- Other Names: 芸子 (geiko), 舞妓 (maiko)
- Japanese: 芸者 (geisha)
Geisha (lit. "artists") are refined entertainers skilled in the arts of song, dance, and providing pleasant company, among other skills. Though few geisha houses or districts remain active today, those that do remain storehouses of intangible heritage and traditional arts, from hair and makeup to the wearing, care, and appreciation of kimono and other elements of traditional clothing, to shamisen and koto music, various dance forms, and so on.
Though historically (in the Edo period), it was not uncommon for geisha to engage in sexual activities with clients, this was always regarded as a separate agreement, made personally/privately with that client, outside of the woman's official work as a geisha. Geisha houses were typically separate institutions from brothels, and were often located in separate districts (though many geisha houses also operated within brothel districts such as the Yoshiwara and Fukagawa). As such, geisha are not to be confused with courtesans or other prostitutes. Prostitution is certainly not a part of the life & work of a geisha today, which involves chiefly the traditional work of entertaining at elite private parties, and performing demonstrations at traditional arts venues and the like.
Though today so strongly associated with being women, the original geisha were all men. It was only in the mid-1700s that female entertainers, already skilled in music and dance, began to emulate the style and operational modes of the male geisha, hiring themselves out as entertainers / entertaining company at private parties in the Yoshiwara and elsewhere. The very first female geisha are said to have emerged in 1751, in Kyoto's Shimabara pleasure quarters. At first, many dressed like the men, in haori overcoats. While most female geisha later came to dress in a feminine mode, some number of haori geisha, or tatsumi geisha as they came to be called, continued to dress in a male mode; many took on male professional names, and some even shaved the tops of their heads in the male fashion, a move which then became fashionable for a time among townswomen. The first female geisha in Edo are said to have emerged in the Fukagawa district, before spreading to the Yoshiwara in the 1760s.
Female geisha quickly came to overshadow and overtake the men in popularity, and geisha houses sprang up across Edo and the other major cities. Geisha contracts were quite similar to those of prostitutes employed at brothels: they were indentured for a set number of years, with a lump sum being paid not to her but to her parents/guardians who signed the contract; the parents were responsible for covering any expenses or losses the girl incurred, including if she committed suicide; the geisha house reserved the power to transfer ownership of her contract to another geisha house, or to allow an individual to buy out her contract and take her as wife or concubine. Most geisha did not engage in sex acts, i.e. prostitution, as part of their work as geisha, but the contracts often allowed for the geisha house to transfer them into the ownership of a brothel, transforming them into prostitutes; further, in some geisha districts, such as the Fukagawa, Yotsuya, and Ryôgoku, many geisha did engage in prostitution, in order to help them make a living.
By the beginning of the 19th century, some individual townspeople families began to hire out their daughters as "geisha," using the category to skirt the laws against unlicensed prostitution; some families or small operations also adopted girls who they would send out as "geisha," similarly. Often, these girls were not hired out for a single night, or a single act, but rather as short- or long-term concubines, something seen as even more heinous by the authorities than standard forms of prostitution. Some number of other women, meanwhile, acting on their own (i.e. not sold/hired out by husbands or fathers), called themselves "geisha," offering lessons in shamisen or singing, and entertaining at boat parties or other private events for money; these women generally restricted themselves to entertainment, and only sold sex as a last resort, if in dire financial need. Still, such activities blurred the line between professional geisha, who were supposed to have a particularly elite level of refinement and artistic skills, and amateurs of various sorts, who took to calling themselves "geisha." As this phenomenon continued into the late 19th and 20th centuries, fueled further by Westerners' Orientalist notions about the geisha, the term itself came to be demeaned, coming to refer in many people's minds to simple whores - the "geesha girls" of the postwar period are a particular example - and thus demeaning the idea of the geisha, and obscuring their distinction from prostitutes.
Though commonly seen as representing "traditional" Japan, many aspects of what is seen as "traditional" today about geisha arts in fact originated no earlier than the Meiji period. Miyako odori, Kamogawa odori, and other large seasonal dance performances are among these "traditions," newly invented in the Meiji period. The same can be seen in aspects of tea ceremony and various other arts as well.
The Prostitute Emancipation Act of 1872 freed all geisha and prostitutes from contracts of indentured servitude. Some chose to remain, however, and while the Act was quite significant in introducing the idea of "liberation" into the popular and official conversation on prostitution, geisha, and related matters, there was in the end little practical effect, as the government returned to recognizing contracts as legally binding within a few years.
Around 1916, there are believed to have been roughly 80,000 geisha active in the country.
Famous Geisha Houses & Districts
- Gion district (still active, Kyoto)
- Pontochô district (still active, Kyoto)
- Higashi Chayagai district (still active, Kanazawa)
- Nishi Chayagai (Kanazawa)
- Shinbashi (Edo)
Significant Historical Geisha
- Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012), 66-68.
- Joshua Mostow, "Wakashu as a Third Gender and Gender Ambiguity through the Edo Period," in Mostow and Asato Ikeda (eds.), A Third Gender, Royal Ontario Museum (2016), 36.
- "Tongue in Cheek: Erotic Art in 19th-Century Japan," Honolulu Museum of Art, exhibition website, accessed 1 Dec 2014.; Mostow, 36.
- Stanley, 67-68.
- Stanley, 194.
- Stanley, 193.