Geisha (芸者?), geiko (芸子) or geigi (芸妓) are traditional Japanese female entertainers who act as hostesses and whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, dance and games.
In the early stages of Japanese history, there were female entertainers: saburuko (serving girls) were mostly wandering girls whose families were displaced from struggles in the late 600s. Some of these saburuko girls sold sexual services, while others with a better education made a living by entertaining at high-class social gatherings. After the imperial court moved the capital to Heian-kyō (Kyoto) in 794 the conditions that would form Japanese Geisha culture began to emerge, as it became the home of a beauty-obsessed elite. Skilled female performers, such as Shirabyōshi dancers, thrived.
Traditional Japan embraced sexual delights (it is not a Shinto taboo) and men were not constrained to be faithful to their wives. The ideal wife was a modest mother and manager of the home; by Confucian custom love had secondary importance. For sexual enjoyment and romantic attachment, men did not go to their wives, but to courtesans. Walled-in pleasure quarters known as yūkaku (遊廓、遊郭?) were built in the 16th century, and in 1617 the shogunate designated “pleasure quarters”, outside of which prostitution would be illegal, and within which “yūjo” (“play women”) would be classified and licensed. The highest yūjo class was the Geisha’s predecessor, called “Oiran“, a combination of actress and prostitute, originally playing on stages set in the dry Kamo riverbed in Kyoto. They performed erotic dances and skits, and this new art was dubbed kabuku, meaning “to be wild and outrageous”. The dances were called “kabuki,” and this was the beginning of kabuki theater.
18th century emergence of the “geisha”
These pleasure quarters quickly became glamorous entertainment centers, offering more than sex. The highly accomplished courtesans of these districts entertained their clients by dancing, singing, and playing music. Some were renowned poets and calligraphers. Gradually, they all became specialized and the new profession, purely of entertainment, arose. It was near the turn of the eighteenth century that the first entertainers of the pleasure quarters, called geisha, appeared. The very first geishas were men, entertaining customers waiting to see the most popular and gifted courtesans (oiran).
The forerunners of the female geisha were the teenage odoriko (“dancing girls”): expensively trained as chaste dancers-for-hire. In the 1680s, they were popular paid entertainers in the private homes of upper-class samurai, though many had turned to prostitution by the early 18th century. Those who were no longer teenagers (and could no longer style themselves odoriko) adopted other names—one being “geisha“, after the male entertainers. The first woman known to have called herself geisha was a Fukagawa prostitute, in about 1750. She was a skilled singer and shamisen-player named Kikuya who was an immediate success, making female geisha extremely popular in 1750s Fukagawa. As they became more widespread throughout the 1760s and 1770s, many began working only as entertainers (rather than prostitutes) often in the same establishments as male geisha.
Rise of the geisha
The geisha who worked within the pleasure quarters were essentially imprisoned and strictly forbidden to sell sex in order to protect the business of the Oiran. While licensed courtesans existed to meet men’s sexual needs, machi geisha carved out a separate niche as artists and erudite female companions.
By 1800, being a geisha was considered a female occupation (though there are still a handful of male geisha working today). Eventually, the gaudy Oiran began to fall out of fashion, becoming less popular than the chic, “iki“, and modern geisha. By the 1830s, the evolving geisha style was emulated by fashionable women throughout society. There were many different classifications and ranks of geisha. Some women would have sex with their male customers, whereas others would entertain strictly with their art forms. Prostitution was legal up until the 1900s, so it was practiced in many quarters throughout Japan.
World War II brought a huge decline in the geisha arts because most women had to go to factories or other places to work for Japan. The geisha name also lost some status during this time because prostitutes began referring to themselves as “geisha girls” to American military men. In 1944, everything in the geisha’s world, including teahouses, bars, and houses, was forced to shut down, and all employees were put to work in factories. About a year later, they were allowed to reopen. The very few women who returned to the geisha areas decided to reject Western influence and revert back to traditional ways of entertainment and life. “The image of the geisha was formed during Japan’s feudal past, and this is now the image they must keep in order to remain geisha”. It was up to these returning geisha to bring back traditional standards in the profession, though with increased rights for the geisha:
There is no doubt that coerced sex and bidding on a new geisha’s virginity occurred in the period before WWII… After Japan lost the war, geisha dispersed and the profession was in shambles. When they regrouped during the Occupation and began to flourish in the 1960s during Japan’s postwar economic boom, the geisha world changed. In modern Japan, girls are not sold into indentured service, nor are they coerced into sexual relations
. Nowadays, a geisha’s sex life is her private affair
Before the war, a maiko’s virginity would be auctioned (the original “mizuage“). This was outlawed in 1959, but has been reported as relatively normal in the 1990s, and happening “on a limited basis” in 2001. Compulsory education laws passed in the 1960s made traditional geisha apprenticeships difficult, leading to a decline in women entering the field. The simultaneous growth of Japanese industry, which opened other opportunities for women, further contributed to the decline of the geisha industry.
