Porcelain & Powder

In the world of cloistered women (nuns or the harems of Turkish antiquity) none have perhaps been so misunderstood and maligned as the honorable and noble Geisha of Japan. It was the very discretion with which the Geisha profession conducted itself that led to its ultimate denigration. That reduction in status was caused by Japanese streetwalkers and ignorant, uncultured, and gullible G.I.s with no  “life experience”, unable to tell the difference between a refined courtesan and a common gutter prostitute.

Bred for the Purpose
Humanity throughout its entire history either through the quiet coercion of social norms or brute force has created many underclasses and occupational castes.  Slaves historically were men andWesternized "Geisha" ad image (early 20th century)Credit: FreeVintageImage women captured in battle as the spoils of war used as servants by their captors.  In the United States (after the importation of Africans was banned) a program of home-grown eugenics, breeding the strongest male African slaves with the perceived best “breeding stock” among slave women, took the place of importation as a way to keep a steady slave population on hand.

In ancient Indian society, its caste system (a terribly rigid social structure in which one is born into a “class” and remains in that class for life) was born of occupational ascription.  The coolie who cleaned the sacred cow dung off the streets of M’bai held a social place among the lowest castes.  The peon who carted away dead humans, however, was considered one of the “untouchables”  (“panchama” caste), a person whose societal function was necessary but who was considered as less than human and unworthy of esteem.  As an indicator of how pervasive and ingrained this system is, there are roughly 3,000 distinct castes in India.  These are further divided into about 25,000 sub-castes.  Each caste has its own rules for social intercourse with other castes, its own dietary restrictions, and its own marital customs. 

The aura of the Turkish harem spread rapidly simply because it was verboten for outsiders to inspect.  The harem was nothing more than the subculture of a potentate’s women: his many wives, concubines, servants, and resultant children.  They lived in sequestered quarters away from the throne and other men.  The women spent their days in idleness not because they were lazy or without ambition, but because they were prohibited from engaging in outside activities.  Often, they turned to comfort from each other as the visitations by their collective “husband” might be infrequent.  The women wore chadors (Muslim veils) and completely covered their bodies on the rare occasions they set foot outside the palace. They were jealously guarded by eunuchs (males who had been purposefully castrated so they would have no sexual yearnings for their charges).  [The eunuch fallacy has proved false time and again.  Some eunuchs, such as the famous castrato Farinelli, were capable of erections and could perform sexually with women. Other Orient cases document instances of eunuchs and harem women sexually involved and being executed.]

The American slave women, women trapped in a caste system in India, or the women of the Turkish harem were “bred for the purpose”.  Most of their actions relative to their lives were guided by forces beyond their control.  The Geisha, however, was a whole different type of woman “bred for the purpose” – she came to her status voluntarily, and her role in feudal Japan was one of great pride and honor for both herself and her family.

Feudal Femme
In Japan, a true Geisha is a member of a time-honored and respected class of professional women whose traditional occupation is to entertain men. Although sexual activities may incidentally occur during the course of her employment, the Geisha is not required to, nor expected to, have sex with her patron.

"See, Speak & Hear No Evil" (Geisha postcard, late 19th century)Credit: public domain

The Geisha was a trained companion.  She was, from a young age, tutored in etiquette, elocution, singing, dancing, and playing the shamisen (an ancient, three-stringed instrument sounding much like a long-necked ukulele).  She was also skilled in the art of making Young Geisha (late 19th century)Credit: public domainconversation.  “Conversation” to the Japanese Geisha did not entail mindless chatter about trivialities or gossipy meanderings.  A Geisha’s conversation engaged intelligently on topics ranging from politics to classical literature to the “science” of military movements.  She was a refined specimen of femininity, and she was greatly revered in her society.

