Let’s start with a bang: Geisha is a gender-neutral term in the original Japanese.
This word is actually quite simple, combining 芸 (“gei,” lit. performance) with 者 (“sha,” lit. “person who does ___”). Thus, the word itself suggests a performer, in the same sense that Prince and Madonna are performers today.
This is why the term “geisha” originally applied to men when women in the mid 18th century (the 1700’s) began to adopt the term for themselves. There are male “geisha” to this day, though even rarer than female geisha; they correctly view themselves as simply following an ancient tradition that has nothing to do with “those” geisha.
But enough about them. We want to talk about the girls here, don’t we?
Kikuya, The First Geisha (In The Normal Sense)
The first woman to call herself a geisha was called (i.e. using a stage name) Kikuya, and was a smash hit around 1750. Others soon rose to fill a need for female entertainment that wasn’t part of the heavily regulated sex industry. In light of the fact that the courtesans, the Oiran, did not want any competition, the female geishas became firmly entrenched in – or one might say, trapped in – their non-sexual entertainment niche.
That is, they were performers, singing and playing the shamisen (a stringed instrument) and, well, being better eye candy than your male geisha. Thus, the idea caught on. Indeed, within fifty years, geisha became more popular than those who sold sex. (Of course, strict regulation, limited licenses, and therefore, high prices, might have had something to do with it, too.)
At any rate, geisha gradually became icons of popular culture, with the geisha look and feel transmitting throughout woman’s society in Japan. “Geisha” was a respectable occupation for women, even as Confucian ideas force-fed to Japanese society by the Tokugawa government discouraged women rising out of their designated place as commander-in-chief of the home and hearth.
Shortly after the Meiji Restoration, geisha were liberated from the Tokugawa shogunate’s laws and were permitted to engage in full prostitution at their own personal discretion. Equally, they could refrain at will.
Anyway, when the 1900’s rolled around, the government cracked down on this, probably because it was yet another “backward” Asian idea that needed to take a backseat to modernity.
Even Geishas Had To Work In Factories
For the WWII war effort, the government made no distinction between geisha and other women: if you were able, you had to work for the war effort, and that meant working in a factory. It’s hard to keep up the arts like that.
When you had every prostitute calling herself a Geisha girl to American servicemen looking to be serviced, it’s hard to maintain the dignity of an old profession. Obviously, the oldest profession had seniority here.
I mean, before the war even ended, things like bars, teahouses, and so forth, were shut down and their employees pressed into factory service. Obviously, any in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who survived had seen their world obliterated; also, the Tokyo firebombing and other nightmares made people think of things other than entertainment.
When these establishments were allowed to reopen, few women returned to the old ways, and those who did decided to completely reject Western influence and make themselves special by engaging in the really old ways.
It is from these people that the few remaining geisha of today are spiritually descended.
Along with bringing back traditional arts, these modern geisha wanted more rights for their own kind. Working in factories tends to get women demanding rights, after all.
Chiefly, this means that a geisha sleeps with whomever she damn well pleases. Hey, fine with me…
Modern Geisha: Strictly Tease
This is some commentary that doesn’t apply to geisha alone, but…
In modern Japanese society, men in the business world tend to be in a lot of high pressure situations. A quite considerable number of these men are wealthy, but are not especially good looking, are getting on in years, and are considered boring by their wives.
For these men to have a beautiful, ornately groomed woman to simply spend time with him, to listen to him, to laugh, to drink, to play the game without complaint, to simply give him the time of day and provide him with an experience from another century, is well worth the stiff price they pay for the service.
Of course, the younger the men get, the less likely they are to want to find this from a geisha per se, but this is the general gist of it. Sex isn’t the point: it’s the attention.
Put another way, yes, they’re desperate enough that feigned affection – that they know is feigned going in – is still a breath of fresh air.
So in this light, no, modern geisha are not prostitutes, and well, you can see why geisha are very eager to set the record straight about their not being prostitutes. Not in this day and age, at least.
And There, We Shall Conclude
It wasn’t my intention to leap out of the frying pan and into the fire by getting into, well, you know, Memoirs of a Geisha. I kind of want to read the other side of the story, that is, the memoir of the geisha the author of Memoirs of a Geisha interviewed, and then listed as a source, causing her a great deal of stress, leading to lawsuits, a legal settlement, and her own autobiography. Until I read both books side by side, I don’t want to say anything authoritative.
That said, it’s safe to say that performing is, literally, and linguistically, the heart and soul of the geisha.
Let us appreciate this institution for what it is: living art.