In the Far East, the geisha training system was founded in Japan in the 11th Century to promote the economic self-sufficiency of women. The geisha held high social status, and it was for that stated purpose that the geisha training system was established quite admirably in Japanese society, where there were very few pathways for women to achieve independence. Traditional Japan embraced sexual delights, and becoming a geisha was an avenue for women to take control of their financial situation rather than relying solely on a husband.
A young woman’s first step toward becoming a geisha was to be accepted into an okiya, a boarding house in which geisha lived during the length of their career. The okiya was owned by a woman known as Okāsan, the Japanese word for ‘mother’, who would pay for the young woman’s training. A geisha paid a percentage of her earnings to the house to maintain the lodging and support the people living there who were not working as geisha, including apprentice geisha called maiko, retired geisha and house maids.
Geisha worked in teahouses called ochaya, where music, dancing, partying, food and drinking were prevalent. In an age without newspapers or magazines, the teahouses were the centres of social communication. Parents brought their sons to these establishments, not for sex but for a social education from the geisha. And in the countryside, geisha presented the only form of cultural refinement that the farmers were ever likely to see.
The successful geisha entranced her customers with music, dance and conversation, and her presence was an opportunity for the man to immerse himself in a fantastical world where his desires could roam free.
Over their years of apprenticeship the geisha mastered the art of hostessing by learning to adapt to different situations and personalities. Geisha gracefully flirted with their infatuated guests, while always maintaining control of the situation. They performed sensual dances, and this was dubbed kabuku, meaning ‘to be wild and outrageous’. A geisha was considered to be a living work of art.
In the early 17th Century, laws were passed restricting brothels to ‘pleasure quarters’, which were walled districts set some distance away from city centres. The main purposes of these new laws were for tax collection.
In Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (renamed Tokyo in 1868), large, self- contained neighbourhoods offered all manner of entertainment, including fine dining, free performances, and frequent festivals and parades. The geisha also worked in ‘pleasure quarters’, but were strictly forbidden to sell sex in order to protect the business of the oiran.
The geisha were at the forefront of modern fashions, and the 1920s and early 1930s Japan saw a westernized influence sweep through the country. This time of radical change led the geisha to realize that, in their attempts to be contemporary, they were at risk of losing what made them special as geisha. Geisha ceased to be fashion innovators and became curators of tradition.
While licensed courtesans existed to meet men’s physical sexual urges, geisha carved out a separate niche as artists and cultured female companions.
A common misconception exists that the geisha operated as prostitutes. This confusion came about during World War II, when American soldiers believed geishas to be prostitutes, or slept with geisha impersonators. Oiran is the correct term used for a Japanese courtesan in the brothels of Yoshiwara in Tokyo. Nūdo gekijo, meaning ‘nude theatre’, was popularised in Japan during the U.S. occupation following the end of World War II, and some girls chose American style striptease as an alternative to prostitution.
Today, the geisha customs are a living tribute to historical Japanese culture in the modern world. Kyoto is the only place where the strict training regime for geisha continues to this day, and the traditions are handed down through the generations.
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