The Social Status of Geishas

The social status of geishas within Japanese society is still a hotly contested issue. She has many facades from the symbol of Japanese tradition to the exotic depiction of the femininity of the ‘Orient.’ Further, her history can be traced back to female entertainers of the 16th century. Some scholars argue that she can trace their heritage back to the performers of the 11th century.

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Part of the western fascination with geisha is rooted in her highly decorative nature, but this beautiful nature has led to her being mis-categorised as a high-class prostitute.

Despite this, the Japanese insist that geishas are a profession far removed from that of prostitutes. The truth is they are more akin to skilled performers since they are trained in fine arts such as singing, dancing and storytelling.

Throughout the colourful and at times bloody history of Japan geishas have had on many masks. It is said that she can trace her heritage back to the female performers of 16th century while other estimate that her story began with the entertainers of the 11th century.

The tradition actually started with men putting on these elaborate costumes, while it became a purely female profession in the mid 18th century. Before this, it depended entirely on the city whether it was a cross-dressing male or a beautiful young lady dawning the costume. The original role of geisha was as an assistant to the oiran, a high-class and costly courtesan who resided in the ‘pleasure quarters’ of Edo (present-day Tokyo), in the Kyoto district.

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During this period, the Japanese government was keen on upholding morality therefore one saw that ladies of an immoral nature were sent to areas on the bring of society. The ‘pleasure quarters’ that sprung up during the Edo period (1600-1867) were often referred to as ‘safe zone for fantasy, frivolity and luxurious display’ (Downer 2002). Further, the Meiji period (1868-1812) is often referred to the Golden Age of geisha (Dalby 1983), since this were the period where the more expensive oiran saw a dip in popularity. The demand for the cheaper equivariant of the oiran, the geisha, happened mainly because of price. The surge in popularity meant that geisha moved from the side lines to be the centre of attention at dinner arrangements for the absolute elite of Japanese society. Here, the teahouse played a vital in the representation of the ideal woman who knew the perfect balance between respectability and desirability. Besides, being the embodiment of the ideal woman with a great focus on respect and loyalty she was also seen as a fashion guru for women across the country. She earned her reputation of a fashion goddess through the elaborate outfits she wore. In the mid 1870s she saw an interesting change of surroundings, since she moved out of the private sphere and into the public sphere.

This move was due to her participation in the Spring festivities and she began her life as a promotion tool of the tourist industry. In the late 19th century was when geishas saw the height of their prosperity since her home of the teahouse was the place to be for entertainment, more specifically wartime entertainment. The surge in wartime entertainment happened because the Japanese came out as victors of the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-95). It was also during this period geishas earned the title of the ‘true Japanese spirit.’ (Kikou 1956). It was first at the onset of the 20th century she began to struggle with identity.

First, she saw her title as fashion icon being revoked because the new generation were more interested in Western-style clothing. Since the ’30s she has been nothing, but a relic of a time long gone. Plus, the way of the geisha seems to be a dying practice due to drastic changes in social norms, dressing and entertainment. One cannot say that she has been as lucky as her male counterpart, the samurai, who has been immortalized in movies, anime and video games. At present, she is merely a tourist attraction for guest to enjoy and a long tradition for scholars to examine. Finally, the profession never found its route back to the prosperity it had before the American occupation (1945-1952).

In the West, ‘geisha’ is ‘no more than mere prostitute (Masuda 2005).’ This notion first surfaced during the American occupation of Japan later on this notion resurfaced in Memories of a Geisha. The first time one encounters this mis-interpretation of the geisha is during the American occupation where American soldiers had their first taste of Japanese culture. It was during this occupation where the most famous of these fallacies concerning that of the geisha emerged namely that of the ‘Geesha girl.’ This fallacy leads to a general mis-categorisation of the geisha herself as a prostitute or a nightclub performer. As stated by Osman Edwards:

  • The popular opinion that the geisha is generally pretty and always improper. (Hockley 2004) To return to the question of the social status of the geisha. I should say it corresponds more exactly with that of the Persian actress than of an Athenian hetaira [sic]
  • There are a large number who make the profession an excuse to attract rich admires, just as the name of “actress” is more Puritan climes will cover a multitude of sins. However, a professional courtesan she is not) (Hockley 2004)

Contrary to popular belief geishas are not call girls but rather craftswomen whose trade are all things artistical. Not to mention, term ‘geisha’ itself means ‘art person’ and consists of two Chinese characters that correspond to this. Often ‘Gei’ translated into ‘art,’ yet the Japanese term is narrower than the English equivalent since it simply refers to the fine performing arts. Therefore, one may say, she is more akin to ‘a Persian actress than an Anthian hetaira’ (Hockley 2004). However, the expression ‘actress’ brings its problems since this categorisation is used to cover-up many an immoral act. What is more, flirting may be part of the profession but the client must satisfy his craving for intercourse by other means. If this is the sole purpose of the gentleman is to shag he would visit the numerous brothels scattered around the city. In addition to flirting she also sells a false sense of companionship and the illusion of seduction. So, in the Japanese mind, she is far from a professional courtesan who is the depiction westerners get from the early accounts of American soldiers. These so-called ‘geisha girls’ one hears of in these early tales are far removed from actual geishas. They are more in the vain of the tellings of prostitutes hiding behind this role. According to Lisa Yoneyama:

  • They are figures born out of the nineteenth-century Western fantasy about the submissive yet licentious “Oriental woman” that has continued to persist into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In evoking “geisha,” these texts insinuate that the newly enfranchised Japanese women were insignificant and trivial as those “geisha girls” of the Western male fantasy (Yoneyma 2005)

The view westerners have of the geisha nowadays was formed doing WWII, yet the meaning of the term itself has changed throughout her history. As mentioned earlier, a geisha is an entertainer an not a lady of a night but as far the Puritan American notion the way she acts may be more akin to what they see as a prostitute. Thus, one may argue that the Americans put the ‘geisha’ in a box they knew best and thus not thinking more about what she was. Additionally, her submissive nature may suggest that the ‘female orient’ may not only embrace the ‘white man’ as well as the imposing Americanization and the role Japan may take on the international stage under the keen eye of the ‘big brother’ of America. This image fits well into the myth that Japanese women are submissive and thus comes the notion that Japan may have been the country western feminism forgot.

  • Women are inferior to men, they are happy to that, and they live to serve and if you think nothing of this sort could go on in the early 20th century, then you haven’t been paying attention to the success of Japanese pop behemoth AKB-48
  • Forbidden to having boyfriends and content instead to smile and dance around in bikinis or mock military uniforms or really whatever a paying public of socially inadequate young and middle-aged men want to see. (“Three Western Myths About Japan” 2018)

While in western feminism, a woman is not inferior to a man and she may have a mind of her own. By contrast to be classified as a ‘good’ Asian woman, one has to be submissive, passive and even compliant. In other words, they are perceived to be less likely to stand up to their partners and thus to endorse the stereotype that females are the weaker sex. Regarding the geisha, she puts on this face in order to seduce her costumer. They never engage in sexual relations with their onlookers, they only entertain which is the foremost part of the geisha is that of an entertainer. On the contrary, if a geisha had sexual relation with a customer, she would be looked down upon and even seen as promiscuous. This view was rather prevalent during the Edo period where Japan saw the legalisation of prostitution which meant prostitutes such as the oiran were seen as legal workers by the government. However, if a geisha managed to get hold of a prostitution licence they were seen as to fun-loving and thus banning such a license would be the only answer. As well as banning geishas from getting such a license they also eventually were prohibited from having sexual relations with their patrons.

As mention previously, the main occupation of a geisha is to entertain but she was also a status symbol and thus if there were more than one geisha at a gathering it meant that the host had a healthy bank balance. Building on this point, Mr Osman states: ‘There are a large number who make the profession an excuse to attract rich admires.’ (Hockley 2004) Thus, the confusion of her with the traditional high-class courtesan of the oiran whose main purpose was to entertain with a side order of hanky panky. These two bastions of Japanese had some similarities. Like Geishas, the original femme fatale had elaborate hairstyles and white make-up yet there is a clear difference in their dress. Since the oiran tie her obi in front to signify that she is a member of the oldest profession while geishas tie theirs in the back. Now, back to the phenomena of the ‘geisha girl’ which was the name the prostitutes who sold themselves as ‘sex slaves’ to the American soldiers. This confusion may come down to the fact that these so-called ‘sex slaves’ hit behind the prestigious name of the geisha.

In the same fashion, the American author Arthur Golden in his book Memoirs of a Geisha reinforces this false impression of her. In the novel, geishas are for the most part associated with sexual favours which are not an accurate depiction of her since she is not allowed to engage with her male costumers sexually. Flirting is part of being a geisha but nothing more than that. One may say that this darker side of the profession is depicted in Mrs Masuda’s Autobiography of a Geisha since she does refer to this a few times throughout the book. In the story, he describes a ceremony in which a man deflowers the young maiden or Maiko; this is termed mizuage. Mr Gorden describes the scene as follows: ‘The first time a woman’s cave is explored by a man’s eel. That is what we call mizuage.’ (Golden 2011) Furthermore, among geishas, this is seen as a coming-of-age ceremony. Here, wealthy tycoons will bid on her virginity, so she can become a woman and in turn ‘a full-fledged geisha. ‘ Similarly, the geisha is also shown to be nothing more than a pleasure bot and is paid handsomely to take on this role. In the novel, she is nothing more than someone who has no say in her destiny and how she men treat. In short, Golden’s sexualised portrayal of geishas are completely wrong, but then again it fits well into the western fascination with the ‘female orient’ which was first portrayed by American soldiers under the occupation. Moreover, this portrayal of geisha infuriates many a Japanese since for them she is way more than a simple ‘actress.’

To summarise, in the 1890s saw the geisha as a prosperous profession and it was also at this point, she came to be known as the ‘true Japanese spirit.’ While in the 20th century saw her struggling to find her place in an ever-changing world. Further, the view we as westerners have of her came about during the time of the American occupation where American soldiers had their first taste if Japanese culture. This leads the misconception that she was nothing more than a lady of the night or merely a nightclub performer. Nowadays, this misconception has resurfaced in the form of Mr Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha which greatly sexualises geisha culture.

Cite this page

The Social Status of Geishas. (2019, Nov 30). Retrieved from

The Social Status of Geishas

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