In her book Geisha, a Life, Mineko Iwasaki said: “I lived in the karyukai during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when Japan was undergoing the radical transformation from a post-feudal to a modern society. But I existed in a world apart, a special realm whose mission and identity depended on preserving the time-honored traditions of the past.”
At the pinnacle of the complex geisha ranking system are the grand dowagers of Kyoto. The gokagai of Kyoto are its five geisha districts, also known as hanamachi (“flower towns”). Gion Kōbu, Pontochō and Kamishichiken have the highest status; they are very expensive, and are frequented by powerful businessmen and politicians (Gion Kōbu is sometimes seen as having the very highest ranking). Geikos from the other two hanamachi (Gion Higashi and Miyagawa-cho) have high prestige but are considered to be one rank lower.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the hot-spring geisha. These geisha work in the spa resorts and are viewed by most Japanese as no better than a common prostitute. They normally cater to far less exclusive patrons, and are much less expensive. If their income is supplemented by selling sex, they remain distinct from regular prostitutes; like all geisha, they are trained in the art of Japanese dance and music. Even so, hanamachi geisha might be horrified if categorized with hot-spring geisha.
Stages of training
Traditionally, Geisha began their training at a very young age. Some girls were bonded to geisha houses (okiya) as children. These girls were referred to as hangyoku and were as young as nine years old. This was not a common practice in reputable districts and disappeared in the 1950s with the outlawing of child labor. Daughters of geisha were often brought up as geisha themselves, usually as the successor (atotori, meaning “heir” or “heiress” in this particular situation) or daughter-role (musume-bun) to the okiya.
A maiko is essentially an apprentice and is therefore bonded under a contract to her okiya. The okiya supplies her with food, board, kimonos, obis, and other tools of her trade. Her training is very expensive, and her debt must be repaid to the okiya with the earnings she makes. This repayment may continue after the maiko becomes a full-fledged geisha and only when her debts are settled is she permitted to move out to live and work independently.
A maiko will start her formal training on the job as a minarai, which literally means “learning by watching”. Before she can do this she must find an onee-san (“older sister”: an older geisha acting as her mentor). It is the onee-san’s responsibility to bring her to the ozashiki (お座敷, a banquet in any traditional Japanese building with tatami), to sit and observe as the onee-san is at work. This is a way in which she will gain insights of the job, and seek out potential clients. Although minarai attend ozashiki, they do not participate at an advanced level. Their kimono, more elaborate than a geiko’s, are intended to do the talking for them. Minarai can be hired for parties but are usually uninvited (yet welcomed) guests at parties that their onee-san attends. They only charge a third of the usual fee. Minarai generally work with a particular tea house (minarai-jaya) learning from the okaa-san (literally “mother,” the proprietress of the house). From her, they would learn techniques such as conversation and gaming, which would not be taught to them in school. This stage lasts only about a month or so.
After a short period the final stage of training begins, and the students are called “maiko”. Maiko (literally “dance girl”) are apprentice geisha, and this stage can last for years. Maiko learn from their senior geisha mentor and follow them to all their engagements. The onee-san and imouto-san (senior/junior, literally “older sister/younger sister”) relationship is important. The onee-san teaches her maiko everything about working in the hanamachi. The onee-san will teach her proper ways of serving tea, playing shamisen, dancing, casual conversation and more. The onee-san will even help pick the maiko’s new professional name with kanji or symbols related to her name.
There are three major elements of a maiko’s training. The first is the formal arts training. This takes place in special geisha schools which are found in every hanamachi. The second element is the entertainment training which the maiko learns at various teahouses and parties by observing her onee-san. The third is the social skill of navigating the complex social web of the hanamachi. This is done on the streets. Formal greetings, gifts, and visits are key parts of any social structure in Japan and for a maiko, they are crucial for her to build the support network she needs to survive as a geisha.
