History of Geisha— from Meiji to the present time

The Geishas’ world often called “floating world” is said to be set apart from the normal society. If its closeness doesn’t consist in rigid barriers or in a formal entry interdiction for some part of the society like in the pleasure areas such as Yoshiwara, it still does exist. The geishas’ close world is linked to the type of clientele they entertain. Politicians and business men having a meal with geishas in order to conclude a deal with the clients they brought don’t want their talks to be known by anyone outside of the room. The wish for privacy from geisha can be well understood by studying the case of Mukojima Hanamachi and the implantation of the Sky Tree. If Mukojima’s geishas are somehow excited by the new potential clients to come thanks to the expectable increase in the number of tourists, they also fear that their traditional clientele will desert Mukojima in search for a quieter, more private hanamachi.

However, if the “floating world” is secretive and partly “closed” to the view of many of the Japanese people, it doesn’t mean that geishas are “out” of the society. The geisha’s world is not entirely closed on itself: it is linked to the society through several channels, the most obvious one being their clients. As a consequence, geishas are subjects of external influences. Even thought the thought that geisha world is unchanged since the late 17th century is well-spread; the reality is of another tone.

Since the Meiji Period, the geisha world has undergone several profound changes. Those changes can be classified into 3 categories depending on the vector through which they reached the haryukai. Empowerment of new Laws (1), profound mutation of the society (2) and evolution in the clientele (3) are those 3 categories.

Politics have direct influence over every part of a society through the vector of laws. The pleasure areas are no exceptions. During the Edo period, the shogunate has strictly legislated on issues concerning status of a certain type of people such as the clothes allowed to wear or the type of jobs allowed to do. At that time, the status of geishas was in opposition with the one of courtesans, in other word they were legislatively forbidden to have sex with the clients they entertained. A clear distinction and therefore hierarchy was made between yujo and geisha.

If the Meiji government legislation concerning geishas will greatly differ from the one of its predecessor, it still remains a unilateral relation in which geishas are submitted to the government’s will.

One of the first measures to be taken by the Meiji Government concerning geishas was the “Proclamation for the Emancipation of Geisha and Prostitutes”. This proclamation, enacted in October 1872, was to liberate geishas and courtesans from the sometimes semi-slave status they had until then. In practice, all the debts of geishas or courtesans to their houses (okiyas) were cancelled. Without this financial burden, the girls were free to go back to their parent’s home. Moreover, contracts for apprentices were limited to 7 years. The renewal of it was possible but only if both parties agreed.

If the Meiji Government initiated this reform of the pleasure district (both geishas and yujo being included) it is partly because of the Western influence. One has to remember that the Meiji Government is the one that opened Japan to the world and tried to conquer its place among the developed Western nations. As a consequence, “Japan was ready and willing to modify all sorts of traditions that did not seem to fit in what the Western defined as civilized”.

Another aspect of the law apart from the strict liberation’s part was the stricter regulation of those “special” working women. Indeed, each city government was given the authority to license and register all geishas and yujo. If a geisha wanted to pursue her job, she had no choice but to register herself at the city hall.
According to Liza Dalby, one of the main consequences of the law was to put numerous working women out of jobs. After few years of pressure from the geisha world, the government finally changed the law in 1874.

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The counterpart of the abolition of the 1972’s law was the imposition of a monthly tax on geisha’s 2wages in order to finance a Women’s Handicraft Workshop. The workshop was a place where geisha were to learn practical skills, giving them the possibility to pursue a carrier other than the one of geisha if they wanted to. The workshop was mainly giving classes about the making of clothes. The women, after having learned the necessary skills, produced items to be sold. The money collected from the sales was reinvested into the workshop. What is particularly surprising is the fact that the participation to this workshop’s classes and “activities” was compulsory. If a geisha was to miss classes, she was not allowed to do to work in the evening. Knowing that, this workshop tends to look more like a sweatshop rather than an honourable school.

