Western clichés are not always tender with geishas who are too often wrongly reduced to prostitutes or luxury escort-girls. And yet, rich in an elaborate cultural path, geishas are above all recognized for their artistic skills. Customers turn to them when they want to make sure they have a pleasant evening and enjoy their artistic talents in a recreational setting, which covers the arts of conversation, music or even dance. How was this myth founded in the eyes of the West?

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The word geisha (芸 者) consists of two 06_geishawords: gei (for art) and sha (the person). Thus, geishas are people of art or more simply people who practice the arts. The term geiko (芸 妓), in force in Kansai, means him child of art. Originally the first geishas were, moreover, men responsible for entertaining the customers of ochaya (お 茶屋 or tea houses) in the pleasure districts. We called them taikomochi (太 鼓 持): carrier of taiko, a Japanese drum. Women, eager to sell their art and not their bodies, joined the profession in the middle of the 18th century and first took the name ofonna taikomochi (女 太 鼓 持, taikomochi women) then from geisha. They quickly became the majority and in the 19th century the taikomochi almost disappeared, supplanted by the geishas. The profession will be recognized by the authorities in 1779 which will thereby prohibit them from prostitution., prerogative of yûjos which they must not compete with. In short, during an evening in a pleasure district like the famous Yoshiwara of Tôkyô, geishas distract customers with conversation and artistic skills before the prostitutes take over in the sexual domain.

However, geishas are the object of fantasies for their exotic attractions. Their particularly neat appearance including marked makeup and colorful kimonos are the main features that feed prejudices abroad. And this although their dress and their hairstyle had to be less showy than those of the prostitutes, the artistic capacities taking precedence over the physical aspect and to avoid confusion. Proximity to customers, in discreet spaces, to which this entertainment work pushes them, feeds rumors. However, this is a biased and false vision of a traditional profession, particularly difficult, 400 years old.

Geisha and prostitution: at a crossroads

There are many reasons why geishas are regularly mistaken for prostitutes. Some of them have historical causes; others are related to erroneous interpretations and distortions of reality conveyed by certain films. If the geishas today, as free women, can possibly indulge in sex outside of work (like anyone), this is by no means mandatory and the practice is rather related to freedom individual. Indeed, geishas remain free people above all. These possible relationships have never been a central element in their profession.

Historically, however, it must be admitted that there have been times when it was possible (especially in lesser-known geisha houses) for geishas to indulge in sex with a client, pushed into this by some bosses and by higher remuneration. In addition, the tradition wanted that the virginity of the apprentice (named maiko or hangyoku depending on the region) is auctioned off when deemed worthy of becoming a full-fledged geisha. A rite of passage to adulthood also in force among prostitutes which marked their debut in the profession. In the Edo era, their virginity was sold to the highest bidder around the age of 14. Until the middle of the twentieth century the practice continued but the auction did not begin until the maiko celebrated his 18th birthday. The virginity of an apprentice often reaches such large sums (especially for the most famous) that only wealthy businessmen can afford it. Moreover, some amateurs did not buy only their first night (mizuage) but a set of nights. Often married elsewhere, social status obliges, these men also bought through this the admiration of their peers. Thereafter, the geisha had a protector who would provide for her numerous expenses (lessons, clothes, rent…) and of whom she would be the exclusive mistress. We give the name of danna to these extremely rich characters who ensured the material protection of the geisha. Note that it was not necessarily the man who deflowered the young woman, it was even rarely the case. The danna was chosen not by the geisha herself which could be consulted but by the mother of theokiya (establishment where geishas and apprentices live and which acts as an agent), according to its wealth and prestige. At the time, it was gratifying for a man to support a geisha, it was an outward sign of wealth and social success. Those days are over.

Print: Maikos and Fuji-san

Add that geishas and official prostitutes shared the same neighborhoods (the pleasure districts, strictly regulated by the authorities), participating in the confusion of genres. In addition, the white makeup (based on rice powder), their bright red lipstick and their outfit consisting of a kimono sometimes weighing more than 10 kilos, give geishas a very similar look (for an untrained eye) that of the Oiran, who were high-ranking prostitutes during the Edo period. Finally, after World War II, during the American occupation some prostitutes voluntarily pretended to be geishas whose reputation was greater than theirs. The Americans then brought this belief back to the United States, completing the mix between the two professions in the West.