Maiko are considered one of the great sights of Japanese tourism, and look very different from fully qualified geisha. They are at the peak of traditional Japanese femininity. The scarlet-fringed collar of a maiko’s kimono hangs very loosely in the back to accentuate the nape of the neck, which is considered a primary erotic area in Japanese sexuality. She wears the same white makeup for her face on her nape, leaving two or sometimes three stripes of bare skin exposed. Her kimono is bright and colorful with an elaborately tied obi hanging down to her ankles. She takes very small steps and wears traditional wooden shoes called okobo which stand nearly ten centimeters high. There are 5 different hairstyles that a maiko wears, that mark the different stages of her apprenticeship. The “Nihongami” hairstyle with “kanzashi” hair-ornamentation strips is most closely associated with maiko, who spend hours each week at the hairdresser and sleep on holed-pillows to preserve the elaborate styling. Maiko can develop a bald spot on their crown caused by rubbing from Kanzashi strips and tugging in hairdressing. This was associated with the maiko’s womanhood, as it came from a pulled knot in the ofuku hairstyle that a maiko would wear after her mizuage or first sexual experience (before which, the maiden wareshinobu style was worn).
Around the age of 20–22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha in a ceremony called erikae (turning of the collar). This could happen after two to five years of her life as a maiko or hangyoku, depending on at what age she debuted. She now charges full price for her time. Geisha remain as such until they retire.
Female dominance in geisha society
“The biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured pearls, or manufacturing transistor radios or cameras. It is entertainment.”
—Boye De Mente, Some Prefer Geisha
The term geisha literally translates to mean “entertainer”. Some prostitutes refer to themselves as “geisha”, but they are not. A geisha’s sex and love life is usually distinct from her professional life. A successful geisha can entrance her male customers with music, dance, and conversation.
“Geishas are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan, and traditionally have been so.”
—Iwasaki Mineko, Geisha, A Life
Geisha learn the traditional skills of dance and instruments and hold high social status. Geisha are single women, though they may have lovers or boyfriends whom they have personally picked, who support them financially.
“There is currently no western equivalent for a geisha—they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art.”
—Kenneth Champeon, The Floating World
Relationships with male guests
The appeal of a high-ranking geisha to her typical male guest has historically been very different from that of his wife. The ideal geisha showed her skill, while the ideal wife was modest. The ideal geisha seemed carefree, the ideal wife somber and responsible. Geisha do sometimes marry their clients but they must then retire; there can never be a married geisha.
Geisha may gracefully flirt with their (often infatuated) guests, but they will always remain in control of the hospitality. Over their years of apprenticeship they learn to adapt to different situations and personalities, mastering the art of the hostess.
Women in the geisha society are some of the most successful businesswomen in Japan. In the geisha society, women run everything. Without the impeccable business skills of the female teahouse owners, the world of geisha would cease to exist. The teahouse owners are entrepreneurs, whose service to the geisha is highly necessary for the society to run smoothly. Infrequently, men take contingent positions such as hair stylists, dressers (dressing a maiko requires considerable strength) and accountants, but men have a limited role in geisha society.
The geisha system was founded, actually, to promote the independence and economic self-sufficiency of women. And that was its stated purpose, and it actually accomplished that quite admirably in Japanese society, where there were very few routes for women to achieve that sort of independence.
The majority of women were wives who did not work outside of their familial duties. Becoming a geisha was a way for women to support themselves without becoming a wife. Thus, geisha women live in a strictly matriarchal society. Women dominate. Women run the geisha houses, they are teachers, they run the teahouses, they recruit aspiring geisha, and they keep track of geishas’ finances. The only major role men play in geisha society is that of guest, though women sometimes take that role as well.
Historically, Japanese feminists have seen geisha as exploited women but some modern geisha see themselves as liberated feminists. “We find our own way, without doing family responsibilities. Isn’t that what feminists are?”. These women leave their families at a young age to immerse themselves in their art. Some believe that since men can make a life for themselves, always being in control, so why can’t women? They “have grown adept at using their silken charms to wind their men around their little fingers… [to] manipulate the dumb, unsuspecting male of the species… to make a man think that he is the one who has the brilliant ideas”. Not all geisha identify themselves with feminism, and there is a concern that the geisha tradition holds back progress for Japanese women.
There are many misconceptions over what a geisha truly is because of the tumultuous past of artisans, prostitutes, and pleasure quarters in Japan. “The world of the geisha, the “flower and willow” world, are very separate societies that are shrouded in mystery. The myths that have been created by outsiders about the environment and the lifestyle of the geisha world have, for the most part, been able to grow unchecked. And because it is a very private, elite world, most people would be uncomfortable speaking about it”.
Prostitution was legal in Japan until 1958, which is another reason that people may be misinformed about geishas not offering sex to customers. The two became especially confused after many of the professional prostitutes who catered to the occupying soldiers after World War II styled themselves as “geisha”; at a time when few true geisha were able to work, the counterfeit geisha usurped the meaning of the word in the eyes of many foreigners.
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