Monday, June 28, 2010

The History of Geisha

History of geisha

First geisha appeared in the early 1600s. After 8 centuries of fighting among the warrior lords, the country was united under a military dictator, or shogun. Tokugawa Ieyasu quelled the internal warfare, unified most of the country, and in 1603 became shogun, establishing his government in Edo (now Tokyo). This Edo-based shogunate lasted some 265 years and is called the Edo period. Under shogun rule, Japan isolated itself entirely from the rest of the world. During that time, prostitution was controlled. Special “pleasure quarters” were set up. The pleasure quarters became the places of sexual freedom. Exclusive prostitutes or courtesans would entertain samurai warriors. It was there where the first geisha appeared. These geisha were men. They also were called jesters (hokan) or drum bearers (taiko-mochi), and they were there to make the guests laugh. In 1751, some customers in a Shimabara brothel were surprised when a female drum bearer came to their party. She was referred to as geiko, the term still used in Kyoto instead of geisha. By 1780 female geisha outnumbered the men; by 1800, a geisha was a woman.

Even after the novelty wore off, female geisha remained in high demand. By the 1750s, the licensed quarters had already been in existence for 150 years, and yujo (the prostitutes) were not as skilled in the arts as they had once been. In fact, the entertainment of the pleasure quarters had probably gone a little stale. The new female geisha took the quarters by storm. They sang popular songs; they were fun to talk to. And although in the official hierarchy of the licensed quarters, geisha stood near the bottom, customers preferred the fresh-faced geisha with her shamisen to a high-ranked yujo.

The geisha in the licensed quarters were forbidden to sleep with the yujo’s customers. In 1779 geisha were recognized as practicing a distinct profession, and a registry office (kenban) was set up to provide and enforce rules of conduct for them. Geisha were not to wear flamboyant kimono, or combs and jeweled pins in their hair. Arthur Golden further explains:A traditional image of a geisha in the West is often confused with what was a prostitute from the 1800s. The look of a prostitute and the geisha is very distinct. Geisha tie their obi tied in the back. A prostitute, on the other hand, wear her obi tied in the front: she is taking her kimono on and off all night; she can’t have a dresser come in, so she ties it in front herself. Also, the image of lots of hair ornaments — it is also of the prostitutes. Geisha wear much simpler ones. (The Secret)

Under these regulations, geisha completely separatedfrom the prostitutes. Geisha prospered. The simplicity of their appearance became highly popular. They spread over the country while Japan continued to shut itself out from the rest of the world.
World War II also had great influence on the image of geisha. Japan proclaimed war against the United States. The Japanese were sure they would win because the emperor’s power was divine. After the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered. The country had been devastated. The United States Army headed by Gener al McArthur came to Japan. Already a year and a half before the surrender, the war was having its effect on the geisha districts. The expensive restaurants at which they entertained were required to close at eleven, and geisha to cease entertainment at ten. Sayuri recalls the times of Depression during World War II:
Our okiya had been stripped off the things other families had lost long ago, such as stores of food, undergarments, and so forth. … The neighborhood association began confiscating many of our ceramics and scrolls to sell them on what we called the “gray market,” which was different from the black market. … It was mainly housewives selling off their precious things to raise cash.

The geisha districts were required to close down completely on March 5, 1944. Since the geisha houses were closed, the Americans looked for fun elsewhere:Even as the Meiji government had essayed to provide ladies of pleasure for early foreign visitors and residents, so the Japanese government thought to do it for the Occupation forces. Soon after the surrender there was a poster in Ginza inviting young ladies to join a “recreation and amusement association” for the entertainment of the Americans. It had a few gatherings in the basement of a Ginza department store, but soon became a cabaret for Japanese. The government early indicated a willingness to set aside a generous number of pleasure quarters for the exclusive use of the Occupation.

The American troops found pleasure with the streetgirls. They called them geisha (wrongly pronounced “geesha”). The new “geisha” had neither the accomplishments nor the brains of the real ones. However, Americans used the term geisha because it was easy and convenient. Japan lost the war, and the geisha their reputation.

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