The Geisha of Japan
photography Jim Caldwell Redondo Beach
Walking the side streets of Kyoto I came upon these geisha. Since I was in Kyoto we should really refer to them as they are referred to in Kyoto and Western Japan, geiko.
The cultural rise of the geisha in Japan first started in the late 600s and the formative transposition of geisha really took hold when the Imperial Court moved from Asuka to Nara to Heian-kyō, or modern day Kyoto. During this period, Japan’s political structure transitioned from decentralized to centralized. Political solidification also brought cultural solidification. Part of this cultural solidification was the development of the geisha culture into the court.
By the end of the 600s, the transition of power actually had taken its toll on the family structure. The transition from a loose federation of uji to a true imperial structure left many young women on their own. Many of these girls would end up as saburuko, or as female entertainers. Better educated saburuko would end up make a living as entertainers for the upper class while many in the lower class would end up selling their services through sex.
As Japan evolved into the Heian period, the Japanese culture refined. The elite and court developed almost an obsession towards their prototypical concept of beauty. Consequently, as a sophisticated upper class developed, the demand for refined female entertainment, someone capable of engaging in intelligent conversation and whit, someone who could sing, dance or recite became highly sought after. Thus was the beginning and rise of the geisha culture.
Another influencing factor in the geisha cultural development related to the Shinto influence and the Japanese mores on the family. In the Japanese culture, the husband’s sexual fidelity to his wife was not the norm. For many, the husband’s sexual enjoyment would be found outside the marriage through courtesans in places known as yūkaku. The higher classed yūjo were called Oiran. Oiran was the cultural mix between an actress or entertainer and a prostitute. By the Edo period in the early 1600s, the Oiran had developed erotic dance and skit routines called kabuku, roughly translated to mean wild and outrageous. (The kabuku would ultimately evolve into the kabuki dance.)
By the Eighteenth Century the courtesans to court and upper class had become highly sophisticated. Their purpose was to provide a very cultured and gracious form of entertainment through poetry, dance, singing and music. This refinement led to the modern form of the geisha.