The mere mention of Japan will probably conjure many pervasive Japanese images in your mind, and undoubtably, geisha will probably be among those images. However, for most foreign people the concept of geisha is difficult to understand and many people are misinformed as to their cultural significance, the role they played, and still play, and how and why they are different to any other women in any other place in the world. I have been very lucky to see quite a number of geisha in Gion, in Kyoto. I am always startled by their grace and beauty. I have read the dissertation of the first Western woman to ever live as a geisha, in Ponto-cho, in Kyoto, in the 1970s, as a anthropology PhD candidate. Liza Dalby, an American, got a glimpse into the life of a geisha and her book is very interesting. (She also mentored Arthur Golden when he wrote Memoirs of a Geisha). I still find the concept very culturally different and therefore challenging, but am going to dig into the history and try to shine some light on these intriguing individuals.
Doing the research for this blog has, as usual, enlightened me as to how little I understood up until this time, even after much reading on the subject. It’s funny that the more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. There is so much misinformation, however, I believe I have managed to unravel enough of the truth to be able to share it, hopefully without too much confusion. So, what is a geisha? A geisha is an entertainer. The original geisha were men, beginning to appear in brothels, as entertainers, in the early 1700s. They played music and sang to occupy men waiting for the services of an oiran. (We will get to what this is a little later). Over a period of time it became more commonplace for women to become geisha, and not only were they NOT involved in the sex business of the brothel, they were strictly forbidden from partaking in such activities, as it would detract business from the oiran.
Firstly, a look at the etymology of the word geisha 芸者 the first kanji (gei) means performing arts and the second kanji (sha) means person. Geisha were highly trained in many aspects of performing arts including singing, dancing (sometimes with a fan), literature, poetry, calligraphy, tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging) and playing the shamisen, bamboo flute and the koto (traditional Japanese instruments). Geisha are appreciated in Japan as the custodians of culture. They are almost a living embodiment of history and are respected and revered as such. Geisha wear a very particular style of make-up, clothing and hairstyle. They are trained in all of these things and the arts from a very young age. Historically, girls would join an okiya (house) from the age of 6 and would begin their training under an okaasan (mother) and an onesan (older sister) who was actually an older geisha of the same establishment or a close friend to the establishment from another okiya.. Apprentice geisha are called maiko and in Kyoto, geisha are called geiko. Their education and clothing was very expensive and the debt would accumulate until the girl began working. This debt was repaid over a period of time and then the girl could continue working and the okiya would retain a percentage of her booking fee. Some girls were born into the okiya and others were sold by their poor parents. These days girls have to finish junior high before being allowed to enter an okiya, and there are few hanamachi (geisha district- literal translation “flower town”) left in Japan. The Karyūkai, the flower and willow world, the world of the geisha, is slowly vanishing.
An oiran is a highly paid prostitute. My understanding of the telling of the history is that they are generally referred to as courtesans now, and although they were highly skilled in the arts, these women were incredibly, and I mean stupendously, well paid prostitutes. A tayu is the highest ranking of oiran, and a night with one of these women would cost you three, as the first two nights you were vetted for suitability to sleep with, and then, if successful in your application, one night could cost the equivalent of a months salary for a labourer or a shop-owners yearly salary. The tayu had control of who she slept with and who she did not. These women are not to be confused with the yujo, or regular prostitutes sitting in the harimise of Yoshiwara, behind bars in a shop-window like arrangement. They were often from country areas, spoke in an invented accent called kurawa kotoba- to hide their hometown dialect or country accent and they could play traditional instruments, recite tanka poetry and they practiced calligraphy. Oiran also had very stylised make-up, wore a crazy amount of decoration in their hair and wore extremely ornate clothing. Their kimono were so embellished and embroidered, and they wore so many layers, the clothing could weigh up to 30kgs. Oiran also wore koma geta, insanely tall wooden clog like slip on shoes, that were so high, they needed two men to walk with them so they didn’t fall and had to walk making a figure of eight with their feet never really leaving the ground. They were unable to dress themselves, requiring quite a lot of assistance, and therefore tied their obi (sash) at the front, so as they could undo it and do it up several times over, if required. These women also started training very young, and were often sold into prostitution by their parents. There are certainly many similarities and it is understandable that people become confused about these women in Japanese history.
As far as I can deduce, geisha and oiran were living in similar areas, they wore similar, but different make-up and clothing, and they entertained (mostly) men. As geisha moved away from brothels, many parties and events would be hosted by both geisha and oiran, and over a period of time, geisha became far more popular and the oiran declined in popularity and eventually were outlawed in 1957 when Japan’s prostitution laws changed. Oiran were seen as very formal, with their stylised speech and overly ornate way of dressing. They were a product of their time, which began hundreds of years before. Geisha were seen as more relatable, more restrained and more chic. Geisha were more accessible, requiring less ritual and formal etiquette bound introductions, and this further promoted their popularity. After WW2 and during the occupation of Japan, many women, who were prostitutes, dressed as geisha and slept with American servicemen. This practice certainly has affected the Western view of what the Americans were incorrectly calling “Geesha girls”. This attitude has continued, as many people do not understand the (very confusing) reality. Although a lot of information can be found about geisha selling their virginity, in a ritual known as mizuage, and they were able to pursue sexual relationships with men, the idea that geisha were prostitutes is incorrect. Even my Japanese friends say they are unsure of the reality and, as this floating world of flowers and willow was very discreet, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
There remains, in Japan, around 5 tayu and 300 geisha, according to my research, although these numbers are unlikely to be completely accurate. Tayu are no longer able to work as prostitutes, though, as it is illegal, and these women are more ceremonial and caretakers of history now. Both of these careers have suffered enormous reduction is numbers. In the 1920s there were 80,000 geisha in Japan. It is harder for okiya to attract girls, parents can no longer sell them (thank goodness), and the life of a geisha is not for everyone. If you are lucky enough to capture a glimpse of a geiko going to an engagement on an evening in Kyoto, please show the respect to her that she deserves. She is a living and tangible paragon of Japanese culture and history.
Researching these women has been enlightening, but I fear, is bringing me no closer to understanding the position of women in modern day Japan. There is so much complexity and trying to grasp the concepts is difficult. Japanese culture is so unique and trying to view these things, with no preconception, through a Western tinged lens is difficult, at best. Patronising geisha has an element of prestige about it and although I have not had the pleasure to do so, I would like, at some stage, to be able to sit with a geisha, maybe play some drinking games with sake, and have a very extraordinary experience.