After leading little group tours all over Japan, Yosuke has been asked a few questions, but “are geisha prostitutes?” They appear over and over again. She takes us back to the beginning to understand the fascinating history and myths surrounding the artists.
We can trace the roots of the geisha back to the 1200s with a group called the Shirabyoshi. Although they were not geisha in any way, they were trained and educated in the arts in a similar way. But they were prostitutes.
They became oiran from 1600 which continued through the Edo period. Looking back at art and other visual references, the easiest way to differentiate them from geisha is the obi (sash); an oiran wore her obi in front so she could re-tie it multiple times alone throughout the night.
The first geisha
The Oiran culture leads us to geisha. Perhaps most surprising of all, the first geisha were not women at all, but men; although they only continued in this field for about 20 years before women became more common. Their original role was to help entertain guests, but they weren’t allowed to have direct contact with guests (at all) because overhear they feared they would steal customers.
The first geisha that resembles that of today’s artists dates back to the 1700s; This was when they took a clean break from the oiran to entertain the clientele with artistic activities such as playing instruments.
Are geishas prostitutes, or have they ever been?
The foolproof answer is NO. While geishas emerged from the court world, during the Edo period they settled as part of the entertainment class and were never prostitutes.
Note that prostitution was legal with the proper licenses during the Edo period. These were occupied by oiran and minor prostitutes, but geisha were strictly forbidden to have such a license.
Modern misconceptions have largely been drawn from:
Arthur’s book Golden Memoirs of a Geisha is written about a maiko (geisha apprentice) selling her virginity to the highest bidder. If this was “a thing”, then every geisha would experience prostitution at least once during her life. But since it was illegal for geishas, okiyas (geisha guest houses) would lose their business licenses if caught. So did this happen? The answer is probably yes in some cases, but it was never acceptable or legal, even during the Edo period.
So how do we come to view geisha prostitutes? The answer is simple. Allied forces engaged in prostitution with girls dressed as geisha roaming the streets during the occupation after WWII. Not all girls who wear a red dress are prostitutes and not all girls with a white painted face are geishas. The soldiers went home to the United States and spread the news of how they “became a geesha girl” when in fact they had been with a prostitute.
By understanding the history of geisha and their conception, we can appreciate their role within Japanese cultural heritage and their expert performance. They are wonderful artists and remarkable women who strive to promote the rich beauty of old Japan. Spend time with them or see one of their shows to support the preservation of this traditional way of life for future generations.
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