Anyone who has discussed the topic of geisha and courtesans in Japan has surely come across this issue. Certainly, it’s a question that has been asked of me numerous times by my father, and others with only a passing knowledge of Japanese history. And, until now, I have always defiantly denounced the idea that geisha engage(d) in prostitution.
After all, it was as a product of the Occupation era that Americans came to be familiar with the concept of the ‘geisha girl’ (mispronounced, as it often is today by the average person on the street, as gee-shah, not gay-shah), the whores who populated red-light districts such as Yokohama’s Isezaki-chô, dressed in traditional kimono (as, I suppose, many women still were at that time in their everyday lives) and either purporting to be part of this long tradition, or simply misconstrued by the Americans as connected to real geisha tradition. Granted, all of this connects too to American and European perceptions and encounters in the bakumatsu and Meiji through early (pre-war) Shôwa periods as well, but I would hazard a bet that the Occupation played a very major role in shaping this piece of ‘conventional wisdom’ which still persists today.
Most more informed accounts of the geisha, including even the novel and film “Memoirs of a Geisha”, show the geisha as markedly different from courtesans, i.e. prostitutes. The geisha is not hired to have sex with a client; she is hired to entertain, with music, dance, conversation, and pleasant company more generally. We should see geisha as refined professionals, the gei (芸) in geisha meaning “the arts”, as distinctly contrasted against the prostitutes, or yûjo (遊女, lit. “girl of pleasure”).
This image, to which I have long clung, however, is complicated by the assertion of Cecilia Segawa-Seigle, one of the leading experts on the Yoshiwara, that “As the early Yoshiwara was primarily a place of entertainment and socializing, sex was a discreet and secondary aspect of the business. Indeed, Edward Seidensticker has gone so far as to liken an evening at the Yoshiwara to an afternoon of tea.”1
Courtesans, after all, were not simple low-class, filthy whores. The Yoshiwara and other pleasure districts were the cores of Edo period popular culture, the courtesans trendsetters and fashion symbols. They were expert at conversation and pleasurable company, and I think, at music and dance as well. The Yoshiwara represented its own world of complex etiquette and proper behavior, and the higher-level courtesans reserved the right to refuse a client.
Still, the courtesans were, by definition, in the business of selling their bodies, while geisha were not, at least in theory. Remember “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which emphasized within it that geisha are not prostitutes, but are refined, elegant women, truly professionals of the arts? Remember how upset many people were at the portrayal of the mizuage rite of passage, in which men bid extraordinary amounts of money for the honor of being the one to deflower the main character, Sayuri?
Ukiyo-e expert Gina Collia-Suzuki, in a recent brief but strong blog entry, attacks this notion, asserting that geisha of the Edo period absolutely *did* engage in acts of prostitution, though it should not be confused for being a part of their primary profession.
Collia-Suzuki also claims that Mineko Iwasaki, the geisha whose life, revealed through interviews, was the basis of Arthur Golden’s novel, was essentially lying when she denied that the mizuage ceremony involved the selling of a geisha’s virginity for money. Modern morals and attitudes being what they are, Iwasaki-san would probably have been quite embarrassed and ashamed to admit such a thing, and more importantly, perhaps, she may have had in mind the protection of the reputation and image of the geisha as a whole (i.e. and the geisha still working today).
In the end, while I have the utmost respect for Ms Collia-Suzuki’s expertise, it would seem that this topic remains a controversial one. Though it does seem quite reasonable to think that the geisha of the Edo period, so closely associated with the pleasure quarters as they were, did on occasion, “on the side”, engage in acts of prostitution, I think it should be nevertheless acknowledged and emphasized that this was not a part of their profession, not a part of what it means to be geisha. As for the mizuage, as far as I can tell, the jury is still out on that one; I have heard and read arguments on both sides asserting very strongly that they are the one who is in the right.
In any case, if there is one thing to take away from all of this, I think it is this: As for our preconceptions of the geisha, courtesans, and pleasure districts of the Edo period, as we continue to learn every day, nothing in our world is as simple as conventional wisdom or stereotypes would have it. Courtesans were not simply whores, but were seen as cultured, refined, fashion idols and trendsetters, at the core of Edo period popular culture, experts in entertainments. Geisha, meanwhile, were, and are, experts of traditional music and dance, far more refined and cultured than the stereotype of the geesha girl which seems to have settled in American minds; yet, that is not to say that they never engaged in acts of prostitution on the side.
Thanks much to Gina Collia-Suzuki for bringing up the subject and for her valiant attempts to set the record straight.
1) Segawa Seigle, Cecilia. Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993. p152. citing Edward Seidensticker. Low City, High City. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1983. p18.
Image above a bijinga ukiyo-e woodblock print by Utamaro, portraying a young woman playing shamisen and practicing narrative chanting, or singing. I’m not sure if she is a courtesan (as the elaborate hairpins would seem to imply) or a geisha (as the relatively simple and plain garments would imply), but in any case, I thought this a not half-bad image to represent the fact that beautiful women of the Edo period, whether courtesans or geisha, were experts of the arts, and not simple prostitutes.
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