by Jessica Hutchison
Geisha are a popular image of Japan. Most people who see a geisha, even if they aren’t familiar with the term, will probably associate her with Japan. However, people in the West also have a rather large misconception when it comes to these fancy-looking ladies.
I asked several people, “What comes to mind when you think of a geisha? What are they?” And almost every single one of them replied, “They’re prostitutes.”
Well, they were wrong. Most Americans would say that, and they would all be wrong.
So what is a geisha then? Let’s get into that.
The term “geisha” (芸者) means “art person.” So basically, a geisha is someone who is skilled in the arts. She is the perfect hostess and entertainer. Geisha are well-known for their skills with music, poetry, dance, literature, and witty conversation. When you pay to spend time with a geisha, you are paying to spend time with a highly cultured woman.
If this is all true, how did geisha get such a bad reputation? The answer to that is in the history of geisha.
Of course, before geisha actually became a thing, there were girls (and some men) who would go around to entertain people. They were usually skilled in the previously mentioned arts, and if they were less skilled, they would also sell themselves at times. There’s a lot of fancy terms for all these people, but that’s a lot to remember.
An interesting note though: when the term geisha was first used, it actually mostly applied to male entertainers. “Geisha” in Japanese is a gender neutral term. Later, they also started using the term “geiko” (芸妓) which is definitely feminine. Men may have started out this occupation, but it quickly became a career path for women, so now we associate the term with women.
So geisha would go around and do their thing, but finally they were all confined to the pleasure quarters. This is when the government was very strict and wanted to even control where the sketchier ladies hung out. And they lumped the geisha in with that crowd just because everyone was considered an “entertainer.” The entertainment they provided was pretty different though.
The pleasure quarters (as you might guess by the name) were home to all the prostitutes and courtesans (fancy prostitutes) as well. And boy. These were not fun places to live. Basically, they were walled off from the rest of the city, sometimes even with a moat. The workers were all but imprisoned there until they could work off whatever contract they had. Lots of fun diseases were going around. Men would show up to hang out with the ladies, and samurai would have to be pretty sneaky about it. A lot of times samurai weren’t allowed to go. Not that it stopped them.
Geisha were also pretty much stuck there. Geisha generally worked for a house, so they would be kept there to entertain guests and make money for the house. A lot of them were actually not allowed to perform the same kind of “entertainment” as the prostitutes and courtesans, even though some of them still would.
These people made a lot of money for their houses. There’s a lot of plays and stories about men falling in love with the courtesans or women they spent time with there. Generally, they promise to buy the girl’s contract and marry her, but contracts were expensive. A man would have to not only pay for what she was making currently, but everything she could possibly make for the duration of her contract. A courtesan was expensive, so imagine how much a geisha would go for.
Another interesting thing to note is that the idea of men visiting the pleasure quarters was not frowned upon. It was actually kind of expected. I recently read a puppet play where a man was trying to buy the contract of a courtesan, and his wife was actually very supportive of it. It was kind of weird to read, being a wife myself. But that’s just how things were at that time. Infidelity wasn’t against any sort of commandment in Shintoism, like it is in many other religions.
Of course, a geisha and a courtesan are very different. But this proximity to each other could have given the wrong impression of geisha.
This made it pretty easy for foreigners to get this false impression. A lot of things have been mixed up between geisha and courtesans. One big one is that geisha in training will sell off their virginity. That’s actually a courtesan thing. Another problem that came up when Americans occupied Japan after World War II is that prostitutes would dress up like geisha (well, maiko actually) to get customers. This is probably a big reason we see geisha in that way.
That, and how geisha are portrayed in movies. The most famous movie would probably be “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which was based on the book by the same name. Although this story has been popular, it is pretty sensationalized. There are a lot of books that better portray the life of geisha, such as Geisha, A Life, which was written by an actual geisha who was not a white man. There is also the book Geisha by Liza Dalby, who was an American woman who became a geisha. I would trust those sources above the more popular movie.
Geisha are dignified, cultured women who entertain with the arts. They are actually pretty important to Japanese culture, because they have preserved a lot of the traditional arts that could have easily been lost during Japan’s rapid Westernization. In the early 20th Century there was a lot of push against tradition as Japan embraced Western culture. You didn’t really see a lot of people sitting around and playing the samisen at that time. But geisha did.
Of course, geisha can’t take all the credit for preserving traditional Japanese culture. There’s still a lot of stuff that made it, like kabuki and gagaku. But they probably helped, especially with their knowledge of music, dance, and the tea ceremony.
So now that we have a bit of the history of geisha, let’s talk a little more about what they are.
First of all, the image that most people have in their mind of a geisha isn’t actually a geisha. It’s a maiko. A maiko is a geisha in training, and you can usually tell by how they dress. Maiko dress very flashy, with lots of bright colors and heavy makeup. They have fancy, elaborate kimono, and they tie their obi into more complicated designs. This is usually what we think of when we think of a full geisha. They also tend to have a distinct red collar, showing their status.
A full geisha would tend to dress a bit more conservatively. Her kimono and wig would still be very elegant, and definitely flashier than anything a normal woman would wear even on a nice night out. But the colors would be more muted, and the obi tied more conservatively. Her makeup would also be more subdued. A full geisha doesn’t really need to show off.
Clothing and makeup have so much meaning in the world of the geisha. They don’t just throw anything on. They take great care in matching colors and selecting their clothes and makeup. A lot of it is symbolic too. If you are familiar with the certain symbols, you could be able to tell a woman’s rank, house, and even age just by seeing how she was dressed. Selecting clothes has been an important upper class tradition since before the Heian Period, and it is a tradition geisha continue to keep. Doing this establishes them as being more classy.
There are still geisha around today, doing what geisha have done for hundreds of years. You can pay to spend time with a geisha. She would probably make you tea, play you some music, dance a bit for you, and make you feel generally comfortable. She would not, however, go much further than maybe a flirtatious comment or two. As I said before, they are entertainers, but not in the same sense as those courtesans.
There’s still some really big geisha houses in Japan, Gion Kobu being the biggest and fanciest. A lot of really rich people will go there to be entertained.
Plenty of girls today still turn to this as a career path. There are even a few foreigners who have become geisha, such as Dalby. Of course, some houses won’t take them, but there are plenty who would.
So maybe this can serve as a lesson to us. I was in the same boat as a lot of Americans, where I just knew that geisha were prostitutes. It wasn’t until I actually started learning about them that I realized how wrong I was. We’ve made a lot of movies and written a lot of book about things we don’t really understand, so make sure you take the time and check your sources.
There’s a lot of information out there in the world, and we should do our best to determine what is true and what isn’t. As for geisha, what a bunch of classy ladies!