Development of the Geisha Tradition
The word geisha literally means an accomplished person. This is one of several words starting with gei (art, skill) referring to entertainers: Geinôjin refers to modern singers, dancers, and other practitioners of geinô, or performing arts; geinin is reserved for those who practice traditional popular entertainment genres, including rakugo (a form of comic monologue), kôdan (storytelling), and yose (vaudeville); and geinômin is a historical term that refers to itinerant entertainers of Japans medieval period.
Geisha, meanwhile, has meant different things in different periods. During the Edo period, which extended from the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, scholars of Confucianism, Shintô, poetry, and astronomy, as well as doctors (including surgeons and dentists), were all known at times as geisha. Masters of such martial skills as sword fighting, archery, equestrianism, gunnery, spear throwing, horse training, and blade testing were called bugeisha, bu meaning military. And in the Meiji era (18681912), geisha was occasionally used in reference to teachers of foreign languages.
The narrators of the bunraku puppet theater were customarily referred to as geisha, although the puppeteers themselves were called yakusha, actors. In the world of kabuki, geisha referred to the dancers, likewise distinguished from the yakusha. In time the word geisha came to be used to refer to people who entertain others not on the stage but in private quarters, and it is this meaning that fits most closely with the geisha with whom we are familiar today. In the following, I will focus on the evolution of geisha in this final sense of private entertainers accomplished in dance and in songs and narrative singing accompanied by the shamisen (the three-stringed plucked lute, sometimes called samisen in English).
TYPES OF GEISHA
The accomplishments for which the geisha were valued consisted above all of various genres of song and narrative singing. Since performances of this sort during the Edo period were invariably accompanied by the shamisen, ability to play that instrument was also regarded as a basic skill. Another key accomplishment was dancing; indeed, the forerunners of the geisha with whom we are familiar today were called odoriko, or dancing girls. And the odoriko are thus an appropriate place to begin a survey of the development of the geisha tradition. The poet and writer Ôta Nanpo (17491823) identifies the odoriko as the forerunners of the geisha in a work entitled Yakkodako, writing, In earlier times, female geisha were called odoriko. Sometime during the Meiwa and Anei eras  they began to be referred to by the term geisha, sometimes stylishily shortened to sha. He also states, In the past the geisha were young girls. Often their mothers would accompany them as chaperones. This describes the situation at the time when, as a result of various prohibitions by the shogunate, people resorted to inviting amateursgirls born outside the profession who had studied jôruri ballad chanting, shamisen, and so forth with professionalsto perform at parties and other private gatherings. In all likelihood, therefore, the chaperones were not really the girls mothers. However, Ôta Nanpo is correct in saying that odoriko were the forerunners of the geisha and that the term geisha came into use during the period from around 1764 to about 1780.
The same period saw the emergence of the Yoshiwara geisha, who worked in the Yoshiwara pleasure district of Edo. The geisha of Yoshiwara constituted only a fraction of the total geisha population, however. The odoriko had been part of Edo life for much longer, since the beginning of the Edo period.
The geisha of the Edo period can be divided into three basic categories. In the order in which they arose, these were the machi (town) geisha, also known as Edo geisha, the Fukagawa geisha, and the Yoshiwara geisha. Let us examine the emergence of each in turn.
THE KABUKI CONNECTION
According to the Buya zokudan (1757), an account of life in eighteenth-century Edo, During the Genbun era , women known as odoriko could be found in various parts of Edo, particularly Tachibana-chô, Muramatsu-chô [both in present-day Higashi Nihonbashi], and Naniwa-chô [present-day Ningyô-chô].(1) This area corresponds to the site of the first Yoshiwara pleasure district, established in 1618, in the early years of the Edo period, by Shôji Jinemon, to whom the shogunate granted the land.
