Geishas, whilst iconic for their beauty, elegance, and performance skills, also carry with them the stigmatisation of being prostitutes. Popular views on geishas are informed by stereotypes. Without knowledge of the culture, viewing geishas as artists over prostitutes has proved problematic. Their unique way of life and long traininghas seen them act as skilled entertainers, performers, and hostesses; only some sell sexual services.Geishas traditionally are not high-class prostitutes; this label is not a fair characterisation of their work.
Geishas have their roots in Japanese history as early as the 7th century. They acted as performers for the nobility and the emperor. Sexual pleasure was not shied away from in Japan as it was in other East Asian countries. Confucian ideology preached the good mother and the faithful, modest wife but men were not constrained to be faithful in return. Men would look to their wives as protectors of the home and mothers to their children; love and sex were not essential to this and often came second. To satisfy this disconnection between marriage and sex, courtesans came into being. The Shogunate in 1617 Japan built walled-in pleasure quarters within which, prostitution was legal. They became an enclosed fantasy world of hedonistic pleasure. Courtesans, within these walls evolved into high-class, performing prostitutes. Here is an early distinction between geisha and courtesan.
Initially, geishas were men who would greet clients and entertain them before they were permitted to view high-class courtesans in their areas of expertise. The re-emergence of the female geisha came after these pleasure houses were established. ‘Odoriko’, or dancing girls, became popular paid entertainers to feature alongside these houses. They often had financial difficulties and thus became dependent on illegally selling their bodies. They did not want to be defined in such a manner however, and as a result they were not officially referred to as prostitutes.
After licensing issues came into being around prostitution, and these odorikowere discovered, many sought to rebrand themselves in a way that did not label them prostitutes. Some referred to themselves as ge-iko, ‘arts-child’, and a popular motto emerged in nineteenth century: ‘we sell art, not bodies’. The name geisha first made its appearance alongside a female in 1750, who was a Fukagawa prostitute. Her success allowed the name to thrive across Japan throughout the 1760s and 1770s. Many were hired for their skills outside the sex industry: dancing, singing, musical instruments, poetry or calligraphy, and many worked alongside male geishas. While the term geisha was originally used to steer away from the strings attached with the term prostitute, geishas evolved into icons of beauty and were hired solely for entertainment.
It is important to remember also that there is a hierarchy within the geisha profession, as there are in most professions. They are able to move up the professional ladder with age and experience and, despite sexual services having crept into this profession, it was never led to define it in Japan. As popular notions have it, a true geisha shows commitment to her profession and does not show any real emotions. Prostitutes sell their bodies in exchange for money. A geisha did not sell her body or rely on sex for her income; rather, she sold her skills and company.
Geishas were not prisoners of their profession; they exercised free choice in their life. They could take lovers, stay single or get married. They could quit their profession or have children if they desired. There is a counter argument however for girls who were unable to financially support themselves and had to remain in anokiya house under the Mother’s charge. Mother’s looked after girls within the house and made decisions on their accounts, limiting their freedom.
The decline of the geisha dramatically increased during World War 2. Girls and women had to perform other jobs to aid Japan’s war effort. Many prostitutes began to refer to themselves as ‘geisha girls’ to American military soldiers and thus, the term geisha for males lost popularity and the traditional geishas reputation was lost. The geisha profession lives on today working still as entertainers as well as being icons for tourists.
A distinct cultural difference has led Western countries to view geishas solely as high-class prostitutes. Without a full understanding of exotic Japanese culture and, with no comparison, viewing geishas as entertainers is difficult. Whilst sex has come alongside the geisha profession in some cases, it should not define it. Geishas were performers, trained in the art of dancing, singing, performing, playing instruments and the art of conversation. They should not be branded prostitutes.