Bebe Taian: Geisha: A Brief History

July 4, 2011

Geisha: A Brief History

Japanese society, up until the point when Commodore Matthew Perry "opened" the country to trade via iron warship brigade, had little to no problem with either homosexuality or prostitution. Lives were short and tough, and as much pleasure should be garnered as possible. Society had it's problems, no doubt, but as a rule, the Japanese worked hard and played twice as hard. In many ways, this attitude is the same, even today.

In the old days, marriages were arranged by Confucian tradition carried over from China. A woman was to be quiet, helpful, and hard-working, and a man was to be the tireless breadwinner. Matches were arranged according to hierarchical rank in society, benefiting the families involved as groups, not as a union for two individuals in love. For this reason, a person was not expected to be necessarily faithful on a societal level (of course, because individual thoughts may differ from social norms), and infidelity was something to be expected. Of course, this meant the proliferation of "working women", the 'yuujo', or prostitutes.

The role of today's female geisha (as they were all once men) begins with the roles of the yuujo of the past.

Oiran, from Andrew O., WikiCommons
Prostitution in the licensed quarters was seen either as a prison or as glamorous, depending on ones' position in the ranks and personal attitude. Becoming an oiran or tayuu (the highest ranks in Yoshiwara and Shimabara, although I'm not sure of the Shinmachi term for that rank) meant that a woman, normally lowest in society, could get an education, food every day, and wear the finest clothes in the country. They had the choice of turning away customers while keeping their money. Women entered these places either because they were born there, because they were 'currency' for their husbands' misdeeds and debts, or because they were sold as children to the brothel houses because the families were destitute, and had to make a choice between their daughter starving to death, or hoping that she would grow up to be beautiful and have everything she needed taken care of for her for the rest of her life. Of course, children did not start working as prostitutes immediately. They would become servants to older women, learning to clean and fold clothing, sweeping mats and arranging rooms for them until they were old enough to begin training.

These top-ranking girls were more than just prostitutes. They were well-educated entertainers as well. Simply having sex was not enough for an elite patron- they would need to be witty and well-mannered, beautiful and engaging. Even as "outsiders" in society, oiran or tayuu were the inspiration for elite fashion. Their pedigreed speech and mannerisms were of utmost beauty and formality. Only the richest of rich men could ever patronise them, but this became their downfall. Slowly, the antiquated language, over-the-top costuming, and unreasonably high pricing meant that fewer and fewer people had access to their services, and general interest dwindled as well. Customers could no longer relate to the ideals of this lifestyle.

Around the 1700s, odoriko (dancing girls) became welcomed entertainers in these houses while guests waited for their favourite courtesan. Odoriko knew folk dances, something that customers of any rank would know and relate to. They were inexpensive entertainment that put folks at ease until they could see the person they were waiting for. Where oiran where overtly sexual, odoriko were more chaste. As these women got older, they would find other jobs, or adapt other names, amongst them the term 'geisha'- "arts person". Geisha, up until this point, were all men. Adapting a man's title showed considerable tenacity, a display of seriousness in themselves as artists and as human beings.

Those who still worked in the "flower towns", hanamachi, of the brothels were strictly forbidden from selling sexual services- those jobs belonged rightfully to the yuujo. It was the very lack of expectation of sex that set geisha apart from the yuujo. These were women who were empowered by selling their arts, and not their bodies. They were female companions: chatty, interesting, relaxing, providing intelligent conversation to men whose wives were never afforded such education, or who were too busy taking care of the roles of the home and the families tied to it to have time to get an education. These were "substitute wives", in terms of engaging a man's thoughts without the troubles and worries of discussing child-rearing, finances, and other daily troubles. It was an escape from the world, and geisha could handle it all.

Geisha, from Andrew O., WikiCommons
By 1800, most geisha were female. They were wildly popular entertainers, and the culture of the oiran had fallen to them. Gone were the overly-lavish multiple layers of silk uchikake, with it's heavy gold, silver, and brass embroidery, stilted, formal language, and many, many rules of engagement and character. Now was the time for subdued aristocracy, subtle languages and familiar exchanges. A geisha's character was as her kimono; high-class without being flashy, like the black, barely-patterned dress made with the most expensive silks and highest craftsmanship available. On the surface, nothing too out of the ordinary, while being on a completely different level from anything a person can imagine. Where oiran were pretty ornaments, geisha could bend and change with the wind- thus, where the term "Flower and Willow world" comes from. Oiran were flowers; geisha were willows.

Geisha popularity only grew, up to the point of WW2. Then, the collapse of the entire industry leveled the community. Their clothing was stolen, burned in bombings or in raids, or chopped to pieces for the increasingly scarce fabrics. Customers couldn't afford food, much less entertainment, so women went to work as farmers or in factories. Common women (and possibly, a few ex-geisha) looking to make quick, easy money from the invading Americans called themselves "geisha girls" and offered sexual favours, giving rise to the Western idea that actual geisha were a very different breed of women. By the 1940s, the teahouses and karyukai (Flower and Willow world) had shut down completely. It looked as if the profession of geisha was at an end.

True to willow ideals, however, soon after the reconstruction of Japan, the remaining geisha organized as a national industry, setting down protections and laws on how to govern their profession and their workers. Prostitution was outlawed in 1959, in accordance with Western ideals, and selling the destitute into work was illegal as well. Wages became more standardized, and ensured the continuance of the karyukai. Where geisha were once a class of women who changed to keep up with the times and tastes of their clientele, they became curators of traditions gone by, one of the last bastions of Japanese traditional culture. Geisha were resilient, bending yet never breaking, no matter what happened: Kansai or Tohoku earthquakes, nuclear bombings, economic collapse- geisha have survived it all, in pursuit of art and happiness.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, great article as usual!
    Big parts of this I already knew, but you are the first source I've found who explains why it's called "Flower and Willow world".
    Keep up with your posts!