In the early days, it seems, the pleasure district was furnished with nô and kabuki stages and was the site of numerous entertainments, including various types of dancing, sumô, and bunraku.(2) Among those active in the early Yoshiwara,we are told, were yûjo, a term later applied to the courtesans of Yoshiwara but which originally referred to women who made their living primarily as traveling entertainers; the yû of yûjo in fact meant itinerant. The term tayû, referring to the highest rank of yûjo, was first applied to masters of nô and later, by extension, to a group of female entertainers who put on informal nô and other performances two or three times a year in the Shijô-Kawaramachi neighborhood of Kyoto during the Keichô era (15961615). At this time, then, the tayû was not a top-ranking courtesan but a woman supremely skilled in the art of nô.
There is an even closer connection, however, between the yûjo and kabuki. The word kabuki itself comes from a style of dancing known as kabuki odori developed by a female itinerant entertainer by the name of Okuni in the early years of the Edo period. This dancing imitated, in a stylized manner, the wild behavior of gangsters called kabukimono (literally, slanted people)conspicuously attired men with long sideburns who swaggered in and out of the dining, drinking, and entertainment establishments known as chaya (teahouses) with swords tucked prominently into sashes tied at their hips, often carrying long pipes that they passed around while smoking. Their mannerisms were masculine in the extreme, but Okuni turned them into a dance that, though it was performed in male attire, was provocative enough to draw large crowds of men to her performances in Kyoto, where she began dancing around the beginning of the seventeenth century. Other yûjo soon picked up on the style, performing with short swords at their hips and their long hair piled up on their heads, bound by a mans headband, or hachimaki. The most accomplished of the entertainers, euphemistically called oshô (a term for a Buddhist priest), had received instruction in shamisen playing from the blind male musicians of the day, who had recently switched over to the shamisen from the biwa, a shorter-necked lute. In this way, shamisen playing was incorporated into the kabuki odori. The sound of the shamisen completely changed the prevailing mood of the era.
In performances called onna (female) kabuki, 50 or 60 girls around 16 years of age would dance about the stage waving the sleeves and hems of magnificent kimono (usually made from Chinese silk) perfumed with aloes (generally imported from Vietnam). Each time they waved their sleeves the exotic scent wafted down from the stage. The yûjo would sit on stools plucking their shamisen, whose sound commingled with that of drums and flutes, while the dancers sang, We are but visitors to this dream of a floating world. It was said that people in the audience were so transported that they would declare that the world is an illusion and profess their indifference to wealth, property, and life itself.(3)
The impact of these performers on the large crowds that congregated in populous urban centers doubtless dwarfed anything produced by earlier itinerant entertainers. Indeed, it seems that these performances turned Kyotos Rokujô-Misujimachi and Edos early pleasure district into crucibles crackling with the combined energy of dance, music, and sensuality, and the shogunate regarded this as a threat to the social order. In 1612, the government arrested and executed 300 kabukimono. In 1616, it banned onna kabuki in Edo and Suruga. It was around this time that Shôji Jinemon proposed to the Edo city commissioner the establishment of a licensed quarter under government control. In 1618, the plan was approved, and the Yoshiwara licensed quarter came into being. In a sense, then, the Yoshiwara pleasure district was established to control popular disorder by separating the sex trade from the entertainment industry. On the other side of the road from Yoshiwara was shibai-machi, the theater district, consisting of Sakai-chô and Fukiya-chô. Together these two neighborhoods, widely regarded as bad places, became the center of performing arts and other entertainments, ringing with a festival-like clamor every day. Yoshiwara grew until it was destroyed in the Meireki fire of 1657, after which the licensed quarter was moved to the area behind Sensôji in Asakusa, a district that was at that time on the far outskirts of Edo.
As for kabuki, onna kabuki declined as a result of repeated prohibition edicts, until in 1624 it gave way to wakashu kabuki performed by beautiful young boys. However, because pretty young boys were also viewed as sexual objects by many men, the shogunate deemed these performances a threat to public morals as well and prohibited wakashu kabuki in 1652. The following year saw the emergence of yarô kabuki, performed by adult men. The reason yarô kabuki appeared so quickly after the prohibition of wakashu kabuki, incidentally, was that the actors who had previously appeared as boys simply changed their hairstyles and appeared as men. Yarô kabuki developed into the kabuki we know today, but the wakashu remained a presence in the urban culture of the Edo period as the center of homosexual activity.
