Geisha — prostitutes or artists?

Geishas are a very mysterious concept to a lot of foreigners coming to Japan. It is very difficult and rare to see real geishas; even you are in a major hanamachi (geisha district) street, such as Gion. But if you are lucky enough to see one, you will be greatly amused with their elegance and mysteriousness surrounding them. With their white make up and luxurious kimono, you would feel like you are in Edo period of Japan where Japanese culture blossomed and cherished. However, due to geisha’s mysterious nature, many misconceptions have developed especially among westerners and some of Japanese. When my friends visited me in Tokyo, he asked me why I would take geisha class. At first, I was not sure what he meant because I wanted to learn about Japanese culture and I thought that geishas were fundamental parts of the society. However, my friends believed that geishas were prostitutes in Japan and he was shocked that I was learning about prostitute. I had to explain to him what geisha was and tried to convince him that geishas are not prostitutes. This incident shows that a lot of foreigners especially Americans believe that geishas are very sumptuous looking prostitutes. Therefore, in this essay, I would like to explain how geishas became to known as prostitutes and find out what is true identity of geisha.

In order to analyze this topic, we need to understand the origin and history of geishas. Modern types of geishas emerged around the early 7th century. However, there was geisha type of entertainers predating geishas. There are constant debates between true predecessors of geishas. Two most notable predecessors are saburuko and shirabyoshi. Saburuko, which means ones who serve, emerged around the end of 17th century. Many women who did not have families and became wanderers needed to find some ways to support themselves. A lot of them became saburuko to survive. Most of saburuko came from lower classes and were not really educated with arts. However, some of them were educated and talented in dance and singing. These saburuko were invited to aristocratic parties and entertain them with their artistic skills. People believe that these talented saburuko could be geisha’s predecessors. However, other argues that shirabyoshi is a true predecessor of geishas. Their name came from the dance they performend. Shirabyoshi came to scene during the late Heian period. This is a period when social structure started to crumble and break down. Therefore, those women from unfortunate aristocratic families became shirabyoshi in order to survive. They were highly educated so that they knew how to dance, dance and read poets. They mainly entertained upper classes and sometimes they became concubines. Even thou saburuko and shirabyoshi lived in different periods; they have some similarities between them. First, they were forced to become entertainers due to their poverty and living conditions. However, they had artistic talents and entertained upper class families, unlike just selling their bodies to everyone. These characteristics are very similar to geishas.

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Geishas started to appear around 1750 and 1751. At the beginning, all geishas were men. However, with the appearance of the first female geisha, kikuya from Fukagawa, female geishas became more dominant. There were several different types of entertainers during this time and in order to control geishas and make them to pay appropriate taxes, the new regulations were introduced. First, Kenban (geisha office) was established in order to register all geishas in the districts. Geishas were no longer allowed to leave the pleasure quarters and were not allowed to wear luxurious clothing to distinguish them from prostitutes. This is very different from what we think of geishas today because today’s geishas wear very sumptuous and elegant kimono all the time. This trend started during golden age of geisha during the early 19th century and until then, geishas wore plain and non-figured clothes. Lastly, there were not allowed to entertain guests individually. Geishas could be only booked as a group in order to avoid any familiarity with their guests. This proves that geishas are not meant to entertain guests sexually in a private scene. They are more of party companions than sex partners. The origin of geishas clearly shows that they were not meant to entertain guests’ sexual desires. Then, how did geishas became to known as prostitutes in Japan?

This misconception of geisha started after World War II. In order to understand, how geishas became to known as prostitutes, it is crucial to understand the circumstance of that era. On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces, which were composed of the United States, New Zealand, Australia, India and the United Kingdom. This marked the official end of World War II, which was the most brutal war in the mankind’s history. It was Japan’s first time that islands were occupied by foreign powers. Japan remained under the rule of the Allied Forces until 1952 when the San Francisco Peace Treaty came into force and the became an independent state once again.

After the surrender, the Japanese government feared that the allied forces’ soldiers would sexually violate Japanese women. The Security Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs instructed to set up pleasure houses especially designed for foreign soldiers and they were called as “Recreation and Amusement Associations”. Ikeda Hayto, head of the Finance Ministry’s Tax Bureau and later prime minister set aside a budget of 100 million yen to fund this pleasure houses. The government wanted to protect women from upper and middle classes from sexual assaults by providing foreign troops with easier ways to satisfy soldiers’ sexual needs.