The earliest model for what would become a professional entertainment class of women was the saburuko (“serving girls”).  This earliest form of Geisha engaged in casual or part-time prostitution as one of its activities.  These were young provincials, itinerant entertainers whose families were dislocated during the social strife of 7th century Japan.  Some of these girls survived almost solely by prostitution with entertaining as their sideline.  Others sought out the more refined venues of noble society and, to fit in, educated themselves in literature and poetry.  Prostitution then became the sideline for these higher class saburuko

Social conditions in the late 8th century set the tone for the true Geisha culture to evolve.  In 794 AD, the Japanese court moved its imperial operations to a new capital, Kyoto. Kyoto, like an early Paris, was a fashion center and a place of beauty in all things.  Higher arts were savored, and the GeishaGeisha glamour photo (Victorian period, hand-tinted)Credit: public domain developed as a living extension of the beauty-obsessed élite as a living objet d’art.  Another group of female entertainers who thrived during this time were the Shirabyoshi, a class of women who were dancers by profession. 

For anyone who has ever seen the explicit and artful, rare Japanese watercolors and woodblock prints called shunga (of the 17th century through the late 19th century) of sexual positions and practices, it is clear the Japanese had a healthy interest in sexual matters beyond mere procreation.  These works are exaggeratedly graphic, but they served almost as “how to” guides for the Japanese élite who could afford these exquisite renderings.  Men felt no compunction nor were they pressured by societal norms to be faithful to their wives. As in the “culture” of America’s ante-bellum Deep South, the woman of the manor (at least the ideal) was a modest mother and manager of the home fires.  She was not envisioned as an object of sexual desire in that fairy tale. Surprisingly, for the Japanese, what Westerners call “love” was secondary to sex.  Men were married for creating legitimate children and to have a partner in life.  They went to courtesans for romance and sexual pleasure.

In the 16th century “pleasure quarters” were constructed by the ruling shogunate class.  These were walled sections set aside solely as a fleshly playground for the élite.  Commoners were not allowed to sample its delights.  To further heighten the temptation of the pleasure quarters, in 1617 the shogunate declared prostitution outside the walls of any pleasure quarters illegal.  Thus, the only for-hire sexual outlet available for anyone resided in the pleasure gardens. The women came to be called yÅ«jo – “play women” – and they were just that, playthings.  They were classified by degrees of ability, and they were also licensed.  It was from the highest class of the yÅ«jo from which the earliest Geisha emerged.

These predecessors were called Oiran.  These women were a combination of actress and  prostitute.  They were responsible for another cultural icon of Japan as well.  Their erotic dances and skits were performed on a stage set up for the purpose in a dry riverbed in Kyoto.  The name of their performances was kabuku, “wild and outrageous”.  Thus, the classically elegant, legitimate theatrical tradition of Japan of kabuki had its beginnings with performing, cavorting prostitutes

Geisha Boy
The shoguns’ pleasure quarters grew into glamorous entertainment zones for Kyoto, and they were extremely popular.  They quickly evolved from being merely sexual marketplaces to genuine places of other diversions, offering more than just sex.  The courtesans entertained their clients by dancing, singing, and playing music. Some of the women were renowned poets and calligraphers (the delicate work of calligraphy was an esteemed art form).

These courtesans eagerly assumed the mantle of hostess and over time each became highly specialized as a general high-class entertainer.  At about the turn of the 18th century the first entertainers of the pleasure quarters, called geisha, appeared. Perhaps surprisingly the first real geishas were men.

A feudal noble arriving for a night of entertainment with a courtesan many times leisurely dined or listened to music and generally relaxed before his sexual encounters. During this relaxed period men called geisha provided conversation.  They also entertained customers waiting to see the most popular and gifted courtesans in the same way the stereotypical New Orleans brothel piano player entertained. 

The grandam of the female geisha was the teenage odoriko, “dancing girls”, of the late 17th century.  These girls were trained as dancers-for-hire but were not involved in the sex trade.  They were popular paid entertainers, often dancing in private homes for upper-class samurai.  Many turned to prostitution by the early 18th century, and those no longer teenagers (and thus unable to call themselves odoriko) took on other titles for their job descriptions.  One of those words was “geisha”, after the male entertainers of the pleasure quarters.  The first verifiably recorded woman to call herself a Geisha was a prostitute operating about 1750.  Her name was Kikuya; she was an accomplished singer and shamisen player.  She was wildly popular and the name “geisha”, as an appellation for her style of female entertainment, stuck in the public mind. As the rest of the 18th century wore on, most of the Geishas gave up prostitution and focused solely on entertaining, much as the male geisha did.

