The Mystery of the Geisha

Geisha are women entertainers in Japan. Their activities are often controversial because of a perception that they are sometimes prostitutes, and the fact that they represent a subservient female role that not all people believe should be perpetuated in modern society.

The term geisha means “performer of art. ” To work as a geisha is to work as a person doing performance art.

Historically, geisha performance has its roots in the same place as kabuki theater. While kabuki has been solely the province of male performers for the last 350 years, it began as a theater performed only by women. Those women were prostitutes who performed suggestive plays as a way to attract potential customers.

Kabuki theater soon transformed into a legitimate form of art performed only by men. The hybrid role for women performers who were also prostitutes transition into the role of geisha.

But the word prostitute may be too harsh for Western ears. In Japanese society, it was common, and it was accepted for men to have both wives and long-term relationships with women who were not their wives. For the courtesans, the financial support of their male patrons was vital to their survival.

Responding to this situation, Japanese authorities created areas called Pleasure Quarters where the courtesans could live without being harassed, and where men could openly enjoy their company.

While geisha entertainment arose in the Pleasure Quarters, the geisha themselves were not the courtesans. The geisha’s job was to provide entertainment for the men who were waiting for their lovers to arrive.

In fact, the first geisha were male. That trend did not continue however, with courtesans and retired courtesans moving into the role of geisha as a step up the economic and cultural ladder.

Over time, Japanese society became less accepting of male infidelity. This left the geisha as the surviving culture from the Pleasure Quarter era. Geisha became highly trained entertainers, who spent years developing their skills before assuming the role.

All the way up until World War II, it was common for young girls to be assigned to geisha training from the age of six or eight. This practice gave geisha performers cheap help, and it provided career paths for impoverished young girls. However, it was illuminated as part of the drive to eliminate child labor after World War II.

Today, most geisha enter training in their late teens. They become full geisha performers within 2 to 4 years.

Much of the appeal of the geisha lifestyle today comes from the independence that geisha enjoy. While most of Japan puts women in subservient roles, geisha are recognized for their ability to make their own decisions and their own way in the world. In a way, geisha is seen as a kind of feminist statement. Their ability to control their lives, and to control men, provides an outlet that is not available to all other women.

However, Japanese society is changing rapidly. Women are becoming more accepted in a roles formerly reserved for men. This, combined with a new belief that male fidelity should be expected, threatens to move the geisha lifestyle into the annals of history.

Anne Jackson Hart operates a popular museum news blog at Museum News. For Geisha Japanese Figurines, visit her museum store.