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Having led small group tours all over Japan Charlea has been asked a fair few questions, but “are geisha prostitutes?” come up again and again. She takes us back to the very beginning to understand the fascinating history and myths that surround the performers.
We can trace the roots of the geisha back to the 1200s with a group called the shirabyoshi. Although they were not geisha by any means, they were similarly trained and educated in the arts. But they were prostitutes.
They evolved into oiran from the 1600s who continued through the Edo period. Looking back on art and other visual references, the easiest way to differentiate them from geisha is the obi (sash); an oiran wore her obi to the front so she could re-tie it multiple times by herself throughout an evening.
The very first geisha
Oiran culture brings us to geisha. Perhaps most surprising of all is that the first geisha were not women at all, but men; though they only continued in this field for about 20 years before women became more common. Their original role was assisting with entertaining guests, but they were not allowed to have direct contact with the guests (at all) because the oiran feared they would steal customers.
The first geisha that comes close to resembling today’s performers can be traced to the 1700s; this was when they made a clean break from the oiran to entertain clientele with artistic pursuits such as playing instruments.
Are geisha prostitutes, or have they ever been?
The answer flat out is NO. While geisha arose from the courtesan world, during the Edo period they established themselves as part of the entertainment class and were never prostitutes themselves.
Note that prostitution was legal with proper licenses during the Edo period. These were held by oiran and lesser prostitutes, but geisha were strictly forbidden from holding such a license.
Modern misconceptions have largely been drawn from:
Arthur Golden’s book Memoirs of a Geisha is written about a maiko (trainee geisha) selling her virginity to the highest bidder. If this was “a thing” then every geisha would have experience of prostitution at least once during their lifetime. But as it was illegal for geisha, okiyas (geisha boarding houses) would lose their business licenses if caught. So did this occur? The answer is probably yes in some instances, but it was never acceptable or legal, even during the Edo period.
So how did we come to consider 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 every girl that wears a red dress is a prostitute and not every girl with a white painted face is a geisha. Soldiers went home to America and spread the news about how they “got themselves a geesha girl”, when they had actually been with a prostitute.
By understanding the history of geisha and their conception, we can appreciate their role within Japanese cultural heritage and their skilled performance. They are wonderful entertainers 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.
Learn more about Japanese culture on one of our small group tours to Japan.