At the very beginning, we want to straight some things up: Geishas have nothing to do with prostitution. As K.G Marshal once wrote geisha’s purpose was “to entertain their customer, be it by dancing, reciting verse, playing musical instruments, or engaging in light conversation. Geisha engagements may include flirting with men and playful innuendos; however, clients know that nothing more can be expected. In a social style that is common in Japan, men are amused by the illusion of that which is never to be.”
Furthermore, Sheridan Prasso wrote that Americans had “an incorrect impression of the real geisha world, where geisha means “arts person” trained in music and dance, not in the art of sexual pleasure.”
In 1872, shortly after the Meiji Restoration, the new government passed a law liberating “prostitutes (shōgi) and geisha (geigi)”. The wording of this statute was the subject of controversy. Some officials thought that prostitutes and geisha worked at different ends of the same profession—selling sex— and that all prostitutes should henceforth be called “geisha”. In the end, the government decided to maintain a line between the two groups, arguing that geisha were more refined and should not be soiled by association with prostitutes.
However, the origin of the Geisha has a close relation to concubines and prostitution.
In the early stages of Japanese history, there were female entertainers: saburuko (serving girls) were mostly wandering girls whose families were displaced by struggles in the late 1600s. 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 a 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 “Tayuu“, 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.
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 first geishas were men, entertaining customers waiting to see the most popular and gifted courtesans (oiran).
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