In the early seventeenth century, Westerners had little knowledge of geisha because of the little contact between them and the Japanese. The Dutch were the only Westerners who could engage in trading activities with Japan as decreed by the Japanese government. While such activities were mostly limited to discussions of a diplomatic and economic nature, the Dutch, however, could hire the services of Japanese prostitutes. The details of such practices were documented and led to people in the West paying greater attention to Japanese women rather than geisha in particular. And hence, the geisha world remained closed to westerners.
It was only in the late 1850s that the western imperialists gradually came into contact with geisha as a result of changes in political power. However, close contact was only possible in 1868, when the Meiji Restoration began its new administration, which aimed to create greater access for the western powers to Japan and make improvements to its infrastructure and education, as a result requiring extensive expertise from the West. This would give Japan a greater advantage and make its economy more competitive. Such a significant change in its approach adopted by the Meiji government resulted in westerners enjoying more job opportunities in the civil service, schools and corporate sector. Their presence in the country was no longer limited to the treaty ports, an arrangement made by the previous administration. These changes led to a surge in tourism, the scale of which was not seen before in Japanese history, and marked the beginning of foreigners’ access to the geisha fraternity.
The increase in interaction between the Westerners and Japanese led to former gaining a more intimate knowledge of geisha, demonstrated in the various accounts in the 1860s of contact with entertainers who were certainly geisha, despite the fact that many of them could not identify them as such. Nevertheless, their intimate understanding of geisha was displayed by their ability to identify and explain the subtle differences between geisha in Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka, documented in J.E. De Becker’s The Nightless City in 1899. Their in-depth understanding was further demonstrated in their knowledge of even male geisha, an almost exclusive domain of information not only for the foreigners, but most Japanese too. However, notwithstanding this increase in knowledge, the inconsistency in the accounts documented in various publications is indicative of the different agenda and inclination of those who wrote them. For instance, when early foreign settlers in Japan attended shows by singers and dancers in Ōji, populated by swanky teahouses almost exclusively for the rich and elite, many of them did not understand that the performers received strict training in their aesthetic areas, even though they surely could tell that they were geisha. They simply understood them to be “entertainers” and referred to them as such. This term only made its presence in western texts in the mid-1870s.
In the 1860s, lengthier accounts by foreigners of geisha activities began to appear as a result of their longer stays in Japan. And these reports became standard reference material for recreational and leisure travelers to Japan who began to arrive in record numbers. Arguably, the material which was considered most influential would be Japan and the Japanese illustrated by Aimé Humbert in 1874, which distinguished geisha as a unique group of entertainers subject to strict codes of how they should behave. They were perceived to be different from street performers. Under the law, they were not allowed to enter the homes of residents as they could only be requested to be present in places where there were law enforcers. Humbert, a diplomat from Switzerland in the 1860s directed the attention of the West to the geisha profession. Accounts began to appear in the media in various parts of Europe, making its first presence in French newspapers in 1870, followed by an English version four years later due to its popularity as a guidebook for tourists to refer to.
However, the mention of “geisha” only made its first appearance in William Griffis’s The Mikado Empire, which took over Humbert’s text as the authoritative material and standard reference. Griffis’ extensive contact with Japan, through his role as a teacher to Japanese students who visited America and residence from 1870 – 1874, during which he taught at Echizen and University of Tokyo gave him much exposure to Japanese arts and culture, making him a respected figure in this area. According to Griffis, geisha are recognized as possessing “wit, beauty, skill in playing the three-stringed banjo”. While those in Tokyo and Kyoto were almost flawless, the ones in Osaka were the best.
