Geisha as Courtesans
It was the 1990’s. Memoirs of a Geisha had just come out. The debate was raging. Everyone wanted to know. Are Geisha prostitutes? Are they simply artistic creatures? I admit, I was fascinated by this question and the radio silence imposed within the Geisha community seemed to fan the flames. Mineko Iwasaki, on whom the book is loosely based was ostracized for speaking out about this topic. I have my own opinions. I don’t think sex was a job requirement, yet I question the relationships that arose between the men who supported their geisha. The truth may never be known, and isn’t that part of the mystique?
It certainly wasn’t in the beginning.
The geisha quietly rose to prominence in feudal Japan somewhere at the end of the Eighteenth century as tea house entertainers. They often worked in teams, hired out for parties, they stayed in the background dancing and singing, while the courtesan held court over her suitor. A typical evening with a courtesan could break a man, and required a near bottomless income that only daimyo and the shogun’s could afford.
The courtesan was required to sleep with her patrons, like the geisha she was highly trained in the arts. The stars of the day, with endless subjects of woodblocks that were devoured by a public hungry for more. There was a glamor around the courtesan, with her bare feet and her high geta shoes, she walked in an air of untouchable glamor, yet like the geisha they were deeply in debt. The only escape was being married to a prominent daimyo who would then buy out their contract from the brothel. The geisha hoped to find a prominent patron, or danna who would support her, and enable to pay off her debts to the okiya, the house who sponsored and trained her.
For the courtesans, the cost of maintaining their precarious lifestyle, layer after layer of priceless kimono, ensured they were stuck in the life. Times changed. As prices for the most famous courtesan rose too high for even the daimyo to afford, their reign ended, and the reliable, quiet entertainer in the background proved she could take up the slack of the courtesan, for a whole lot less. But they were never supposed to be prostitutes. And there lies the question, did she open kimono or didn’t she?
A pleasure city rises in a city that was once a swamp
“Lust will not keep…Something must be done about it.”—so said doggerel scrawled at the entrance to Yoshiwara’s great gate.
The Yoshiwara was not Japan’s only Pleasure Quarter. There were several licensed areas where men came to carouse, entertain themselves and seek out the company of women. The Shimabara district in Kyoto, and just over the bridge leading out of Nagasaki are a few, but the Yoshiwara was arguably the most famous. With quintessential lantern-lined boulevards and wafting cherry blossoms, Edoites who wanted to get away from it all, daimyos, wealthy merchants with their wives, and gate-hopping monks, would wend their way toward the crowded entrance of the pleasure quarters.
For women living on the inside, enslaved to brothels who wiled away late nights in tea houses, the gate was a solemn reminder they were never allowed to leave.
A man ready for love would stop here, check his clothes and run his hands though the jungle in his kimono wad, just outside the Yoshiwara was known as Primping Hill.
His choices were limited to the amount of coins he possessed, unless he could afford to buy his evenings on credit. If he wasn’t lordly, he couldn’t arrange a meeting with the regal, high-ranking courtesan-Tayu-later Oiran, who walked with her own court in attendance. Every man dreamed of Tayu, but few could attain such moments of sublime for themselves.
Instead, he patrolled the avenues of the lower house courtesans, who showed off their wares behind latticed walls.