What became of the itinerant female performers? Some were absorbed into the Yoshiwara world of licensed prostitution, while others continued as itinerants. The latter came to be called odoriko, and they were the object of repeated edicts banning their profession. The odoriko edict of 1689 was issued at a time when the activity of these young women had become very conspicuous, a development noted in a fascinating though fragmentary passage in the Abe Tadaaki kaki (Household Record of Abe Tadaaki). The account notes that the third Tokugawa shôgun, Iemitsu (ruled 162351), enjoyed watching a group of 30 odoriko perform fan dances in costumes adorned with gold and silver.(4) However, in this instance the odoriko were actually boy actors, and they were accompanied by the flute and drum, not the shamisen. At this time, prior to the prohibition of wakashu kabuki, boy odoriko were apparently popular among the ruling samurai class as well as the rising merchant class. The account also reminds us that performances of various sorts occurred not only in public theaters but also in the great homes of the high-ranking samurai. Even as shogunal edicts prevented the odoriko from performing on public stages, their art was preserved through those who were hired, whether permanently or for specific occasions, by daimyô and other high-ranking samurai. This applied to boys and women alike. So it was that, around the time Iemitsu was enjoying dance performances by young boys, the popularity of such entertainments as songs, shamisen playing, and dancing by young girls was beginning to rise even as wakashu kabuki took Edo society by storm. The Kokin yakusha taizen (Compendium of Actors Past and Present; 1750) states, Performers who danced for people by invitation were called geisha, while those who only acted were termed yakusha, but in time the geisha and yakusha merged into one and did both. The people who did the inviting at this time were daimyô, shogunal retainers, and other wealthy samurai.
This demand made it possible for the daughters of common families to serve in the homes of the ruling warrior class through the power of the performing arts. According to the Ochiboshû (1728), It was only in the Genroku era  that the world began to teem with odoriko and shamisen players. Parents had their daughters trained as odoriko so that they could work for samurai households. In other words, by this time, most of the odoriko were not the descendents of traditional itinerant entertainers but the daughters of urban merchants and tradesmen. These girls would study shamisen and dance with masters of those arts and then become the first in their families to find work in this profession. It is clear also that the descendents of the itinerant entertainers created a new market for themselves as teachers who offered lessons to young girls and women.
Nonetheless, women of this trade continued to encounter difficulties under the Tokugawa shogunate. In 1706, a shogunal retainer by the name of Hôjô Sakyô held a flamboyant party, including a large number of odoriko, aboard a roofed pleasure boat on the Asakusa River. A constable who came upon the scene admonished the group; an argument ensued, and the situation developed into a major incident. Thereafter, warriors were prohibited from entertaining on boats, the number of pleasure boats was restricted, and odoriko were not permitted on board. Each of the daimyô had numerous pleasure boatsin all likelihood for the purpose of having parties with odorikoand many of these were destroyed, throwing a wet blanket over the passion of samurai for parties and entertainment. From this time forth, the image of the samurai as the fashionable, entertainment-loving man of culture gradually gave way to that of the sober, frugal bureaucrat.
Over time, the odoriko of Edo came to be known as machi geisha, or town geisha. Even after they were banned from pleasure boats, they are said to have congregated in the Edo neighborhoods of Ryôgoku-Yanagibashi, Yoshi-chôJinzaemon-chô, Horie-chô, and Kyôbashi, all of which bordered canals and rivers during the Edo period. Thus, while the prohibition on odoriko succeeded in severing their ties with the warrior class, the connection with boats seems to have persisted, at least vestigially. And in the late Edo period, many machi geisha frequented the chaya (teahouses) of the theater district.
