articlesgalleryvideosig collectionsresourcescommunitynewsletterabout ussupport us

editorials
recent updates
IG Forums (re-opened!)
Memoirs' Film News
Memoirs of a Geisha faq
geisha & maiko faq
miscellaneous faq
website faq
glossary
sitemap
contact us
home

    book reviews

Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake
by Edward Seidensticker


read reviews...


    

    Friends of IG


    

    


    

    

    

    

    
   


History of the Geisha, Part One: 1100AD - 1750AD

Pre-Geisha
Whilst geisha are relatively modern in their emergence, dating back to the early 1700’s, “geisha-type” women have existed since the earliest history of Japan. Two notable predecessors to geisha were the Saburuko, who came onto the scene at the end of the seventh century, and the Shirabyoshi, who emerged during the late Heian – early Kamakura period (1185-1333AD).

Saburuko, (ones who serve), were the result of an increasing social displacement towards the end of the seventh century. Many women found themselves having to become wanderers, who, in order to survive, had to resort to trading their sexual favours. Whilst most of these women were from the lower class, there were among them women who were quite educated and talented. These particular Saburuko who were talented dancers and singers often found themselves invited to entertain at aristocratic gatherings.

Shirabyoshi (who adopted their name from the dance that they performed) appeared at a time when the social structure in Japan was starting to break down. The changing fortunes of many aristocratic families had resulted in the daughters of these families becoming Shirabyoshi in order to survive. These women, who were often highly educated, soon became valued for their dancing and poetic talent. They were supported by many upper class families – including the famous aristocratic families of the Fujiwara and Taira, and in some cases even gave birth to noble children.

The Shirabyoshi were recognizable from the white Shinto-style outfits that they would wear, the playing of the drum and fife, and their dancing abilities. They would also recite ballads that were based on Buddhist prayers introduced from China. The most famous of the Shirabyoshi, who would be remembered many centuries down the track, were Shizuka, the concubine of Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) and Kamagiku, the favourite concubine of the retired ordained Emperor, Gotoba (1189-1239).

The Pleasure Quarters
In 1589, Hara Saburozaemon requested permission from his master, Hideyoshi, to open up a brothel. He was given consent and proceeded to build a walled-in quarter in the area of Nijo Yanagimachi in Kyoto, which appeared to be based on the design of the pleasure quarters of the Ming Dynasty in China. At the completion of building, Saburozaemon had had created the first walled-in pleasure quarter in Japan.

After a previous relocation of the quarters to Rokujo Misujimachi in 1602, the quarters were eventually relocated to the suburb of Suzakuno in 1640-1641 and started to become known as the “Shimabara of Kyoto” (so named because the quarters apparently resembled the Shimabara fortress in Kyushu). Shimabara of Kyoto was to become the second most famous of the pleasure quarters in Japan, and the original design of the quarters came to be used as a basis for the soon-to-be-built Yoshiwara.

In 1612, after a previously unsuccessful petition by Edo (current day Tokyo) brothel owners to create a regular “keisei-machi” (courtesan quarter), Shoji Jin’emon, a brothel proprietor, came up with an idea. Concerned by the fact that unrestricted proliferation would be bad for business, he felt that the idea of collecting all prostitutes and brothels within one special area would be beneficial all round. With this idea in mind, he approached the current Tokugawa government with his proposal.

In March 1617, Jin'emon was summoned and informed that his request had been granted. He was also informed that 2 square cho (approx 11.8 acres) of land would be devoted to the purpose of building the quarter. Jin’emon was then appointed “Keisei-machi Nanushi” (director of prostitute quarter) of what was to be known as Moto-Yoshiwara and was instructed by the bakufu to observe the following five rules:

  • No brothels will be permitted to operate outside the established licensed quarter and any request for the attendance of courtesans outside the quarters shall no longer be complied with, regardless of the origin of the request.


  • No guest shall be permitted to remain in a brothel for more than a period of twenty-four hours.


  • Courtesans are forbidden to wear luxurious cloths appliquéd or embroidered with gold and silver on them. They are to wear ordinary dyed cloths wherever they may be.


  • Buildings within the quarter are not to be built of imposing appearance, and the inhabitants of the pleasure quarters shall discharge the same duties (as firemen, etc.,) as ordinary residents in other parts of Edo city.


  • Proper inquiries shall be conducted into any visitor to a brothel, no matter whether he be a samurai, of the merchant class or commoner. In the case of any suspicious individuals of unknown origin, or strange behaviour, information shall be given to the Bugyo-sho (office of the City Governor).

