A Very Brief History of Japanese Geisha
A Glimpse into the Flower and Willow World
The geisha is one of Japan’s most iconic figures. Inhabiting a kind of otherworldly realm that has largely escaped the clutches of time, geisha give us a unique insight into Japan’s rich heritage. Yet some controversy exists in the West regarding their role throughout history. This post offers a small glimpse into the Flower and Willow World with a very brief history of Japanese geisha.
The literal translation of the word geisha is ‘performing artist’, or simply ‘artist’. The term itself carries no further connotations, and this fact alone serves as a good starting point from which to gain a greater understanding of the geisha’s role. First and foremost, geisha are artists, entertainers and hostesses (or hosts), who are skilled in a number of traditional Japanese arts. Their only other common characteristic is a talent for choosing and wearing traditional kimono (a far more complicated affair than the Yukata kimono that you see today).
So how did Japanese geisha gain a reputation for entertaining their guests by less innocent means? This brief history of Japanese geisha should shed some light on the darker side to the art.
History of Japanese Geisha
The tradition of female entertainers in Japan spans back as far as the late 600s to the early saburuko (‘serving girls’). From the start there was a clear class divide, with some selling sexual services whilst others entertained at high-class gatherings.
During the 16th century, this practice became legally constrained to designated ‘pleasure quarters’, where classified and licensed yujo (‘play women’) entertained the men. Oiran, the highest class of these women, incorporated erotic dances (kabuki) and skits into their entertainments, and kabuki theatre was born. As the popularity of this new Japanese art form grew, the pleasure quarters transformed into entertainment hubs, providing guests with dance, song and music, and sometimes other traditional Japanese arts such as poetry and calligraphy.
Emergence of Geisha
The history of Japanese geisha as we know it begins at the turn of the 18th century. The first geisha were men, and their profession was purely to entertain, serving as a kind of ‘warm up’ for the headline act of the courtesans (oiran). A generation of teenage odoriko (the ‘dancing girls’ hired by upper-class samurai) saw the potential of this new art form, and as they advanced into adulthood many of them joined the ranks of geisha in the 1750s, with many choosing to sell their artistic skill as opposed to their bodies.
Rise of Geisha
In the years that followed, this new form of entertainment grew hugely in popularity and a law was passed in order to protect the oirans’ business, making it illegal for geisha to sell sex. But by the 19th Century, oiran was falling into decline as the geisha art, now strictly a female one, went from strength to strength. Once again, the female entertainers became divided into several different classes – some of which involved prostitution. The practice of auctioning the virginity of apprentice geisha, known as maiko (‘dance children’) or hangyoku (‘half-jewels’), became commonplace.
Decline of Geisha
The geisha industry continued to thrive until the Second World War, when many had to go to work in other industries, and the teahouses, bars and geisha houses were forced to close. Ordinary prostitutes started to refer to themselves as ‘geisha girls’ to visiting American troops, and the art form fell into decline. When it was later reintroduced, the few geisha who returned did so with the staunch intention of rejecting western influence, hoping to go back the traditional way of doing things.
Today, the few geisha that remain still live in traditional okiya (geisha houses). They study traditional instruments, songs, games, calligraphy, literature and poetry, and learn how to select and wear traditional ladies’ kimono, no mean feat given the complex traditions surrounding this practice. However, unlike their predecessors, for whom the okiya were essentially prisons, they are free to make their own choices about their professional and personal lives.
Modern geisha retain their role as hostesses, and are hired to attend parties and gatherings at tea houses and traditional Japanese restaurants. Tourism is one of the few things keeping this tradition afloat, with many visitors to Japan paying to dress up as maiko. Otherwise, little remains of the Flower and Willow World except in the history books and the artistic relics of the time.
Admittedly, an 800-word blog post cannot do the rich history of Japanese geisha justice compared with the many volumes that have been written on the subject. However, I hope this post has at least given you some insight into the vibrant yet dark story of these erudite entertainers.
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