Shinbashi Geisha

Located in Shinbashi, Tokyo, close to Tokyo Bay, Shinbashi is one of the oldest and most respected geisha houses in Tokyo. This geisha district and its associated tea houses were created along the riverside of Tokyo Bay in Shinbashi for easy access by riverboat. In the modern era, one cannot access the Shinbashi geisha district by boat or easily finding the main house. The Shinbashi Okiya, the main house that trains and houses the geisha, is similar to any house in Shinbashi, and is only detected by a simple sign above the door that names the house. Of course, entering the compound to ask to reserve a Shinbashi geisha for service is nearly impossible as there are proper routines to reserve a geisha.

To reserve a geisha, some steps must be taken. First of all, the payee must have some access to the Kumiai, usually by an acquaintance that introduces him or her to the kumiai. After introductions, the customer needs to reserve a restaurant called the ryoutei, which is the place the geisha will entertain the guests. In the Shinbashi district, there are specific restaurants, the ryoutei, that cater to the Shinbashi kumiai. The Kicchou (吉兆), Shinnkiraku (新喜楽), Kinntanaka (金田中), Yonemura (米村), Matsuyama (松山), and the Yamaya (やま弥) are these high-class banquet restaurants.

Afterwards, the ryoutei will call the Shinbashi kumiai which is basically the Shinbashi organization. Later on, the kumiai will contact the specific okiya where the geisha requested lives and the okiya (currently there are 30 okiyas in Shinbashi) will choose the geisha who are to perform at the ryoutei. This is the primary order in which to reserve a geisha specific to the Shinbashi district, but this can be applied to other Tokyo geisha houses. However, if a customer is a regular and has a deep relationship with the kumia and okiya, the customer can skip this entire procedure and phone the okiya to reserve the geisha the customer would like to have.
In regards to the number of members currently working as geishas in the Shinbashi okiya, our group decided to contact the Shinbashi kumiai to learn of this information. From what we learned, there are currently about 70 geishas, age ranged from 20 to 80 years of age, employed as geishas in the Shinbashi geisha district. There has been a steady decline of the number of geishas in Shinbashi which was prominent in the 1930s with 1300 geisha. Reasons for this decline include but not limited to the current Japanese economy, Geisha’s tradition versus Japan’s modernity, lack of advertisement, lack of knowledge of geisha as well as lack of interest in young Japanese females in traditional Japanese arts.

In regards to the lack of advertisement, the Shinbashi geisha hold an annual event called Azuma Odori held at the Shinbashi Enbujo theatre. Azuma Odori started to entertain the public in 1923 but with the comings of WWII, the theatre was closed but reopened its doors in 1949. This event is held for three days where geisha from the Tokyo and Kyoto area perform for the public eye in late May. This is the only chance for the public to view the Shinbashi geisha before they return to their secretive lifestyle[ CITATION Wos08 \l 1033 ].

In conclusion for this chapter on the Shinbashi kumiai, I would like to briefly explain the experience we had in contacting the Shinbashi kumiai. While I was not the one to directly speak to the okaasan of the Shinbashi kumiai, as a group we did not learn a great deal of information regarding the Shinbashi geishas. The okaasan remained quite secretive and held back in answering some basic questions regarding the Shinbashi geisha procedures and lifestyle. However, she might have acted this way due to the Azuma Odori event that was close by. However, we did receive some information regarding the organization in reserving a geisha for an event but it was never revealed the cost of service. Apparently the okaasan felt it was not standard practice to ask for the price of a geisha’s service.

Scandal in the Shinbashi Geisha Okiya

Most of the Shinbashi geisha clientele consisted of businessmen and politicians, who are under the scrutiny of the press. Historically, what made geisha’s popular among the male clientele was its tradition of discretion. Anything said in the geisha house was guaranteed to not come out to the public eye…almost. According to the New York Times Tokyo Journal published on July 5, 1989, the tradition of discretion was broken by the accounts of two geisha from the Shinbashi geisha district[ CITATION Wei89 \l 1033 ]. One geisha reported to have a brief sexual relationship with Prime Minister Sousuke Uno and another geisha’s reports of a similar relationship with the same Prime Minister spanning for 10 years. It is noted however that Prime Minister Uno was not the prime minister at the time these allegations were underway. Also, the woman who had a brief relationship with Prime Minister Uno admits that during their affair she was not a geisha. She did, however, started fancying the idea of training to become a geisha at the age of 40. The affects of this scandal for the Shinbashi Okiya are unknown, so I’m unsure if this hurt Shinbashi Geisha’s status in society.