If the workshop’s activities were supposed to give geishas the opportunity to learn professional skills and to feel “the satisfaction of an honest labor, the policy had the opposite effect, this is to say making the geisha life seem all the more interesting.” The workshop lasted until 1881, when the governor of Kyoto revised the article imposing the compulsory attendance of the classes.

The two former regulations were created in order to modernize the geisha’s world, this is to say making it more “civilized” from a Western point of view; but also in a will of rationalization (ex: registration of geisha at the city hall). Indeed, the Meiji government was trying to rationalize everything which where let up to tradition until then. The creation of a modern and efficient bureaucracy is certainly linked to this move toward rationalization.

An example of this rationalization is the standardization of geisha’s fee. Until the Meiji period, the geisha’s wage was decided between the customer and the teahouses. It could depend on the geisha’s popularity, the client’s resources and so on. With the standardization of geisha’s fee, no differences could be made anymore according those criteria. The hanamachi Liza Dalby studied particularly, Pontocho, was touched by this new law in 1986. A consequence of the regulation happened to be the “creation of a more businesslike atmosphere in the geisha’s world”3. The law will not be suppressed later on.

Another example of this rationalization is the taxation of the so called “five vocations”, this is to say geisha houses, prostitutes, the go-between, banquet-halls and the house of assignation. Banquets halls and the house of assignation were also required to inform the government of their customers (guest’s name, address, amount spent). This policy was not done in order to punish the customers but just to provide the administration information on the activities of citizens. The Meiji government didn’t perceive the pleasure areas as a danger for the society but as areas of relaxation, which could even help to support the society through taxation.
Speaking of political influence over geishas through legislation, we could also mention the fact that girls are not allowed to work as early as they were by the past, leading to a reduction in the number of apprentices, especially outside of Kyoto (special law authorising girls from 15 to become maiko).

Another and more complex vector through which geisha’s world is influenced is the mutation of the society itself. By mutation of the society I mean significant social changes such as modernization or Westernization, in the case of Japan.

Contrary to the former vector, the relation between geisha and the Japanese society as a whole is not unilateral neither a dominant-subordinate one. In normal times, this relation is rather weak because of the closed aspect of the haryukai as explained in the introduction. However, when consequent social change happens, the perception of each other evolves and as a consequence the perception someone has of himself, bringing up new issues to answer. In the case of geishas, if until the 1920’s they were seen as fashion leaders and “cool” women, it started to change with the progressive westernization of the Japanese society.

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Until the 20’s, the place of geisha in the Japanese society was pretty stable. Their customers were loyal and they were seen as one of the few women having “iki” (fashion / elegancy / “cool” attitude…). It started to change with the progressive westernisation of the Japanese society itself. If the reforms had started since the beginning of the Meiji area, the Japanese were not touched in their daily life habits until the 10-20’s. Being modern started to mean adopting Western habits. This lead to the rise of the café girls (jokyû): women wearing dresses or skirts and serving clients in western type of cafés. They became more and more popular for their youth and their modernity, up to a point that they put geishas in the shade. Indeed, geishas were not anymore the only company a man could have if he wanted to have a nice evening.

The uncertainty geishas were experiencing toward their future quickly became an example often mentioned when debating over the effect of modernization and the fate of Japanese culture and traditions. Some radical intellectuals, in favour of a westernization argued that geishas were already anachronisms and that it shouldn’t be tried to rescue that profession. On the opposite, some intellectuals valuing the Japanese values thought that geishas shouldn’t change; that something would be lost if they were to disappear. Some other people considered that if the profession was valuable and should keep on existing, they wanted the geisha’s world to modernize itself. This last point of view is the one that will have the largest effect on the geisha’s world.

Both Kawamura, director of the Shimbashi Association of Geisha houses and Hagiwara Sakutarô agree with the fact that if geishas want to survive, they have to enter into “modernity”. According to Kawamura, geishas are “Japan’s sole instrument of public sociability”. One of their main roles is to educate people, especially young men, about manners and social goings-on. In order to keep geisha’s profession lively through changing times, adopting the Western modernity is essential. Kawamura was not afraid that such drastic change would make the geishas disappear since the essence of their profession is not in their kimonos neither their dances but in their social and educational mission, which can be perpetuated even in dresses. Hagiwara sakutarô, in a book untitled “Shin Geisha Ron” (1927) also insists on the fact that geishas are women “entertaining, knowledgeable, and educated”. By consequence, refusing the modernity would mean to be cut from mainstream society.

