranging, incense, painting, poetry, singing, and dance.

The elaborate kimono and hairstyle of the tayū is maintained by the three or four women who re-enact this role today.

After 1957, when prostitution was made illegal, the remaining tayū in Kyoto’s Shimabara licensed district were declared a special variety of geisha. In the 1970s, Shimabara in Kyoto was still considered an active hanamachi, and people spoke of the rokkagai (six hanamachi) of Kyoto. Now, in the 21st century, Shimabara has been dropped, and the geisha of Kyoto as a group are now the gokagai (five hanamachi.) Shimabara exists primarily as a living museum, with three or four women trained to play the role of the traditional tayū of the old licensed quarter. Their presentations of music, dance, and tea ceremony are mostly given for tourists in the setting of one of two historical buildings that have been preserved. 

This is a video of Shimabara’s Kisaragi Tayū that I filmed in 2007:

The modern tayū is accompanied by two little girls who are dressed as traditional child attendants (kamuro).


child attendant


courtesan’s procession