Japanese Geisha

A History of Conversation, Performance and Artistry

Geisha continue to entertain tourists and business-people in Japan to this day
Photo of a modern-day geisha in Japan. John Rawlinson on Flickr.com

With paper-white skin, demur red-painted lips, glorious silk kimonos and elaborate jet-black hair, Japan's geisha are one of the most iconic images associated with the "Land of the Rising Sun." As a source of companionship and entertainment as early as 600, these geisha were trained in many arts, including poetry and performance. 

However, it wasn't until 1750 that images of the modern geisha first appeared in historical documents, but from then, the geisha have epitomized the essence of beauty in Japanese artisan culture, passing down their traditions to this day.

Now, modern geisha share the traditions of their short-lived heyday with artists, tourists and businesspeople alike, perpetuating the best parts of their brief prominence in Japanese mainstream culture.

Saburuko: The First Geisha

The first geisha-like performers in recorded Japanese history were the saburuko — or "those who serve" — who waited tables, made conversation and sometimes sold sexual favors sometime during the 600s. The higher-class saburuko danced and entertained at elite social events while ordinary saburuko were mostly the daughters of families left destitute in the social and political upheavals of the seventh century, the period of the Taika Reform.

In 794, the Emperor Kammu moved his capital from Nara to Heian  — near present-day Kyoto. Yamato Japanese culture flourished during the Heian period, which witnessed the establishment of a particular standard of beauty, as well as the origins of the samurai warrior class.

Shirabyoshi dancers and other talented female artists were in high demand throughout the Heian era, which lasted until 1185, and although they faded from mainstream appeal over the next 400 years, these dancers continued to pass their traditions on through the ages.

Medieval Precursors to the Geisha

By the 16th century — following the end of the Sengoku period of chaos — major Japanese cities developed walled "pleasure quarters" where courtesans called yujo lived and worked as licensed prostitutes.

The Tokugawa government classified them according to their beauty and accomplishments with the oiran — who were early kabuki theater actresses as well as sex-trade workers — atop the yujo hierarchy.

Samurai warriors were not permitted to partake in kabuki theater performances or the services of yujo by law; it was a violation of the class structure for members of the highest class (warriors) to mix with social outcasts such as actors and prostitutes. However, the idle samurai of unremittingly peaceful Tokugawa Japan found ways around these restrictions and became some of the best customers in the pleasure quarters.

With a higher class of customers, a higher style of female entertainer also developed in the pleasure quarters. Highly skilled in dancing, singing and playing musical instruments such as the flute and shamisen, the geisha that began performing did not rely on selling sexual favors for their income but were trained in the art of conversation and flirting. Among the most prized were geisha with a talent for calligraphy or those who could improvise beautiful poetry with hidden layers of meaning.

Birth of the Geisha Artisan

History records that the first self-styled geisha was Kikuya, a talented shamisen player and prostitute who lived in Fukagawa around 1750.

Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a number of other pleasure quarter residents began to make a name for themselves as talented musicians, dancers or poets, rather than simply as sex workers.

The first official geisha were licensed in Kyoto in 1813, just fifty-five years before the Meiji Restoration, which ended the Tokugawa Shogunate and signaled the rapid modernization of Japan. Geisha did not disappear when the shogunate fell, despite the dissolution of the samurai class. It was World War II that really dealt a blow to the profession; almost all young women were expected to work in factories to support the war effort, and there were far fewer men left in Japan to patronize teahouses and bars.

Historical Impact on Modern Culture

Although the heyday of the geisha was short, the occupation still lives on in modern Japanese culture — however, some of the traditions have changed to adapt to the modern lifestyle of the people of Japan.

Such is the case with the age young women begin geisha training. Traditionally, apprentice geisha called maiko began training at about age 6, but today all Japanese students must stay in school through age 15 thus girls in Kyoto can begin their training at 16, while those in Tokyo usually wait until they are 18.

Popular with tourists and businesspeople alike, modern-day geisha support an entire industry within the ecotourism industries of Japanese cities. They provide work for artists in all of the traditional skills of music, dance, calligraphy, who train the geisha in their crafts. Geisha also buy top-of-the-line traditional products such as kimono, umbrellas, fans, shoes, and the sort, keeping craftsmen in work and preserving their knowledge and history for years to come.