There are many misconceptions about geisha, namely the belief that they were fancy prostitutes. The pervasiveness of this belief has overshadowed the rich history of the geisha and devalued their skills as professional entertainers. After all, a geisha’s primary task was to entertain her clients through the arts and witty conversation.The lives of historical geisha were very different from the West’s notion of geisha as well-dressed prostitutes who hung out at bordellos. Geisha endured grueling training to obtain their coveted title. Not only that, during the Edo period (1603- 1868) and for some time after, becoming a geisha was one of the few ways a Japanese woman could make a decent living and have a somewhat autonomous life. While the stereotypes of these artisans will undoubtedly persist, these facts about geisha shed some light on the overlooked and ignored history of one of Japan’s enduring historical classes.
They Weren’t All, Or Primarily, Prostitutes
The notion that all geisha were prostitutes was popularized by the West when American servicemen stationed in Japan during World War II engaged in sexual acts with Japanese women who dressed and painted their faces like geisha. Experts such as anthropologist Liza Dalby, who conducted extensive research on geisha, argue these women, who adopted the name “geisha girls," weren’t geisha, but rather were imitating the appearance of geisha.
Unlike traditional geisha, these women didn’t endure the rigorous training required to earn the title. They were also far less selective of their clients, as many geisha refused to entertain Americans. That said, the topic remains hotly contested in the history of geisha. While many argue geisha tradition has its origins purely in the art of entertainment, some maintain prostitution was always part of the profession.
Another factor that may have contributed to the misconception that all geisha were prostitutes is the practice of a mizuage. Before a maiko (geisha-in-training) could become a geisha, she might have to sell her virginity to the highest-bidding patron as part of her coming-of-age ritual. Although it was a one-time act, it linked the profession with the service of paying for sex. While this antiquated practice was outlawed in 1959, it undoubtedly still occurred, and may even continue to occur.
They Were Highly Skilled Entertainers, Not Cheap Company
Many believe geisha and maiko were primarily coveted for their looks, but their primary role was that of entertainer. In fact, the word geisha translates to "artist person." Geisha were trained in singing, dancing, playing the shamisen, and other performing arts. Through time, individual geisha earned reputations as experts in one or more of the arts they pursued, and patrons sought out geisha based on their expertise.
Not All Geisha Were Women (The Very First Were Men)Photo: Gion Seitoku / Public Domain
The very first geisha were men called taikomochi. These men performed many functions over the centuries, from entertaining daimyo in a role similar to court jesters to singing, dancing, and telling jokes and stories. By the 17th century, many had moved out of the court and into the private employ of courtesans, in which position they amused waiting guests. At the height of their popularity, in the mid-to-late 1700s, there were more than 500 male geisha in Japan. Their numbers dwindled as more women pursued the profession.
Modern day taikomochi are more like partymasters, telling jokes and interesting anecdotes and encouraging the drinking of more sake.
Geisha Evolved From Skilled Dancers, Not Common ProstitutesPhoto: Artist Unknown / Wikimedia Commons
In the late 17th century, it was a popular solution for parents in need of money to send their daughters away for singing and dancing lessons, in the hopes of eventually hiring them out. These young female dancers were called odoriko ("dancing girl"), and it's believed geisha evolved directly from them. The word "geisha" first appeared when these women hit the age of 20, and could therefore no longer refer to themselves as "girls" (20 is the age of adulthood in Japan). Among the various names they came up with for themselves was "geisha."
Odoriko were highly skilled dancers. and part of their appeal to patrons was chastity. Over time, many odoriko fell into prostitution. The first person ever recorded as going by "geisha" was one of these prostitutes. This has contributed to the widespread belief that all geisha were prostitutes. However, the class of women historically known as geisha, who followed the lead of their male predecessors, working exclusively as entertainers, were not prostitutes.