Generally, the particular profession of geisha has no equivalent in western culture, suggesting all the cultural distortions. In the western world, some books and films have dealt with the subject in an awkward and superficial manner, by accentuating the sexual aura of geishas to the detriment of their training and deep artistic role: this is for example the case of the famous film Memoirs of a Geisha, adaptation of the better-documented eponymous novel. Finally, the “geisha balls” would participate in this confusion, since they maintain the idea according to which the activity of geishas is essentially oriented towards sexual enjoyment. No connection, however, between the Asian sex toy and the world of the geisha.

Photograph: Strevo / Flickr

A delicate artist’s job

If the profession of geisha has been officially registered since 1779, their at the same time prohibiting the practice of prostitution, it was not until 1957 that prostitution was definitively banned, definitively distinguishing geishas from prostitutes who had become illegal. The auctioning of the apprentice’s virginity ceases and henceforth the geishas alone make the choice to have a danna with whom they decide whether or not to have intimate relations. However, geishas suffer from another very real evil: the march of modernity. After the war their number will not stop falling until their near extinction. In 1975, there were only 28 maikos in Kyôto, city where training has remained the most traditional and therefore prestigious. If this number has risen since the 2000s (at the beginning of June 2018 there were 79 maikos and 193 geikos in Kyoto), in particular thanks to television documentaries and access to information facilitated by internet, their number remains quite marginal compared to the tens of thousands of members that the profession counted at the beginning of the XXth century.

Today as in the past, in order to acquire the status of geisha, the apprentice must undergo training for several years during which she will be trained in traditional arts: dance, music, ikebana, tea ceremony. In the past, parents sold their very young daughter to the okiya, for a sum of money that the young girl then had to reimburse with the costs of her education and maintenance (clothes, lessons, meals) accumulated over the years. But since the ban on child labor this heavy debt has disappeared and maikos can no longer begin their training before having finished college, ie around 15 years old. The training then lasts 5 to 6 years maximum against fifteen previously. However, even becoming an adult geisha at the age of 20-21, the young woman will continue to take classes to improve her skills throughout her life. Note that a woman can quite join the trade when she has reached adulthood. Geishas also have a solid foundation of general culture : indeed, they must have the capacity to lead conversations on the most diverse subjects, including politics. And for good reason, as a companion, they must be able to host a meal between high-ranking men whose sponsor wants to impress his guests, Japan remaining deeply patriarchal.

Photography: Japanexperterna.se / Flickr

Finally, we will point out that these services to men do not necessarily make submissive women geishas. In principle, they have control over the service offered. To become a customer of a tea house, you have to be introduced by a regular and reassure you about good manners (and its ability to pay of course). Contrary to a priori, the contemporary geisha is thus closer to the business woman andindependent artist that of the woman subjected to cultural paternalism through the hierarchy of the Japanese or family business. Thus, arguably depending on the period but clearly marked in our time, the way of the geisha can represent a form of women’s independence from society. In a way, a geisha is a freer woman than a “classic” Japanese wife who is often forced to quit her career to take care of the household full time.. And, the evolution of society requires, even if their clients remain mainly men of a certain age, geishas today are regularly brought to animate evenings where women are present.


Consider maikos, geikos, geishas like rich prostitutes is more than reductive in addition to being false. This exotic vision that some tourists maintain is in no way representative of their profession.. Very great geishas made a name for themselves, by their talent, the finesse of their skills and their knowledge. We can for example quote Mineko Iwasaki in the 70s, famous geiko of Gion Kobu in Kyôto. Certainly, gray areas will mar their past, demonstration of a very present patriarchy from which it will take several generations to free itself. Probably the big challenge for geishas today is simply to make their unique culture survive.

S. Barret

Sources: ici-japon.com / kanpai.fr / wikipédia.fr

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