The government first advertised for RAA system in geisha houses, bars, and restaurants to recruit volunteers. Even though geishas were not prostitutes, the government decided to recruit them as volunteers because most of them were sold to geisha houses from the start and they were not from the classes that the government wanted to protect from the allied forces. The total number of sex workers was estimated as 70,000 women. However, quickly after sexual disease started to spread among soldiers and 90% of RAA sex workers are reported to be infected by the disease too. Therefore, the allied authority ordered the Japanese government to ban prostitution in 1946. In 1947, this anti-prostitution ordinance from the allied force was recognized as a cabinet order and all the brothel houses were closed, but some of the houses operated as café and bars until 1949 when the RAA system was completely dismantled. In 1956, Japan officially legislated the Anti-Prostitution law and the law states, “No person may either do prostitution or become the customer of it”.

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Geisha world was also affected by the new rule of the allied forces. As I said it earlier, geisha houses were the first place to be advertised for the RAA recruitment. They were sacrificed to save other women from middle and upper classes from a danger of sexual assaults. Geishas had to suffer from these humiliating treatments from the government because they did not have respectful statues in the society. People did not appreciate their artistic talents. However, it is questionable whether this RAA system was successful because there were constant reports of sexual assaults done by the allied soldiers throughout the occupation despite there were pleasures houses to serve them.

This was a time when “geisha girls” appeared in Japan. Japan suffered from the war and many people suffered from poverty. Japanese women needed to do anything to survive in this hard time. As it was discussed above, sex industry boomed due to allied forces staying in Japan. These women saw it as their opportunities and they sold their bodies in order to survive. As sex workers number grew, competition among them grew as well. In order to attract American soldiers, some of sex workers dressed up in Kimono and called themselves as “geisha girls”. Americans who do not know anything about Japanese culture actually thought those geisha girls are real performing geishas. They could not even pronounce their name properly and called them as “geesha girls”. This is a very unfortunate for real geishas because those American soldiers went back to their home country and told what they saw in Japan, including “geisha girls”. Rumor spread very quickly among people and this misconception of geisha, as prostitutes became undeniable facts in western countries.

After occupation period, geishas were seen as prostitutes to westerners and some of Japanese people because of sex workers like “geisha girls”. However, on top of this reason, the mysterious nature of geisha world also contributed to this misconception even further. In Memoir of Geisha, American commander think geisha as a prostitute and try to have intercourse with a geisha. Even though, Memoir of Geisha is a fiction and contains many unrealistic interpretations of geishas, this scene clearly shows how westerners thought of geishas. Due to this reason, geishas were reluctant to receive foreign guests because sometimes they expected more than artistic performance. Therefore, this closed attitude towards foreigners unfortunately encouraged foreigner’s misconception even further because there were no ways for them to see them and learn about them.

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If geishas are not prostitutes, then who are they? A lot of Japanese women envy geishas because of geisha’s luxurious kimono and geisha’s sumptuous life style. However, for even Japanese, they do not know what geishas really do and how they have lived in past and present. As it was mentioned earlier, first geishas were men. They were dancers to start with. They entertained their guests with their artistic performance, such as dancing, playing instruments, reading poets and singing. Their purposes were to entertain guests in arts, not to sleep with them. Also, becoming geishas are very hard and intense process. First, those girls who wish to become geishas, have to become maikos first. Then, they go through intense training different types of arts in order to master them. After 5 years, they get chances to become real geishas. Therefore, Geishas can be best described as performing artists.

For geishas, having intercourse is their choice. In olden time, their virginity was sold to highest bidder (mizuage) from geisha house’s customers. However, this practice has demolished with anti-prostitution act. Also, geisha used to – some of them still have- sponsored called, “danna”. Geishas do not necessary need to engage in sexual intercourse with danna, but they could develop special relationships with dannas. Since geisha’s training is very costly, danna usually helps geishas with expensive training. However, after the mizuage, geishas are free to decide whether they want intercourse or not, just like regular women in Japan.
It is sad to see a lot of people mistaken geishas as prostitutes.

The reason I took geisha class in Keio University was to clarify my doubt about geisha and learn about them in Japanese society. Geishas can be best described as performing artists who keep and carry Japanese traditional arts. They are more like keepers of Japanese true arts. It was because of World War II that geishas got mistaken with “geisha girls” who dressed like geishas and sold their bodies in order to survive in hard time. This misconception started due to allied soldiers’ ignorance of Japanese culture. in order to change this perception, everyone has to work together. Geishas need to combine forces and promote themselves that they are not prostitutes. They need to welcome foreign guests and educate them. Without geishas promoting themselves, there are no ways for foreigners to know that who they are. To me, geisha’s identity is very clear because I learned about them. Hopefully, in future, people will appreciate geisha’s talent and their performance and do not consider them as mere sex workers as they used to think of them.

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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