The Emergence of Japanese Geisha
For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, courtesans (licensed prostitutes) dominated the licensed “pleasure quarters” of Edo (now Tokyo), Kyoto, and other large cities, providing all kind of services, including music, to clients. Around 1730, a group of entertainers known as geisha, or “persons of art,” emerged to assist the courtesans. The first geisha were male entertainers, serving guests with music, lighthearted conversation, and comical play. The first female geisha appeared around 1750. They quickly outnumbered their male counterparts, and by 1780 the word geisha was mainly applied to women. Early geisha, whether male or female, were strictly regulated by the government. They were not, for example, to sit close to courtesans’ clients, much less to have personal relations with them.
From the beginning, geisha sometimes worked outside the licensed pleasure quarters. In Edo (now Tokyo) there were several unlicensed pleasure districts located along the Sumida River where pleasure boats came and went. Free from elaborate etiquette and government restrictions, these districts, with their teahouses and restaurants, became popular with men hosting geisha parties for their friends and business associates. Their clientele was not limited to the wealthy, however. At a time when the world of pleasure had come to focus on the masses, the simpler but still refined style of geisha appealed to the vital and spirited tastes of a new type of client—the fast-talking, easy-spending men of Edo known as Edokko. But some of the entertainers, known as “town geisha,” flouted the rules, engaging in unlicensed prostitution. As a result, the geisha’s reputation became somewhat tarnished.
Geisha in Art
From the beginning, geisha inspired artists to depict them as beautiful dancers and musicians or simply as beautiful women. These colorful paintings constitute a major element of the art genre known as "depictions of beautiful women” (bijin-ga), popular in the Edo period (1615–1868). Authors and storytellers of that period wrote about geisha’s lives and activities much as do today’s writers of articles about Hollywood celebrities.
Following Japan’s gradual emergence from its self-imposed isolation in the second half of the 1800s, Japanese and Western photographers enthusiastically made images of the Japanese, particularly of geisha or women dressed up as geisha, to distribute to the international market. Some of these commercial works contributed to the confusion of geisha with prostitutes.
In 1956 prostitution was banned, the licensed pleasure quarters were abolished, and the courtesans lost their jobs. But geishas, in their capacity as musicians and dancers, survive to this day and are living examples of tradition. Geishas’ charm reside in their classic beauty—a way of moving, a way of dressing, an easy banter attuned to the aesthetics of traditional Japan. The population of geishas has declined from some eighty thousand in the 1920s, when they were at the height of popularity and demand, to about six thousand today.