The land that was provided for this was located at Fukiya-machi, and was a rather large, marshy and dismal area which had been overrun by weeds and rushes. Jin’emon at once started to clear out and fill in the land, organizing for the quarters to be built. Around the same time, the place was renamed to Yoshi-wara (field of rushes), although the character for “yoshi” was eventually changed to the more auspicious character of “good fortune”, hence changing the meaning of Yoshiwara to “Field of Good Luck”. Whilst the quarters were not completely finished until November of 1626, the doors of the only licensed pleasure quarters in Edo opened for business in November of 1618.

At first, the Yoshiwara looked to Shimabara of Kyoto for influence in customs, manners and cultural ways. In time, though, Yoshiwara developed it’s own customs and traditions, many being unique to Yoshiwara, and it soon became a thriving cultural centre for all manners of arts, along with producing its own lineage of popular and celebrated courtesans.

The lure of Yoshiwara, Shimabara, and the pleasure quarters to follow in later years was largely the romance, elegance and excitement that allowed men an escape from the highly-regimented society of those times.

No doubt, the courtesans of the early days had a lot to do with the creation of this atmosphere. It has been said that these earlier women were of much more superior quality to those who succeeded them in following years, and at times were mistaken for noble women. There is evidence that after the defeat of the Toyotomi Clan, many daughters and young wives of the high-ranking samurai found themselves displaced within society. In order to be able to make a living for themselves, they turned to prostitution. This would most certainly explain the high cultural level and elegance of the earlier courtesans, a level that, over the years, would slowly diminish and become something talked about with great fondness and reminiscences.

The high cultural atmosphere of these quarters was quite often layered with classical references to the long gone Heian era. Courtesans and artists alike made many references to Murasaki Shikibu's famous novel, "The Tale of Genji". It was this atmosphere and culture within the pleasure quarters that spawned the highly popular ukiyo-e, "pictures of the floating world", which showed us the various inhabitants of the “floating world”. It was, indeed, a place where men could live out their dreams and fantasies.

There were many different classes of courtesans within the pleasure quarters, but the main classes existing at Shimabara at the beginning were Tayuu and Hashi-joro. With the opening of Yoshiwara though, three more classes were added – “Koshi-Joro, Tsubone-joro and Kirimise-joro, and when Shin-Yoshiwara (New-Yoshiwara) opened, the previous classes, Hashi-joro and Tsubone-joro, were eliminated, but gave rise to the Sancha-joro and Umecha-joro.

Tayuu was the highest class that a courtesan could ever achieve. Following in second place, but still high class, was the Koshi-joro. Tsubone-joro was the next class down, but with the onset of the Umecha-joro class around the Genroku era, their popularity was lowered. The next class in line was the Kirimise-joro, who offered their services for a very modest sum, and bellow them was the Sancha-joro. The Sancha-joro class consisted of bath-house women who had been operating illegally. These women were eventually rounded up and placed within the walls quarters. The infamous Katsuyama, whom the Katsuyama-mage – or, more frequently referred to as “marumage”, hairstyle originated from -- arose from this very class of illegal prostitutes to become an extremely popular Tayuu. Last but not least was the lowest of all classes, the Hashi-joro.

The Tayuu of the early days were exceptional women, who outshone all their counterparts with both their beauty and their talent. Whilst a Tayuu was treated like royalty, however, she had many rules and standards of behaviour that she had to abide by. Any breach in these rules or standards could be seen as reason for her to be no longer fit to remain a Tayuu, and she would be demoted. Tayuu were offered the luxury of rejecting the advances of any suitors that they wished not to take, along with being appointed two young child attendants, Kamuro. These young Kamuro were often treated as younger sisters by the Tayuu, who would take pity on their plight, and would go to great pains to educate them in the customs and ways of the floating world.

Due to sumptuary laws being enforced in the early years of the pleasure quarters, and the abolishment of wearing silver- or gold embroided or appliquéd cloths, the early Tayuu looked far less elaborate than their successors, the Oiran, would look in later years. Their clothing was quite modest in comparison, although still just as costly, and as beautiful and stylish, if not more so.

The seventeen-hundreds (1700’s) though, saw the wealth and culture of the pleasure quarters raised to a new height, and in a sense, could be called the golden age for the “floating world”. With the merchant class increasing in wealth, the prosperity of the quarters was also increasing at a dramatic rate. Along with the continuing development and popularity of Ukiyo-e artists, writers and the kabuki, the high class courtesans started to become much more elaborate as the years went by, pushing the boundaries of the original rule of the quarters concerning ordinary dyed cloth.