The machi geisha, unlike the geisha of Yoshiwara, had a significant impact on Edo fashion. The Buya zokudan relates an episode in which the machi geisha created a fad for blue umbrellas. Young girls who were not of the profession were taught to play the shamisen and chant jôruri and, like geisha, were sent to work at samurai estates or at the chaya where the samurai congregated when they were away from home. A woman referred to as their mother accompanied them. Near the beginning of the Genbun era , there were three famous and beautiful geisha, Emon of the Sangoshichi team, Oteru of the Chitose team, and Oen of the Daisuke team. They took care above all with their hair, using fine combs and wearing ornaments and silver hairpins. When it was hot, fearing a sedge hat would ruin their hair, the three made an arrangement with one another to carry parasols of blue with crests and black handles. They started this because they had heard a Chinese story in which a Tang sovereign was shaded with a parasol of thin blue silk. The fashion spread, and not only women but men as well began carrying umbrellas made with blue paper.(5)
As this quotation suggests, by this time repeated edicts banning odoriko had created a situation where ordinary young girls studied shamisen and jôruri in order to work as geisha at the gatherings of high-ranking samurai. The women who posed as the mothers of these amateur geisha from ordinary households were doubtless their managers. The above reference also indicates that geisha at this time were organized into teams (kumi), which vied to produce star geisha. The refreshingly original and striking fashion sense of these machi geisha gave birth to new fads that periodically swept through Edo society.
Fukagawa, the area in which the Fukagawa geisha emerged and for which they were named, was a piece of reclaimed land built up in the early Edo era. It lay beyond the Sumida, Edos largest river, and was thus in the early days an out-of-the-way place, remote from the citys central districts. Because the Fukagawa waterway was convenient for transport, however, warehouses for everything from rice and oil to fertilizer sprang up along its banks. And precisely because it was separated from the citys central districts, where fires were frequent, it was also considered suitable for the processing and storage of the lumber needed for rebuilding.
After the Meireki fire of 1657, a number of temples, shrines, and samurai estates relocated to Fukagawa in hopes of escaping future conflagrations, and an increasing number of merchants and tradespeople moved there as well. Bridges were built to connect the area to the citys central districts, and an entertainment district sprang up in front of Tomioka Hachiman Shrine, featuring numerous dining establishments and unlicensed brothels. The odoriko who flocked to these new establishments apparently solicited customers quite openly, and in 1743, a full 104 of them were arrested and removed to Yoshiwara.
As this suggests, the main thrust of the prostitution laws and edicts enforced during the Edo period was not to outlaw prostitution but to put it under government control, at least with respect to Edo, one of the worlds largest cities and a magnet for outsiders of all types. What was prohibited was prostitution outside the framework of government control. The rampant activities of the prostitutes and entertainers of Fukagawa led to their arrest and transfer to Yoshiwara. The yûjo of the Yoshiwara were broadly divided into three classes, and the women from Fukagawa were all dumped into the lowest class. This mass relocation of odoriko from Fukagawa was a major factor in the emergence of the Yoshiwara geisha, whom we will discuss below.
The Fukagawa geisha were also called haori geisha in reference to the half coat they customarily wore. This fashion is said by some to have been derived from the costume worn by child actors who performed during the chanting of Bungo-bushi, a form of jôruri. But the haori was originally a garment worn outdoors only by men, so it had a rather masculine look.
Of all the geisha, the Fukagawa geisha were considered the most iki. Iki is an Edo term describing something or someone with an air that is open and unaffected, light and casual, tastefully fashionable, and at the same time somewhat erotic. It was an aesthetic that had a major impact on Edo culture in the late Edo period.