The Nine-Fingered Geisha

The Shinbashi geisha districts golden days arrived in the early 1900s as geisha became more prominent forms of entertainment than the abundant yet unskilled courtesans of the Yoshiwara as well as Japan’s economic boom before and after World War I. The most famous of the Shinbashi geisha during this period was Teruha, dubbed the nine-fingered geisha because of her attempted suicide by cutting off her pinky finger. Born as Tatsuko Takaoka in Osaka in 1896, she began training as a geisha in the Shinbashi hanamachi at the age of 13. At the age of 16, Teruha attempted suicide over a heart break but survived the hardship and continued with her work as a geisha until the age of 23 when she married at stock broker and moved to New York[ CITATION Gra08 \l 1033 ]. Unfortunately, the relationship did not last and she returned to Shinbashi to work as a geisha, but her Kumiai wouldn’t accept her back and she lost her geisha license, which allowed her to practice as a legit geisha.

Losing her status as a geisha, Teruha moved back to New York to study dance and soon later returned to Tokyo as a reinstated geisha of the Shinbashi district in which she worked for the Okiya as well as taught dance to other Shinbashi geisha[ CITATION Gra08 \l 1033 ]. Again, Teruha re-married and moved away from Tokyo, but this time she had to forgo her geisha privileges and lost all status as a geisha. She soon divorced and did minor jobs like dancing and working as a waitress, but at the age of 39 she turned a new leaf and joined the all-female Gio-Ji Temple in Sagano/Arashiyama area of Kyoto. She soon rose to become head priestess of the Gio-ji Temple and while there she wrote two books, one her memoir called “Bird Eating Flowers” and a diary called “The Long Life of a Leaf”. After living a living a life of religiosity, Teruha passed away at the age of 99.

The reasoning behind the choosing of Teruha as an example of famous Shinbashi geisha was how extraordinary Teruha was. Japan has a long history of discrimination to the physically dismembered and it’s amazing how Teruha, who dismembered her pinky finger, continued her practice as a geisha in Shinbashi with her physical dismemberment.

Introduction to the Yoshiwara

During this semester, I was unable to present both my presentations on the Yoshiwara, during the 1660s and post-1800s Yoshiwara. Therefore, I will take the opportunity to explain my research on the Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s red-light district.

During the beginnings of the Tokugawa regime, issues and concerns arose with the widespread prostitution of males and females throughout Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (current Tokyo). Jinémon, an important brothel proprietor, and his colleagues were concerned with the large number and spread out brothels would stifle the prostitution business as well as their own, so they brought up this issue to the Edo high courts[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. Another issue regarding the large proliferation of small brothels was the concern of ronins (displaced/unemployed samurai) hiding out at these brothels. By the order of Tokugawa Hidetada, prostitution was designated to the outskirts of the cities in licensed akasen (red-light) districts of Edo (Yoshiwara), Kyoto (Shimabara), and Osaka (Shinmachi). By creating these licensed red-light districts, the government can contain prostitution as well as keep ronins out of the pleasure districts.

Of the three main districts, the Yoshiwara was by far the most famous for its cultural and fashion trends. Due to fires, the first Yoshiwara, called Moto-Yoshiwara, was burned down during the Meireki Fire[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. A new Yoshiwara was built, called Shin-Yoshiwara, which was larger than the Moto-Yoshiwara and was located in Asakusa[ CITATION ANi05 \l 1033 ]. The Yoshiwara’s structure consisted of a large district surrounded by a moat where a single bridge allowed access for customers to be serviced by the Yoshiwara courtesans. Because of its design, escape was impossible for courtesans and prostitutes to run away.

Some changes were made after the re-building of the New Yoshiwara. In the old Yoshiwara, courtesans were free to go outside the Yoshiwara and allowed to conduct “business” outside of the walls, but in the new Yoshiwara, courtesans were prohibited to be sent out for prostitution beyond the walls of the quarter[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. Another difference was the business hours between the old and new Yoshiwara. The old Yoshiwara only conducted business during the daytime, but due to a large influx of male residents in Edo during this period, the new Yoshiwara opened its doors night and day[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ].

The Yoshiwara Courtesans

The Yoshiwara was known for their beautiful courtesans, and like the Tokugawa hierarchical society, the Yoshiwara courtesans had a ranking system for their courtesans[ CITATION Dev09 \l 1033 ]. During the 1660s, there were five rankings for the courtesans. The tayū courtesan was the highest ranking courtesan who only made appointments at an ageya (houses of assignation) and were priced at 1 to 1.50 ryō (about US $450-675)[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. Another high-ranking courtesan was the kōshi who saw clients at either a bordello or at an ageya, but unlike the tayū, the kōshi sat in a lattice parlor where clients can see the courtesans. Other low-ranking courtesans included the sancha, tsubone, and the hashi, in which each were worth significantly less than the tayū and kōshi.
However, many high-ranking courtesans did not just enter the Yoshiwara and became the famous women that they were. Many were trained at a young age to become a courtesan. The term for a courtesan-in-training was kamuro. It was not a rare sight to see when parents sold their girls at the age of 6 to 7 to the pleasure districts. The proprietors who bought these young girls from their parents may be able to lead a better life as a courtesan. The girls were fed regularly and educated until a certain age. Also, during this time period, becoming a courtesan was one of few jobs available to women[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. If good-looking and smart, kamuros were given to the leading tayū or kōshi as an attendant. However, kamuros who were more beautiful then their attending tayu or koshi were taken away from their “sisters” (termed hikikomi kamuroto) to train in the arts until they became of age (about 13) and initiated as a high-ranking courtesan[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. Unfortunately, for those kamuro who didn’t make the cut were initiated as low-ranking prostitutes called shinzō[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ].

