Geisha, one word introduced to the world by the 2005 Hollywood film ‘Memoirs Of A Geisha’.
While the film might just be some 15 years old, the Geisha culture is in fact centuries old dating all the way back to around the late 600s.
Granted the film might have introduced the term and culture to an unaware audience, but it also created a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about this ancient culture that were borne out of
- incorrect sources and
- some plainly taking the word of a ‘commercial’ film as final and legit.
A lot of people have the misconception that Geishas are just synonym for being prostitutes and that the sexual part of their job is all that is to this culture.
Let us bust some myths here and make people aware of whether this idea is true or not.
What Is The Geisha Culture
It would be extremely difficult to fit in this one article what exactly the geisha culture is, what it means and everything including its rich and old history and journey thereafter.
But the word ‘geisha’ itself, means ‘artist’ or ‘performing artist’ and being a Japanese noun, it does not really have a singular or plural type. But some have used ‘geishas’ as a plural variant when talking about this culture.
The geisha culture, according to reports, is said to descend from somewhere in the late 600s, but the actual term of geisha and the culture as we know it popped up around the 18th century.
A place called the yūkaku which were essentially closed pleasure quarters were a big thing during the 16th century. Here men would come seeking sexual and romantic relations.
In fact the shogunate, the feudal Japanese military government during that time, had even classified these quarters as being legal. Thus, the yujo/ play women here were licensed and legal whereas prostition outside these places was considered illegal.
The first geisha would then emerge from these very quarters when slowly more and more of the courtesans started to take up other arts like singing, dancing etc.
And you might be surprised by this but the first geisha were men who would entertain the customers that were in wait to see the more popular and well-known oiran or courtesans.
Around the 1760s and 70s the term geisha became extremely popular and slowly they moved towards being classified as just entertainers instead of prostitutes.
K.G. Marshal also explained a geisha’s purpose as “to entertain their customer, be it by dancing, reciting verse, playing musical instruments, or engaging in light conversation. Geisha engagements may include flirting with men and playful innuendos; however, clients know that nothing more can be expected. In a social style that is common in Japan, men are amused by the illusion of that which is never to be.”
Certain sources also say that in order to keep the oiran and geisha profession separate, geisha were forbidden to sell sex and later on ‘machi geisha’ created their own niche of being artists and the ideal female companion without the sexual favours.
By 1800 being a geisha was almost considered as a legitimate occupation for the females, although some males still opted for it.
The decision to have sexual relations with their customer or just be entertainers in the strict form of the word differed from geisha to geisha.
Geisha were known to show excellence in art forms like singing, dancing, with some even being exceptional calligraphers and poets.
Geisha in the past as per certain sources also represented the strict arranged marriage of the Japanese community, where men had a certain idea about the role of their wives and that included being a protector of the house along with being a mother to their children.
Their sexual relationship would often only be shared with a geisha and in certain cases, the family knew about them, their children and while they could not be recognized on an official level, they were still treated as part of the family with respect.
Why The Misconception Of Geisha As Prostitutes?
It was actually during the World War II when the geisha culture went into a decline and the term ‘geisha girls’ was taken up by prostitutes when trying to lure the American military men.
This highly deteriorated the image and name of ‘geisha’ and created the false perception that geisha is just another word for a prostitute.
By 1945 when the women returned to being a geisha after the war, they wanted to restore the name and culture back to its traditional roots and even worked for better rights for geishas.
As quoted by Liza Dalby in ‘Do They Don’t They’, “After Japan lost the war, geisha dispersed and the profession was in shambles. When they regrouped during the Occupation and began to flourish in the 1960s during Japan’s postwar economic boom, the geisha world changed. In modern Japan, girls are not sold into indentured service. Nowadays, a geisha’s sex life is her private affair.”
Concluding this piece I would just say that based on this, one can assume that while sexual favours might have been a part of the geisha lifestyle, it was not really the main or focus point at all.
Instead, being a geisha is a respected profession and something that holds a lot of historical and cultural value that has been completely been brushed over by the sexualising and eroticising of it by popular media.
Image Credits: Google Images
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