Everything Is Wrong With Reducing Japan’s Enigmatic Geisha

Reducing Geisha and their profession to prostitution, solely on the basis of misconceptions is an unfortunate loss to the illustrious history of such refined culture.

Reducing Geisha and their profession to prostitution, solely on the basis of misconceptions is an unfortunate loss to the illustrious history of such refined culture.

Known to exist in a different reality called Karyukai or the world of “flowers and willows“, Geishas are women artists in Japan who are considered to be the embodiment of grace and artistic calibre.

The word Geisha consists of two sounds,”gei” meaning “art” and “sha” meaning “perform” which literally translates as “performing artists”. In Western Japan, the term used is Geiko, which translates as “woman of art”.

Legacy Of Geisha

The flair and legacy of Geishas is a gift to the rich Japanese culture, as these were women who excelled at dancing, poetry, singing, calligraphy, and were masters of the art of conversation.

Till date, they possess a high status in Japanese society.In fact, it is only people of power and money who can afford to get entertained by a Geisha.

In modern-day Japan, a majority of the 1,000-5,000 Geishas left, live in areas called hanamachi (or flower towns) in Kyoto.

Enrapturing at once, with faces painted white using a powder called a oshiroi, a distinct red tint adorning their lips and a black and red lining around their eyes, wearing fine kimonos with a neckline that dips low on the back to show the distinct pattern called eri-ashi (襟足) or “neck stripes”. And lastly, an enigmatic aura completing their look. 

However, the sun of these icons of elegance is setting and the sole credit goes to rumours and misconceptions that loom over their vibrant history. The splendour of their art has been reduced to their bodies by the stigma of prostitution being attached to them. The origin of these misconceptions being booming “fake Geishas” and the “Geesha Girls” of American Soldiers during World War-II.

Never miss real stories from India's women.

Register Now

The pride of the Geishas rests in the fact that post war, despite their lustrous image being distorted, there was no large scale agitation because it is  unbecoming of a Geisha to show any emotions or to act in an uncultured manner. 

History Of Geisha

The history of Geisha culture dates back to 7th and 13th century and has its roots in female entertainers such as saburuko and shirabyoshi. 

1900’s Japan was centered around Confucian beliefs and was not averse to openly expressing sexual desires and gratifying them. According to Confucius, love is secondary, and hence, to fulfil their needs men did not go to their wives but to courtesans. As prostitution was not illegal in 1900, many saburuko females sold sexual services. 

Then in 1617, Shogunate constructed “pleasure quarters” outside which prostitution would be considered illegal. The yuujo (遊女), or “play women” entertained men legally within these quarters.Tayuu, who were highest in the Yuujo classes specialized in erotic dances called Kabuki.

Gradually, the profession of entertainment began flourishing within the pleasure quarters and in 18th century, “Geishas” came into being. These were performing artists, who worked solely to entertain customers and were banned from selling sex. They were employed in work outside the sex industry. In fact, a popular motto that emerged in the nineteenth century was,  we sell art, not bodies.” Initially, these skilled dancers, singers and calligraphers were men. It was 20 years later that female Geishas began to appear in the form of odoriko (dancers), who became dominant in the profession by 1780.

How To Become A Geisha?

Becoming a Geisha requires intensive training and a passion for art. “Maiko” is the term used to refer to apprentice geisha. In present day Japan, training begins at the age of 15 but in olden times, it could be as early as 3 or 6 years of age.

Geisha houses called “okiya” are where the teaching of formal arts take place. 

Considering how refined Geisha culture is, learning ancient dance forms, songs and the flair of owning a place with your presence requires potential and patience both. It is said that a Geisha’s training never ends, she continues to learn till her death or when she leaves the profession. 

Artists Or Prostitutes?

There is a hierarchy within Geisha culture and initially, there were some Geishas who did have sexual relationship with their patrons. However, it was a personal choice and not trading of any sort. 

The very term “Geisha” came to be in order to separate it from the sex-selling oirans. The misconception arose after many “fake geisha” started coming up. These females painted their face white and feigned being a Geisha. Later during World War II, in America occupied Japan, they offered sex to the lonely soldiers in return for money.
These soldiers went back and told everyone that they got themselves a “Geesha Girl” and thenceforth, the word prostitution got tangled with the definition of Geisha in layman’s language.

Geishas were women of power and agency. Women who possessed artistic finesse.
Women of culture, class and sophistication. Women who survived exploitation and manipulation of their status with utmost grace.

Women who continue to be enigmatic icons  as Arthur Sulzberger Golden says in his book Memoirs of a Geisha.

She paints her face to hide her face. Her eyes are deep water. It is not for Geisha to want. It is not for geisha to feel. Geisha is an artist of the floating world. She dances, she sings. She entertains you, whatever you want. The rest is shadows, the rest is secret. 

Reducing them and their profession to prostitution, solely on the basis of misconceptions is an unfortunate loss to the illustrious history of such refined culture.

Image Via Pexels


About the Author

Tasneem Khan

Hello, I am Tasneem Khan. I am a poet, and a student of History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. read more...

3 Posts | 3,377 Views

Stay updated with our Weekly Newsletter or Daily Summary - or both!

All Categories