Sell Out
The professional entertaining Geisha was not completely free to do as she pleased, however.  She could not marry and stay a Geisha.  Any Geisha who married immediately had to give up her life of Geisha (late 19th century)Credit: ImmortalGeisha.com; public domain imagehostess.  She was strictly forbidden to engage in sex-for-hire.  It was not because she was more virtuous or above such an act; she was not.  However, the house courtesans, the Oiran, did not want the Geisha cutting into their cash flow with competition.  

The male geisha disappeared about 1800, and the job was considered by all of society as a female occupation (although in the Geisha tradition there are still a few male geishas today in Japan’s salons). The flash and crass Oiran were soon out of favor; the refined and genteel Geisha became the most desired female companion of the ruling class.  As early as 1830, the rest of Japanese culture began adopting some of the trademarks of the Geisha – her fashions, her hair styles, and her makeup. 

As with the house courtesan there were rankings within the Geisha as well.  Some were actually rated as sexual partners while others could only focus on their arts as their proffered service.  Prostitution in Japan was legal until 1958.  It is what happened a decade before that time that sullied the reputation of the Geisha for the rest of Western culture.

G.I. Shmo
The boys and men who fought in both World Wars were largely uneducated, uncultured farm boys (more true in WWI, but still mostly true by WWII).  The old World War I song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm”, laments the return of Doughboys who, after having seen “gay Paree”, would not be happy ever again living the rube’s rustic life.   The fear expressed, however, is not the boy’s pining for the fine art, opera, and French literature and poetry he’d probably never seen or heard.  The song is a sly nod to what Clemuel Clodhopper would really long for – the Parisian prostitutes.

The farm boys who comprised most of the fighting men of WWI often had never been outside their counties of birth.  Few, if any, had any sexual experience at all.  The perceived glamour of a French prostitute to such a boy (and for many grown men with no sexual experience with women as well) would have been like no other experience he’d had before. Once exposed to amour, he would never look back.

The same was true during World War II.  Many departing G.I.s managed to coerce and wheedle their girlfriends and “fiancées” into having sex before they left for war (many men “got engaged” quickly as a faster means to pre-marital sex before shipping out).  The women would fall for it, of course.  Many were left “husbandless” and feeling foolish; sometimes the returning G.I. “forgot” he’d promised to marry a particular girl.  WWII found the same naïve farm boys in Paris again, tasting the delights of the French prostitute.  Their European counterparts, even the British, were more finessed on this issue than their American brethren – Europe’s more open society allowed for a freer sexual climate.  British soldiers, for example, tended not to get all moony over a Parisian prostitute. The sophistication difference between the two classes of soldiers perhaps had much to do with America’s relentless attachment to Victorian principles of morality, largely shed by the British themselves. 

Japan was a closed society for centuries.  Rumors and innuendo were all that was known to Western ears of the Geisha and her tradition.  Sailors spread tales about Asian women (“their vaginas are sideways”), stories that clearly indicated such men had almost no sexual experience with women or specifically with Asian women. 

The end of World War II opened a flood gate of US G.I. incursion into Japan.  One of the first things these occupying grunts wanted to experience was the Geisha.  They erroneously believed Geisha with shamisen (Tokyo, c 1870s)Credit: Museum of Modern Artthe Geisha was some type of sexual goddess, capable of providing ecstasies beyond the ken of mortal man.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.

The real Geisha class of professional entertainers was almost non-existent by the time any G.I. could even consider meeting one.  As did many Japanese women in wartime the majority of Geishas found jobs in factories and other work supporting the war effort.  To fill the Geisha vacancy and to cater to the idiocy of the occupying G.I., ordinary street prostitutes began dressing in a rough approximation of the Geishas, wearing makeup evocative of her, and putting her hair up in a close facsimile of how a Geisha’s hair was done (a fairly elaborate coif, depending upon the Geisha’s ranking).

These hookers who called themselves geishas did not have to do much to fool the G.I.s.  Because these men had little experience with women, and certainly no experience with a true Geisha, they fell for the ruse easily; they later bragged to their barracks’ buddies about how they had sex with a Geisha. These deluded men would carry that memory for the rest of their lives and would fondly report it at veterans’ gatherings and meetings of that nature.