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However, while the Yoshiwara courtesans did set the standards for fashion and had men worshipping them on their knees, life was difficult for many courtesans. While the female children growing up in the district were fed, once they were initiated as a courtesan, time to eat was limited and courtesans where not allowed to eat in front of their guests. Also, debt was a large and heavy burden on the courtesan’s shoulders. The courtesans were responsible for feeding and clothing their attendants as well as buying their own expensive kimonos and hairpins[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. Also, courtesans were responsible for securing appointments during monbi days (occurred about 1 to 6 times a month) where their prices doubled, and if they failed to make the appointment, she had to pay out-of-pocket expenses[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. Not only were courtesans in heavy debt, the prospect of leaving the business was grime. There were only a few ways to quit the pleasure business. Courtesans could either pay off her contract to her proprietors or hope a wealthy man pays off her contract, or by death[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ].

During the 1660s and early 1700s, the Yoshiwara grew in popularity and became Japan’s “apple of the eye”, but the Yoshiwara’s prestige soon lost its glory in the upcoming eras.

The Fall of the Yoshiwara

While the Yoshiwara was the cultural and fashion center of its day with beautiful and graceful courtesans, by the early 1800s, illegal quarters of Edo were more prosperous than the Yoshiwara and the traditional Yoshiwara was losing its appeal among its clients. Contributing to the Yoshiwara’s loss of appeal were the once highly-acclaimed courtesans. By the 1750s, spoiled high-ranking courtesans stopped entertaining their clientele and arrogantly believed that the clientele should entertain them. By the third quarter of the 18th century, courtesan mystique was losing flavor. Unlike the beginnings of the Yoshiwara courtesan who wore little to no makeup (it was considered unattractive) and had simple hairstyles, courtesans wore large combs and many decorated hairpins in their hair, put grease in their hair and wore gaudy makeup[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ].

Another loss was the idea of hari, meaning independent spirit, which was a prized and special attribute of the Yoshiwara courtesan. Another aspect of hari was the playful cat and mouse game between tayū and her client. This spurred on the clients passion for the courtesan, and as a result, helped secure regular clients[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. However, hari was lost among the new Yoshiwara courtesans who lost this aspect of Yoshiwara tradition.

Also, a new kind of women entered the Yoshiwara spotlight, and that was the female geisha. Unlike the gaudy, unrefined courtesan of this era, the Yoshiwara geisha were superior artists and more refined. While courtesans were proud of their status and expected to be entertained, geisha were proud of their art and ability to entertain[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ].

During this period, there was an increased interest by artists and writers into the personal lives of the Yoshiwara courtesans and prostitutes. By the early 1800s, the treatment of courtesans and prostitutes were borderline animal mistreatment. Their increased workload included a large number of low-paying clients at significant reduced prices to benefit the proprietors who took most of the earnings of the hardworking pleasure ladies. This abuse was not the only aspect that plagued the Yoshiwara quarters. Punishment and physical abuse was paramount characteristic of a courtesan’s life.

A pleasure business’s sole income came from the work of the courtesan, and when business was slowing down or bad, it was common for proprietors to blame the courtesans. An example of this abuse is the story of Fukuoka who was tortured to death by her employer, Umemotoya Sakichi. Accused of not working enough, he locked her in a cellar pit, tied her in chains, and poked her to death[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. By the end of the 18th century, abuse of prostitutes and courtesans became prevalent enough that authorities had to issue guidelines for the proprietors. These guidelines recognized that proprietors punished their courtesans and prostitutes, but only told the proprietors to keep their punishment reasonable. However, the action of punishing a prostitute was not deemed illegal unless the punishment resulted in death[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ].

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Another issue that beleaguered the Yoshiwara was venereal diseases, or dubbed the “flower and willow” diseases. While sexually transmitted diseases were common among all pleasure districts, pleasure brothel’s “worse-than-cattle” treatment of prostitutes when contracted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea were atrocious[ CITATION DeB02 \l 1033 ]. During this period, contracting a venereal disease was commonly referred to as “confined to a chicken coop” in which prostitutes and courtesans were locked away and not fed or cared for[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ].

