The geisha have been a source of much mystery throughout history. Even those who have lived within Japan’s closed culture do not know a lot about this interesting subculture of women. The life of a geisha is very different from that of many other female workers, especially those who work as escorts. Geisha women take escorting to a whole new level. Their modern mecca is the city of Kyoto in Japan, where geisha are still known to host banquets for politicians and the wealthy.
Once upon a time, however, scores of geisha could be seen in cities all across Japan, silently making their way from appointment to appointment. Throughout time, geisha have taken on personas of celebrities, while putting on shows and giving friendly conversation and smiles to well-to-do men of business or power. “The geisha culture is the only business in Japan that is run exclusively by women for the pleasure of men and has been successful for many centuries” (Lockard 1).
What is interesting to look at when we look at the modern geisha is the way that they enter this lifestyle. Though the history of the geisha is long, and has changed many times, researchers find that many choose the lifestyle because it appeals to them. One researcher even compared the position of the geisha in Japanese culture to the classical ballerina in western culture (Downer 4). The fact that most all women who enter the world of geisha do so by their own free will makes this job different from other female slavery around the world. Women are often taken from their families, or sold by their parents in many situations (Bales).
To become a geisha one must prove that they are determined to live this life, and follow their rules. Taking someone against their will to be a geisha is a good way to start training geisha that do not desire to live that life. Geisha women have used their feminine traits, through rigorous refining, to create power for themselves in a society run mainly by men. The women carefully created a code that allowed them to separate themselves from common prostitutes in order to find their place with the wealthy and powerful Japanese, while still keeping complete control of their bodies and actions.
The image of the geisha varies greatly from ideas of western beauty and allure. The kimono, the garment of the geisha, covers most of the body. The obi, which is the sash that holds the garment closed, is placed over her bust. This makes her appearance more childlike, and unthreatening. Kimono are quite costly, and some are required to be worn only during specific seasons, places, or events. The white face is meant to smooth out any differences between the women. The make-up is not blended with the sides of the face and neck. Instead, the line is hard, accentuating and fetishizing the exposed skin. Geisha also wear red around their eyes, in the crease of their noses, and on their lips.
This is also interesting because of the differences between geisha subculture and the society that they exist in. Japan is a country, just like western countries, where men have taken the political and social power. Like other countries, it is important for a man to find a wife, and a woman to find a husband. Love is not an idea that is attached to marriage, unlike much of the world. Instead, the point of marriage is to birth young boys that will contribute to society.
Marriages in Japan differ greatly from unions seen in western countries. Married men are encouraged to find pleasure outside of the marriage. The union with his wife was made for political and economical advancement. Both the husband and wife are understanding of that. If the husband does well providing for his wife, and keeping her happy, he is free to visit the tea houses and other pleasure centers of Japan. Financial security allows the wife to tend to the home and children.
The world of the geisha is even different from Japanese culture. This is because in this subculture, women carry all of the power. Geisha women never get married, and do not believe in love. These things get in the way of their job, and their ability to please their many clients. Instead, some geisha women find a dannar. This is the only man a geisha will have sexual relations with. Dannar are rich men, who will pay for the geisha’s housing, food, and expensive kimonos. When a geisha becomes pregnant, she hopes that the child is female. This is because she can train her daughter at a young age to continue her lineage of geisha. Male children have little worth in the geisha world, and often do not become successful.
The geisha have been around for over 400 years. Throughout their entire history, the geisha have had one goal– to please their male clients. The world of a geisha has always been much different than that of a regular woman. Though these women follow strict rule, and are technically in indentured servitude until their work is completed in the house, it is still a job that they have chosen. This work also allows for a possible rise in class. They will meet celebrities, politicians, corporate business owners, and take their money. Geisha have a chance for owning their own business when they are mature, unlike women working in most other forms of slavery (Bale)(Bardsley & Miller, 70). These women are sworn to the laws of the geisha.
A geisha woman never speaks of anything that has conspired while they are working. This is one reason why it has been so hard for anthropologists to research this subculture. If anyone was to know that these women spoke out, they would never be hired again. Silence is the mark of a true geisha. “Their whole profession depends on their ability to keep secrets” (Downer 16). This use of secrecy is what gained the geisha the favor of rich businessmen and influential politicians.
Geisha women throughout history have been very eager to continue living their expensive lifestyles. Many times cultural shifts have threatened the prominence of the geisha empire. The very first instance of this was during the reign of the shogun. The Shogun believed in complete control over their people. They enforced many strict regulations in hopes to dampen any chances that another civil war would come. Prostitution was considered a huge problem, and many men caused disturbances at theaters where women were performing on the stage. At this point the Shogun banned female performance from happening in public. This is what caused the gap between the Japanese prostitute, and the Japanese geisha. Though the geisha was not a term used, many women began to practice the art of private entertainment. Women would dance, sing, and converse with men in private.
One thing that sets geisha apart from other forms of female escort, or prostitution is that the geisha always has control of herself. The men may make requests, but the geisha has the final say in what happens. People being entertained by geisha have a strong reverence and respect for them and their studies. Geisha are expected to study every classical form of Japanese performance art. They are highly trained in giving entertainment, and not highly trained in sexual acts. Historically, the only people who could be entertained by a geisha were men who studied at least one form of the classical arts. This way the clients could also partake in singing, or playing instruments.
The setting geishas work in is also much different than that of a common prostitute. Geishas are known for hosting private banquets in tea houses. Prostitutes were found in brothels, or clubs. These geisha banquets served as a place for men to destress before going home to their wives. This is acceptable in Japanese culture because the society does not make a direct connection between sex, pleasure and sensuality to love.
The modern geisha chooses to move to Kyoto at a young age to begin lifelong training. The training to become a geisha are very pricy. A Geisha mother supplies her geisha and trainees (maiko) with a home, food, and kimono, as well as etiquette refinement, and rigorous training in the arts. Girls often begin when they are between twelve and fifteen years of age. The training of a geisha has not changed much over the past 400 years. The people drawn to this training are likely to have strong interests in preserving ancient Japanese arts and culture.
There is no manual, or textbook that the geisha mother hands to the new trainees. Instead, these girls are required to be assistants to an older, more experienced geisha; her assigned geisha sister. A maiko is expected to be quiet, unless she is spoken to. Her job is to watch as her sister entertains the guests. Before the trainee even can wear a kimono and go out to jobs with her sister, she must complete six months of training within the geisha house. During this time she can only send letters out of the house. This is to get the geisha used to being secluded. A geisha does not have time for anything other than her studies and her job.
Geisha differ greatly from other female groups around the world. They have worked hard to protect their ancient art, and succeeded up to this point in history, though their numbers are dwindling. Their status in Japan as stars has mystify and beguile the people of western cultures. It is their ability to maintain power as women for centuries that sets them apart from any other minimalized group of people in the world’s history. How they refined femininity to use as a powerful tool for influence has changed how activists view the gender binary, and seek out ways to change power dynamics.