The importance of texts written by foreigners as tourists in Japan continued to surge with no signs of relenting. In particular, Japan and the Japanese and The Mikado’s Empire by Humbert and Grffis respectively became popular resource material and guidebooks for tourists in the 1870s and were often quoted by tourists. As most of them arrived at the treaty ports of Yokohama and Nagasaki, days trips to locations in close proximity to these ports were frequently made by tourists, particularly Nikkō and the Fuji-Hakone, which became popular tourist destinations. Kamakura was another place which was popular with tourists who visited monasteries of Buddhist origins as it was close to Yokohama. Those who desired an extended stay would travel along Tōkaidō or Nakasendō, though this would need passport clearance from government officials, as was the case for those travelling from Kobe to Kyoto. Foreigners’ knowledge of geisha also increased as guidebooks such as W.E.L Keeling’s Tourists; Guide to Yokohama, Tokio mentioned activities that geisha engaged in, even though the term “geisha” was not mentioned in the book. Readers would find descriptions of travelers being able to “call an unlimited number of singing and posturing girls (geisha) to entertain (them) and (their) friends during their repast”. It was also remarked by Keeling that it was a common and in fact popular practice for tourists to hire geisha when they visited Kyoto. The hiring of geisha through teahouses at an affordable rate also appeared in Club Hotel Guide to Japan written by Douglas Sladen in 1892, which also reinforced the compliments made by Griffis, which was that “Osaka is full of geisha girls, said to be the prettiest in Japan”.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, many guidebooks, which became the standard reference material for tourists travelling to Japan, have such comprehensive documented accounts of geisha that even one of most respected authority figures on Japan, Basil Hall Chamberlain would refer to reports in Things Japanese (1890), a publication that prevailed over the texts written by Humbert and Griffis. For instance, it was remarked in his book that “the charms of the Japanese singing-girl, or geisha, as the Japanese term her, have been dwelt on so often that we gladly leave them to her more ardent admirers”.
However, while accounts of geisha were becoming ubiquitous in the texts written by foreigners, they seemed to focus only on the observable. Chamberlain mainly talks about the pricey dinners at posh restaurants where geisha performed and entertained guests. The training geisha received and the lifestyles they adopted were included in most of the reference material often perceived as authoritative by foreigners. One example of this would be Japan: Its Architecture, Art, and Art Manufacturers by Dresser in 1881. Those which documented the stories of geisha in greater detail include Seas and Lands by Edwin Arnold in 1891 and The Japs at Home by Douglas Sladen in 1892, both of which were representative of the type of works on geisha in the 1890s. These narratives usually center on the appearance of geisha, such as their costumes, hair, make up and their performances, particularly their dances. The similar way in which geisha were portrayed by these foreigners may lead one to suggest that the Westerners may lack an intimate and complete understanding of the subtleties of the art that are characteristic of geisha. Perhaps, the focus on appearance is best summed up by Gilbert Watson, a British tourist who travelled to Japan in the late 1890s. In his words, the geisha are “such quaint fantasies in paint and powder, such comical creations in silk and satin, such whimsical artificiality in voice and gesture, could not be seen every day… There appeared to be three heroines, but a decided lack of heroes, and as for the inevitable marriage, it was not even thought of! The plot of the little story lay deep in a maze of dainty gesture, decipherable only to critics versed in the strange geisha atmosphere of faint suggestiveness”.
While such narratives are no uncommon, there are others which reflect a different attitude of Westerners towards geisha. Those who stayed in Japan for a longer period of time were more likely to engage the service of geisha, but these were mostly missionaries of the Christian faith or those who were part of the diplomatic corps or under the employment of the Japanese. As a result of their positions, they were not allowed to document activities or areas regarded as risqué. In the rare event that they did, they tended to impose their value judgment on geisha. However, reports by women tend to be less inhibited as these narratives enabled them to vicariously be freed from the shackles of the social hierarchy and expected household responsibilities that limited the opportunities and the way in which they could articulate their thoughts. Hence, their gender provided them unique insights into geisha.
Some were excited in their recount of their experiences with geisha. Eliza Scidmore, an American who visited Japan, remarks in Jinrikisha Days in Japan in 1891 about her encounters with geisha in Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. Of Nagoya, Eliza talked about how maiko and geisha were highly admired or appreciated for their beauty, grace and great fashion sense and explained that having a geisha dinner was a unique experience that could not be enjoyed in dinner hosted by geisha in other parts of Japan. She also mentioned that the performances put on by geisha in Kyoto were more splendid than those in other cities. When she arrived at Osaka, the last of the 3 cities she visited, she believed she had the requisite expertise to comment that geisha in Osaka were famous for their grace, beauty and intelligence.
