Tanka : letter

dear Hana-ogi
you studied poems, koto
what do you wish for?
calligraphy inks poems
sad life confined by beauty

tanka by M. Nakazato LaFreniere

I added about 1/3 blank area for my poem but the rest of it is an Utamaro print. My apologies to those who love Utamaro.

The original of the ukiyo-e above is by Kitagawa Utamaro from his 高名美人六家撰 (Famous Beauties from 6 Best Houses) series. At the time it was illegal to have names on the prints to protect people’s privacy so artists would create picture puzzles which when solved revealed the name. In an escalating attempt to protect privacy, that would later become illegal too.

The picture puzzle in the upper right corner is from top to bottom, a hand fan ( ōgi), an arrow (, ya), flowers ( hana), and another hand fan ( ōgi).  A person in the know would understand it to mean that this is a portrait of Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya. Hanaōgi was the name used by a succession of highly ranked courtesans/oirans in the Ōgiya house. They would be numbered in accordance to who they were in the succession.  Most of the ukiyo-e’s in the mid 1790s was probably Hanaōgi IV.

Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya House by Chōbunsai Eishi, 1794

After the 1750s, when a prostitute/courtesan started working in a Yoshiwara brothel, as a child attendant, a kamuro, she would have a simple child’s name. At around 12-14, her name would change as she became an apprentice in a courtesan’s retinue.  As a shinzo, her name would contain some element of her “older sister’s” name.  The kamuro and shinzo name were written in hiragana.  Japan has 3 alphabets.  Katakana to write foreign words in.  Hiragana to write Japanese words with an alphabet system so that each letter is associated with a specific sound.  And finally the sophisticated Kanji where each letter is an pictogram with a specific meaning although it may have different sounds depending on how it is combined with other Kanji.

When the prostitute/courtesan (oiran) became a full fledged professional, she would receive a professional name that could be written in kanji.  As the prostitute/courtesan continues to be promoted or demoted within the professional ranks of which there were severals, she will keep the same professional name until she gets promoted to the top or second highest courtesan rank in her house.

Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya House by Ichirakutei Eisui , circa 1790s

If an oiran rose to one of those top two courtesan ranks, she received a myōseki, an inherited name associated with the top rank in her House.  The name would bestow upon her the glamour and reputation of all the women who had held that name before.  The name was more important than the individual woman.

So while you will see many ukiyo-e prints of the Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya house, it may not be of the same woman. Hanaōgi was a top name in the  Ōgiya house. However, she will always be the most beautiful, the most skilled, the most expensive courtesan of the Ōgiya house, whomever the current reigning beauty would be.  This Utamaro ukiyo-e was printed in 1795-96 of the reigning Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya house of that year.  Because a name would have a cachet, other houses would adopt the name for use among their prostitutes/courtesans so one used the name with the house.  Other houses would have a Hanaōgi but they wouldn’t be the Hanaōgi.  The Hanaōgi could only be the Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya house. Just like many houses had Usugumo but The Usugumo had to be Usugumo of the Great Miura house.

Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya House by Keisai Eisen, circa 1830s

When a Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya house retired, the name would lie dormant for a season or so while house did a talent search looking for the perfect replacement — very rarely was the replacement a trainee who worked under the previous Hanaōgi nor would she have any say in her replacement.

Before 1750,  the rankings were different.  Back then, the highest ranking was  a Tayū, known for her amazing beauty and her brilliant wit and skills in conversations and the arts. She is THE Courtesan.  Tayū are artists; they are the top-ranking courtesans and were famous throughout Japan. The word Tayū is also associated with top-ranking Noh, Kabuki actors and Jōruri singers.To see a Tayū courtesan, a man would have to get a letter of recommendation from a teahouse. He would take this letter and an application to the House the Tayū belonged to. If his application was accepted and that was a big if, he would meet thrice with the Tayūand her attendants which included courtesans-in-training and one or two children or adolescent attendants while they talked or she performed.  The fees were exorbitant. Only after that did she deign to accept him as a lover.  Frequently the Tayū would reject the man as a lover.  This was expected and the men would vie with each other for her attentions to be a chosen one.  There were never many Tayū.  In 1720, only six were listed among the houses.

Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya House by Eishi Hosoda, circa 1794-96

In 1732, locusts hordes attacked Kyushu, gobbling up rice plants.  More than 70,000 people died from the resulting Kyoho famine.  Among many other social affects, the famine had a domino affect on the courtesan system and the formality of the Tayū system declined. After the famine, there were never more than 2 or 3 Tayūs and the Houses tried desperately to hold onto the fading system.

In 1741, the last (IX) of the Takao’s left with Lord Sakakibara Masamune when he was forced to retired from his Himeji fief due to his liason with her. Incidentally his leaving was the origin of the Yukata Festival in Himeji. He was sent to the colds of Takada (in Niigata prefecture, now known for its skiing and hot springs) where he died in 1743 while she lived on until the ripe age of 84 in 1799.

In 1748, when the last Usugumo of the Great Miura house retired, the house declined into a teahouse and eventually disappeared.  They never did install a replacement. The last great Tayū was Hanamurasaki of Corner Tamaya who retired in 1761.  In 1763, the Corner Tamaya presented two new Tayūs but they were not legitimized and their rankings were cancelled.  That fiasco ended with the name of the women being crossed off the Tayū lists. And that ended the era of Tayūs.

Prior to 1750, a courtesan went from a Hashi with no application process and no power to reject a client, to Tsubone, to Koshi to Tayu.  After 1750, there were more gradations as it evolved into the Oiran system.  The lower ranks went from Heyamochi, Zashikimoch, up to Tsukemawashi,  Chûsan, and Yobidashi chûsan. The Oiran was any in the top three top ranks: yobidashi chûsan, chûsan, or tsukemawashi.

Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya House, another one by Kitagawa Utamaro, 1793-1794

The Hanaōgi were oiran, not Tayū.  Niether were they geisha which was an altogether different thing. Hanaōgi II and Hanaōgi III were famous for their talent at koto, poetry, tea ceremony and calligraphy and were highly sought after. In 1785, Hanaōgi III and her lover, Abe Shikibu, a shogun samurai retainer, attempted to commit a double suicide.

In 1703-1704, there were 900 documented cases of love suicides in Kyoto and Osaka which, in turn, were romanticized in plays and bunraku puppet shows.  Typically love suicides were between a prostitute and her lover. Because the women were bound by contract to their brothels, they could not marry if the brothel did not release them. Their contracts could be bought but if they were in the upper levels, the contracts were exorbitant, reflecting the high fees their clients had to pay for their affections.  Very few men could afford purchase their release. The lovers would both leave letters saying they chose to unite in death because they could not in life. The man would slit her throat before stabbing himself. This may have had origins in honor seppuku as some of the women sold into prostitution were the daughters of dispossessed samurai who had lost their masters or daimyos who had lost their feudal holdings. And their lovers were often samurais or lords.

In 1794, another Hanaōgi tried to elope but was caught and returned to the Ōgiya house.  While they had fame and were immortalized in ukiyo-e for their beauty, the Hanaōgi did not have freedom.



Meet the bar with a letter
dVerse ~ Poets Pub


Kōmei Bijin Rokkasen

Original Ukiyoe image: File:Utamaro (1795–96) Kōmei bijin rokkasen – Ōgiya Hanaōgi.jpg

About Japanese Courtesans’ Names


The view from above. Tayu or Oiran, Courtesan its all the same…not exactly.

Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan
By Cecilia Segawa Seigle
University of Hawaii Press, 1993