With paper-white skin, demur red-painted lips, glorious silk kimonos and elaborate jet-black hair, Japan's geisha are one of the most iconic images associated with the "Land of the Rising Sun." Who are these women? What is the history of their unique profession?
Early Origins of the Geisha:
The first geisha-like performers in recorded Japanese history are the saburuko, "those who serve," who waited tables, made conversation, and sometimes sold sexual favors. The higher-class saburuko danced and entertained at elite social events. Ordinary saburuko were mostly the daughters of families left destitute in the social and political upheavals of the seventh century, the period of the Taika Reform.
In 794 CE, the Emperor Kammu moved his capital from Nara to Heian (near present-day Kyoto). Yamato Japanese culture flourished during the Heian period, which witnessed the establishment of a particular standard of beauty, as well as the origins of the samurai warrior class. Shirabyoshi dancers and other talented female artists were in high demand throughout the Heian era, which lasted until 1185.
Medieval Precursors to the Geisha:
By the 16th century, with the end of the Sengoku period of chaos, major Japanese cities developed walled "pleasure quarters." The courtesans or yujo who lived and worked in these districts were licensed prostitutes, and the Tokugawa government classified them according to their beauty and accomplishments. At the top of the yujo hierarchy stood the oiran, who were early kabuki theater actresses as well as sex-trade workers.
Samurai were not permitted to partake of kabuki theater performances or the services of yujo by law; it was a violation of the class structure for members of the highest class (warriors) to mix with social outcasts such as actors and prostitutes. However, the idle samurai of unremittingly peaceful Tokugawa Japan found ways around these restrictions, and became some of the best customers in the pleasure quarters.
Emergence of the Geisha Proper:
With a higher class of customers, a higher style of female entertainer also developed in the pleasure quarters of Kyoto and other cities. Highly skilled in dancing, singing and playing musical instruments such as the flute and shamisen, the geisha did not rely on selling sexual favors for their income. All were trained in the art of conversation and flirting. Among the most prized were geisha with a talent for calligraphy, or those who could improvise beautiful poetry with hidden layers of meaning on the spot.
History records that the first self-styled geisha was Kikuya, a talented shamisen player and prostitute who lived in Fukagawa around 1750. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a number of other pleasure quarter residents began to make a name for themselves as talented musicians, dancers or poets, rather than simply as sex workers.
The first official geisha were licensed in Kyoto in 1813, just fifty-five years before the Meiji Restoration, which ended the Tokugawa Shogunate and signaled the rapid modernization of Japan. Geisha did not disappear when the shogunate fell, despite the dissolution of the samurai class. It was World War II that really dealt a blow to the profession; almost all young women were expected to work in factories to support the war effort, and there were far fewer men left in Japan to patronize teahouses and bars.
Although the hey-day of the geisha was short, the occupation still lives on today. Whereas traditional maiko, or apprentice geisha, began training at about age 6, today all Japanese students must stay in school through age 15. Thus, girls in Kyoto can begin their training at 16, while those in Tokyo usually wait until they are 18.
Popular with tourists and business-people alike, modern-day geisha also support an entire industry. They provide work for artists in all of the tradition skills of music, dance, calligraphy, etc., who train the geisha. Geisha also buy top-of-the-line traditional products such as kimono, umbrellas, fans, shoes, etc., keeping craftsmen in work and preserving their knowledge.
See an image gallery of the geisha from 1777 to 2010 here.
Downer, Lesley. Women of the Pleasure Quarter: A Secret History of the Geisha, New York: Random House Digital, 2001.
Gallagher, John. Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance, and Art, New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 2003.
Iwasaki, Mineko and Rande Brown. Geisha: A Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.