However, Scidmore was by any measure an anomaly. Most women were not willing to discuss the topic of geisha and many of their reports received only brief mention. In Letters from Japan (1899), which comprised 2 volumes, Mrs Hugh Fraser, the wife of a British diplomat, only had the topic of geisha mentioned briefly in the footnote, and in Present Day Japan written by a British tourist, Augusta M. Campbell Davidson in 1904, geisha was only discussed in a cursory manner and focused only on their fashion. According to her, “as for what Japanese dress is as worn in Japan, if your idea of it is derived from fans and screens and the garments you see for sale at home, you are probably under quite a false impression. Gorgeous embroideries and brilliant colors are things of the past; they are worn only by geishas when professionally engaged.”
Alice Bacon, who writes the most detailed account of geisha by a woman, provides her perspective that was a result of her extended years of having taught in Japan, particularly in missionary schools for young woman. Her account explains to some degree of clarity why the topic of geisha was avoided by many women. In her discourse, Japanese and Girls and Women, written in 1891, Alice Bacon categories women in Japan according to class and profession or occupation and one could find geisha being placed at the lower rungs of the social hierarchy, just above professional courtesans, highlighting the little respect that was accorded to geisha, and undermining the grueling training they had received and the artistic skills and craft they had honed.
Bacon was as inquisitive and interested in finding out more about Geisha as any foreigners in the West. In particular, the social mobility of geisha became her main focus, although at the same time, this mobility was not in sync with her moral consciousness as well as that of her foreign counterparts. She felt that geisha could not be the wives of Japanese leaders, lest they might jeopardize the future of Japan. The moralistic perspective on the geisha was apparent in her writing, arguing that “In their system of education, manners stand higher than morals, and many a geisha gladly leaves the dancing in the tea houses to become the concubine of some wealthy Japanese or foreigner, thinking none the worse of herself for such a business arrangement, and going cheerfully back to her regular work, should her contract be unexpectedly ended”. She added that the environment the geisha were in provided much temptation that most could not resist and hence “many go wrong and drop below the margin of respectability altogether”. And somewhat in a disapproving manner, Bacon claimed that “many of them have been taken by men of good position as wives, and are now the heads of the most respectable homes”.
That Westerners desired more than the professional services offered by geisha made the topic more contentious for some writers. Some like Bacon would talk about foreigners taking geisha as their mistresses, while others would imply in a derogatory and disapproving manner that the relationships were not uncommon. Ironically, some like Osman Edwards had unknowingly reinforced the stereotype that he had wanted to correct when he talked about how a Frenchman was advised to seek a Japanese lover in order to learn the Japanese language. But this idea did not appeal to him as he perceived geisha to be too blatantly dishonest and too high profile for the understated appeal that he appreciated. Geo.H.Rittner’s remarks on geisha were “broader in their sweep” but also noted that “[T]he geisha who are trotted out to perform before the average European might shock even many women who call themselves broad-minded; they coquette, flirt, and fling themselves about…still, they are better (than the European music hall people), and they act in that way merely because Europeans have taught them to do it. The European man has ruined the morality of the Japanese, and they will probably never regain it.”
By the early twentieth century the less-than-flattering remarks made by Bacon, Edwards and Rittner towards geisha imply that the increasing contact Westerners had with Japanese had made many question what they perceived to be the undesirable aspects of the geisha’s profession. They also believed that the increasingly common practice of Westerners taking geisha as lovers had the unintended effect of creating such misconceptions of geisha as prostitutes who provided sexual services rather than entertainers and this required clarification as it did little justice to the training that geisha received. However, that many geisha ended up as lovers of their customers and the sexual intimacy between them and the danna-san, a term which referred to men involved in the relationships, in exchange for financial support, might be the reason behind the misconception people had of geisha. Furthermore, not many geisha attained the same level of professionalism from their training and those whose standards were sub-par had often passed themselves off as qualified geisha as a façade behind their actual profession – prostitutes. It is believed that the geisha whom Westerners took as lovers belonged to the elite of the profession; most would be those whose intention was to provide sexual services but who disguised themselves as geisha. Hence they could hardly be considered geisha by the strictest Japanese definition. But the Westerners’ lack of discernment between the real geisha and those whose standards were below par among may have therefore contributed to their disparaging remarks directed at the profession and the stereotypes and negative perception they had of them. It did not help that the media at that time perpetuated this perception.
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Bacon, A. M. (1891). Japanese Girls and Women. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin.
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