No American G.I. ever had sex with a real Geisha.  The true Geisha was reserved and not for the taking by any slob with a few dollars.  No Geisha would have gone with an American G.I. – their sense of place within Japan’s anti-Western culture would have kept them from doing it on principle.  Furthermore, her own ethnocentric sense of superiority would have caused any Geisha to turn up her pert little nose at any advances made by the intellectually slovenly and ill-mannered Americans.  Finally, Geishas were generally contracted to a specific employer and were not casually picked up on an hourly basis.  Thus, if one’s grandfather ever tells a story of having had sex with a Geisha in post-WWII Japan, feel free to call that man a liar – he may have paid to have sexual intercourse with a common Japanese prostitute, but he certainly did not have sex with the more sanctified Geisha.  The Geisha was out of his league.

Geisha Go!
The misconceptions of returning G.I.s caused a malignant reputation to develop for the true Geisha.  Their Japanese sisters working the streets did not help ease this misconception.  They continued to co-opt the Geisha’s mannerisms and clothing (without the cultural refinement or education the Geisha had) and capitalized on the image.

Japan had shut down all the Geisha’s haunts in 1944 to focus on the war.  Teahouses, bars, and pleasure houses were all boarded over.  The Geishas went to factories, and it was about a year later the houses were re-opened for Geisha business.  However, many women did not return to the Geisha class.  Some enjoyed the independence of outside work.  Others despised the WesternersModern day GeishasCredit: wiki prevalent in the area. The select few women who bothered to resume the life of a Geisha reverted back to its feudal origins and focused  solely on the entertainment aspect for which the vocation was known.  The Geisha profession struggled and made a comeback in the 1960s. 

Today, the Geisha follows in her feudal foremother’s dainty footsteps.  While in the dark past Geishas were often indentured into the trade, they gradually came to voluntarily go into the field over the centuries. Once, too, many new Geishas’ virginities were sold at auction.  As the decades passed coerced sex was no longer part of their lives (although it is still reported on rare occasions).  The modern Geisha has sex with men as she sees fit (meaning she may or may not have sex with a client; the decision is solely hers). 

Geisha training traditionally began when a girl was about four years old.  Currently, young women wanting to be Geishas start training after finishing middle school, high school, and in many cases college.  Some even wait until they are adults before beginning their training (an apprenticeship program).  They still study traditional musical instruments.  Some learn to dance under the tutelage of a world-class school dedicated to choreography (the slow, formal, and elegant motions of classical-age Japanese culture).

Geisha tea ceremony (modern day)Credit: Steven Rolland (Apr 19, 2006)


She follows the customs of entertainment: conversation, games, the elaborate sacrament of the tea ceremony for which they are famous.  Today’s Geisha, by applying the traditional makeup and fixing her hair up as an 18th century courtesan did, maintains the visual image of the Geisha in the modern world.  In the 1920s there were an estimated 80,000 Geishas. That number is down to a few thousand working almost exclusively in Tokyo and Kyoto.  Their clientele is usually only the wealthiest businessmen and most influential politicians. The women are still highly regarded and make good livings depending upon their skill levels. 

A surprising echo of the Geisha can be seen in pop culture as well. Visual imagery uses some subtle and not so subtle references to the Geisha.  The image opening this article isGeisha-influenced ad image (2005)Credit: Sony Pictures Digital, Inc.; 2005 an advertisement companion from the early 20th century.  The advertising and modeling worlds use elements evocative of Geisha culture such as the pale makeup and the trademark shockingly red-painted lips.  The hair style, upswept with the carefully arranged swirls, has been worn by many women. The excellent sci-fi film, Blade Runner, uses the imagery of the Geisha as a backdrop to clearly indicate the Asian cultural influence in the movie’s futuristic dystopia. 

It is quite an accomplishment for the unique Geisha, the only one of her kind in human history: several hundred years after her birth, the Geisha still has a mystical power to enchant.


Short film on modern Geisha preparation

A Geisha speaks

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