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In answering this question, I found out about the oiran, a class of high-status courtesans in 17th-18th century Japan. Some of the description of these people sounds very similar to the Companions who feature in Joss Whedon's TV show Firefly:

Compared to yūjo (prostitutes), whose primary attraction was their sexual favors, courtesans were first and foremost entertainers. In order to become an oiran, a woman had to be educated in a range of skills, including the traditional arts of sadō (Japanese tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arranging), and calligraphy. Oiran also learned to play the koto, shakuhachi, tsuzumi (hand drum), and shamisen. Clients also expected them to be well-read and able to converse and write with wit and elegance.

Within the pleasure quarters, courtesans' prestige was based on their beauty, character, education, and artistic ability, rather than their birth.

The highest rank of courtesan was the tayū (太夫?), followed by the kōshi (格子?). Unlike a common prostitute, the tayū had sufficient prestige to refuse clients. Her high status also made a tayū extremely pricey—a tayū's fee for one evening was between one ryo and one ryo three bu, well beyond a laborer's monthly wage and comparable to a shop assistant's annual salary.

-- Wikipedia, emphasis mine

Beyond this impressive array of circumstantial evidence, is there anything in canon (e.g. interviews with Whedon) to tell us whether or not the Companions of Firefly were based on the oiran, or for that matter on any other group in real-world society?

What is known canonically about the inspiration for Companion culture?

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  • Well hell, Ancient Greece had the Hierata which was the same thing but several thousand years ago. The Japanese did not invent the idea of the courtesan.
    – Broklynite
    Sep 29 '16 at 21:06
  • @Broklynite I never said they did, but did the Ancient Greek courtesans have a tea ceremony? :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 29 '16 at 22:23
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    Hetarai is literally translated as "companion" for one thing. Requiring the hetarai to be educated in philosophy, history, play instruments, and all of that. Perhaps not a tea ceremony specifically, but they would unquestionably enjoy wine together. But I think I had misread the original question, which is why I'm glad I left this in the comments section rather than an answer.
    – Broklynite
    Sep 30 '16 at 6:59
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According to Joss Whedon, Inara's character and the companions were inspired by the geisha, traditional female entretainers and by libertarian feminist perspectives on prostitution (emphasis mine):

“Inara’s character originally was a whore, something very Deadwood. My wife said, ‘Why not do something more in the style of a geisha and make her the most educated person on the ship instead of just an oppressed, pathetic creature?’ And then, of course, people [said], ‘What a typical boy fantasy.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s my wife!’ Inara obviously [is] the opposite of Mal, she represents the Alliance and everything that’s good about it—enlightenment, education, self-possession, feminism.”~ Joss Whedon, Serenity: The Official Visual Companion

To me it seems there are lots of cultural references mixed up in Inara's behaviour and the social influence of her guild, probably according to what instructions the writer of the specific episode, for example Jane Espenson got, and how she and other folks in the writers room interpreted the traditional role of the geisha and the cultural and political influence of the Companion's Guild within the Alliance after the Unification War.

Now Inara Serra provides sexual services, which was not necessarily true for the Geisha, who were high class entertainers:

" The term Geisha can be translated in one of two ways: “artist” or “entertainer” (Dalby 54-55) neither of these denotes the sexual aspect of their careers, which is important because it helps distinguish every other aspect of their teachings, not just their capability of sex. That the emphasis lies in their ability to entertain sets them apart from the yuju or Oiran."~Geisha in the Wild, Wild West: How the Companions of the ‘Verse are Influenced by Geisha Culture

So I agree with you that the companions resemble more the oiran than the geisha, or the Korean kisaeng, but there are also elements of the Greek heitarai and modern feminist ideas on prostitution and so on.

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    Is that "Neeshka" as in the evil torturer guy who appears in two Firefly episodes? :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 29 '16 at 20:47
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    @Randal'Thor nope, worse, Neeshka ain't even human forgottenrealms.wikia.com/wiki/Neeshka
    – user68762
    Sep 29 '16 at 20:55
  • @Randal'Thor The one you're thinking of is actually Niska, in case you weren't just making a joke. Sep 29 '16 at 22:25

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