In response to those critics coming from Japanese intellectuals, many hanamachis tried to find out how they could include modernity in their art performances and more generally speaking how to face the potential decrease of their clients. In the case of Pontocho, western style dance lessons were offered to geishas in 1915. In other hanamachis, geishas went to zashiki wearing western style of clothes, others will play jazz instead of shamisen, and so on. Looking back on this period, it really seems unbelievable that such attempts of modernization were done but they were!

If most of the attempts to modernize the geishas failed, resulting in an acceptation that the geisha should become curators of tradition, it was not the only factor leading to it. Indeed, the voices that had urged geisha to change their old fashioned way of being progressively disappeared with the apparition of a growing nationalism in the end of the 30’s – 40’s. The nationalist ideology emphasized on the uniqueness and the glory of the Japanese civilisation. Geishas were, of course, an example of it.

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The end of the 20’s, beginning of the 30’s has been a decade in which the geisha’s world have tried many changes in order to face the modernization of Japan. By the end, have been realized that by trying to fit the new concept of modernity, geisha would lose what they were. Finally, the choice was made to let the haryukai as it was. By doing so, the geishas, “from being fashion innovators became curators of tradition”4. We can easily say that this is the main change that happened in the geisha’s history until now.

Last but not least, the geisha’s world is influence by a third factor: their clients. This is maybe the most evident factor that’s why the explanation will be briefer than the two preceding ones.

An evolution in the clientele has been though the geisha’s history one of the main factor leading to changes and innovation. By “evolution of the clientele”, I mainly mean a decrease in the number of clients, which has been the main tendency in the last decades, especially after the end of the economic bubble. In order to face those changes, geishas have tried more or less to expend their clientele from the strict business men / politicians to tourists. Though, as we will see the struggle for a better shape business is still not over.

One of the first drastic change in the geisha’s clientele happened in 1870 when the emperor and also the new government of Meiji moved to Tokyo. During the end of the Tokugawa area, the group in favour of the opening of Japan was mostly from the West part of Japan and was often present in Kyoto, the imperial city. Their secret reunion happened to take place mostly in tea houses. As a consequence, the business of Kyoto’s hanamachis was flourishing. When all those “rebels” entered the Meiji administration, and that the imperial family moved to Tokyo, Kyoto became a lot quieter to advantage Tokyo. In order to revive the town, the mayor of Kyoto decided in 1875 to create a Spring Festival, so that tourists would come.

One of the main attractions of this Festival was the Miyako Odori of Gion hanamachi and the Kamogawa Odori of Pontocho hanamachi. For geishas, it was the beginning of a new role: “public entertainer, promoter of local colour, star”.

More recently, the progressive reduction of clients has been the major factor of the reduction of the number of geishas all over Japan. Most of geishas’ clients are business men and politicians. In both case, a meeting with a geisha occurs in special occasions such as “settai”, in other words, business dinners. When the bubble exploded, companies’ budget for those business dinners was severely cut and more affordable entertainment started to be preferred. We could also add that, when the link between administration and economic world started to be criticized by the public opinion because of scandals of brides, to invite administrative personnel to a geisha’s dinner became a bit risky for companies.

This situation is still ongoing. The geisha’s world seems to have trouble finding out solutions to face this decrease of clientele. As said in the introduction, the possibility of making tourists a new regular type of clients is not as evident as it can be thought at first glance for several reasons.

The history of geisha since the Meiji period has been rich in changes. Those changes can mainly through 3 different types of vectors: legislation, social change and the clientele. If one may have though that the geisha’s world is an impermeable one, this is the proof that it is not so. Geishas, if secretive are not disconnected from the society. They are completely a part of it.

Bibliography: “Geisha”, from Liza Dalby

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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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