Oddly enough, there were no odoriko (or geisha) in the Yoshiwara licensed district before 1760. Why were there odoriko elsewhere in Edo but not in Yoshiwara, which seems the most natural place for them? The reason is that in the early years, the yûjo themselves were competent in the performing arts and other accomplishments. As we saw previously, the pleasure and theater districts were basically one in the early years of the Edo period; there were performance spaces in the pleasure district, where kabuki was performed by yûjo. The yûjo of Yoshiwara in particular were much more than mere prostitutes; they were expected to be able to play the shamisen, sing, dance, write traditional Japanese forms of poetry and prose, perform the tea ceremony, and arrange flowers. They took calligraphy lessons, were well read, and had to write their own letters. Some of them could even read and write Chinese.
However, as time went by, the number of yûjo who had received such an education dwindled, and odoriko were brought in to fill the gap. The first record of geisha in Yoshiwara occurs in a guidebook to the pleasure district entitled Saiken shoroku, published in 1761, which speaks of two geisha named Ran and Toki at the establishment of Tamaya Yamasaburô. The guidebook uses the word geisha instead of odoriko, suggesting that the former word was current by this time. Another guidebook to Yoshiwara, Jitsugokyô, published in autumn the same year, refers to a geisha by the name of Kasen at the establishment of Ôgiya Kanbei. In both cases, it is interesting to note, the management advertises that its geisha can be hired out as well as being available to customers visiting the establishment. These records provide evidence that brothels employing yûjo were also beginning to employ geisha. However, this was the licensed quarter, and it would not do for the geisha to impinge on the territory of the yûjo. For that reason, the geisha of Yoshiwara, unlike those of Fukagawa or other districts, were entertainers exclusively and never engaged in prostitution.
In 1779, Yoshiwara adopted the kenban system to oversee the geisha of the area and restrict their number to no more than 100, thus ensuring that the geisha did not threaten the yûjos livelihood. (The kenban functions even today as a kind of geisha union.) Records indicate that in 1780, when Edo culture was at its peak, there were 19 male and 88 female geisha, 40 of them resident in Yoshiwara brothels.
GEISHA IN THE MODERN AGE
During the Edo period, officials of the warrior class used the term geisha yoriai to refer to parties at which geisha entertained. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the legacy of this custom persisted in the strong preference among the nations politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen for making deals and decisions in gatherings at the machiai-jaya (rendezvous teahouses) centered in the Shinbashi district of Tokyo, where geisha performed. So essential were the machiai-jaya to decision making among politicians that behind-the-scenes negotiations came to be termed machiai politics. Thanks to this connection, quite a few of the Meiji eras most noted politicians were married to women who had been geisha. One reason for this trend was that at this time, geisha were the only women (apart from a very few female intellectuals) with the knowledge to converse on equal terms with politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen.
As women have become more educated and made careers for themselves, this aspect of the geishas role has become less important. Nonetheless, geisha remain the last bastion of a number of traditional Japanese accomplishments, including shamisen playing, the singing of traditional songs and narratives, Japanese classical dance, the taiko drum, the Japanese flute, formal etiquette and deportment, the art of donning a kimono, and more. However, very few girls today are willing and able to undergo the rigorous trainingbeginning around age 10necessary to become guardians of this Japanese tradition. One reason is that there are so many more career options open to women these days. Another is that demand has dropped, since fewer and fewer men have the means to employ geisha with any regularity. It may not be so unusual these days to encounter a kimono-clad woman serving sake who is referred to as a geisha. But to encounter a real geisha in the traditional sense of the word is rare indeed.
Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Japan Echo.
(1) Quoted in Mitamura Engyo, Edo geisha no kenkyû (A Study of Edo Geisha), vol. 10 of Mitamura Engyo zenshû (The Collected Works of Mitamura Engyo) (Tokyo: Chûô Kôron Sha, 1975, p. 284).
(2) Miura Jôshin, Keichô kenbun shû (Observations from the Keichô Era) (1614), reprinted in vol. 2 of Edo sôsho (Collection of Edo Writings) (Tokyo: Meicho Kankô Kai, 1964).
(4) Mitamura Engyo, op. cit.
(5) Ibid., p. 284.
© 2003 Japan Echo Inc.