By this time, the Yoshiwara was steadily declining, but there were some main causes that lead to its downfall. All ready written about, the rise and appeal of the geisha as competition was known. However, by the turn of a new age, or the coming of the Meiji era, the Yoshiwara drowned in the Meiji’s sea of progression.
By the start of the Meiji era, a large influx of samurai arrived in Tokyo. To accommodate the sexual needs of these men, the Meiji government fully recognized and licensed pleasure stations in Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Itabashi, Senju, and the newly created Nezu[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. Because these new stations were treated equally amongst each other and the Yoshiwara, the Yoshiwara lost its traditional individuality. Also, to add to the humiliation, the government taxed the Yoshiwara 10% of its revenue (it has never been officially taxed before) which resulted in a loss of prestige[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. With these new sanctions upon the Yoshiwara, the Yoshiwara lost its dominating force in Tokyo. Another issue that arose during this period was the Maria Luz Incident that served as the catalyst for government involvement in prostitution.

On June 5, 1872, a Chinese slave escaped from the Peruvian ship, Maria Luz, and was rescued by an English Battleship[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. The foreign minister in Japan of the British Empire, R.G. Watson, was notified of this incident and appalled by the severe treatment of this particular Chinese slave, asked Japan to detain the ship for further investigation[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. This lead to an investigation into whether or not slavery was allowed. Due to the Meiji governments rush to modernize with the west, the government took a western view of the situation and deemed the “buying and selling of slaves” illegal[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. However, accusations were brought up by the Peruvian fleet for the Japanese treatment of prostitutes because they too were bought and sold. This is accurate in that the Japanese treatment of prostitutes was considered enslavement because women, while employed as prostitutes, were not free to quit or leave the pleasure quarter. Therefore, as a result, the Meiji government passed the Emancipation Act, or sometimes referred to as the Cattle Release Act. The Cattle Release Act of 1872 deemed that “human beings cannot logically demand payment of obligations from cows and horses”[ CITATION Sei93 \l 1033 ]. Because of the passing of this act, all debts accumulated by prostitutes to her proprietor were cancelled and it was deemed illegal for proprietors to “adopt” children to turn into prostitutes. However, prostitution was not made illegal until the passing of the Anti-Prostitution law of 1956. But with the Meiji era bringing forth western ideas and government, the long-established Yoshiwara and other licensed pleasure districts could not modernize fast enough for the public to seek pleasure.

Modern Yoshiwara

Today, Yoshiwara roughly corresponds to Tōkyō Taitō-ku Senzoku 4 Chōme (東京都台東千束4丁目)[ CITATION Yos09 \l 1033 ]. While the Yoshiwara looks like modern Tokyo, it still does retain some legacies of its past in the sexual establishments like soaplands. Soaplands is a type of brothel where male clients are bathed by female prostitutes, but can also include sexual activities[ CITATION Soa09 \l 1033 ]. While the Yoshiwara was a grand place consisting of artists fond of the courtesans and daimyos and rich merchants spending their livelihood on expensive courtesans, the Yoshiwara’s prestige declined with the growing modernity of Japan.

Conclusion

Again, while I have learned interesting information regarding geisha, I became highly interested in the lifestyle of the short-lived courtesan era in Japan. I hope it is apparent in this report that the book I chose to read was Siegle’s “Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan”.

Works Cited

A Night at the Yoshiwara. 19 August 2005. 16 June 2009 <http://figal-sensei.org/hist251/Text/ps3.html>.
De Becker, J.E. The Nightless City of the Geisha: The History of the Yoshiwara. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Devillier Donegan Enterprises. Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire. 16 June 2009. 16 June 2009 <http://www.pbs.org/empires/japan/enteredo_3.html>.
Graham, Naomi. Immortal Geisha. 23 September 2008. 24 May 2009 <http://www.immortalgeisha.com/>.
Seigle, Cecilia Segawa. Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.
Shively, Donald H. “Sumptuary Regulation and Status in Early Tokugawa Japan.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (1964): 123-64.
“Soapland.” 1 June 2009. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 1 June 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Soapland&oldid=293810527>.
Weisman, Steven R. “Tokyo Journal: Geisha’s Veiled World Is Floodlit by Scandal.” 5 July 1989. The New York Times. 24 May 2009 <http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/05/world/tokyo-journal-geishas-veiled-world-is-floodlit-by-scandal.html>.
Wosburn, Andrew. Azuma Odori: Traditional Culture Meets the Modern World. 4 August 2008. 24 May 2009 <http://andrewosbourn.wordpress.com/2008/08/04/azuma-odori/>.
“Yoshiwara.” 27 April 2009. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 16 June 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Yoshiwara&oldid=286406229>.

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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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