Around the latter half of the seventeen-hundreds (1700’s) however, the sancha-joro started to become extremely popular. So popular, in fact, that they directly contributed to the declining demand of both the Tayuu and the Koshi-joro. 1761 was the last year that a Tayuu had been listed as practicing, and come the end of 1763, not only had the Tayuu disappeared, so had the Koshi-joro as well. The sancha-joro class almost took over the quarters, but at around the same time, a new class of high ranking courtesans came into play.

The new rank was called the Yobidashi, and was then further split into two groups. The first group was quite like the previous Tayuu, in both cost and behaviour, and the other half of the group closely resembled the former class of the Koshi. At approximately the same time, the sancha-joro were also split into two new groups: the Chusan and the Tsukemawashi. Two further main classes became known in the late seventeen-hundreds, the Sashikimochi, whom came directly below the Oiran (which is what the Yobidashi class became known as). The Zashikimochi soon also started to become known as Oiran. The second group was the Heyamochi. At the same time as this, the previously-known class of Tsubone-joro had now become one of the lowest classes of prostitutes. One result of these changes was the decline in the accomplishments and merits of many of the courtesans, and the standards, which were once held so high, started to slowly be lowered.

The many changes in the classes that happened in the second half of the eighteenth century (1700’s), along with the general decline of the skills of courtesans, provided the perfect conditions for a completely new and different type of entertainer class to arise from within the Floating World.

The Emergence of a new entertainer:- The Geisha
1750-1751 saw the beginnings of the new class emerge from Kyoto and Osaka—the so-called “geiko”. Geiko originally were men, derived from the previously known group of Taikomochi. These men had been around entertaining in various ways since the Kwambun era (1661-1672), but had been solely male until the first female geisha, Kikuya from Fukagawa, appeared.

The development of female geisha, besides the before mentioned Shirabyoshi, was also closely connected to the introduction of the shamisen (originally called jabisen) through the Eiroku era (1557-1570). The shamisen became widely popular throughout Japan due to it’s relative ease of playing, and it also was the perfect accompaniment to many of the popular songs of the day. Courtesans were soon to pick up the shamisen as one of their skills, but over time, they stopped playing and left the musical side of entertainment to the male geisha. One other significant development with female geisha was the odoriko.

Around the 1680’s, young teenage dancers, whose parents sent them to dance teachers for the purpose of having them trained so that they could hire them out, were becoming quite popular in the households of the Daimyo and upper-class samurai.

Originally, these girls were put out for hire without the offering of sexual acts, but over the years, with many parents starting to exploit their daughters, many of the odoriko had turned to prostitution.

In 1743, a group of Edo odoriko were arrested along with other illegal prostitutes and sent to work in the Yoshiwara. 1753 saw another group of around 104 odoriko from Fukagawa sent off to the pleasure quarters to work as well. These women, although still selling themselves in prostitution, started to call themselves “Geiko”.

1762 lists the first female geisha in Yoshiwara as being Kazen of the Ogiya brothel, although odoriko (calling themselves geisha) had been listed working as early as 1752. The saiken from 1769 however, was the first one to have an individual listing of the names of all geisha in service. By 1779, female geisha had become so popular and greatly in demand that they had even started to rival the courtesans and take on their clients.

As a result of this, a former brothel owner, Daikokuya Shoroku, came up with an idea. Concerned with both the fact that geisha were threatening the carefully regulated structure of Yoshiwara, and also with the fact that they were avoiding paying any taxes whatsoever to put towards the upkeep of the Yoshiwara, he conceived of the idea to register geisha, both male and female. With the unprotected approval of the Yoshiwara officials, he then created the first kenban, a system that still prevails today.

The newly formed Kenban set itself up at the great gates, and proceeded to bring the geisha under control with the issuing of new rules and regulations. With his concern that geisha were openly competing with the courtesans for their customers, strict sumptuary edicts were issued.

The new rules and regulations for geisha were as follows:-

  • Geisha were no longer allowed to leave the pleasure quarters to entertain. The only days that this rule was lifted was for New Year’s Day and the great Bon festival in July. Whilst they could leave the quarters on these two days, they had to be back inside the gates by four o’clock in the afternoon.


  • Geisha were strictly prohibited to wear extravagant clothing, and they were limited to wearing plain, non-figured cloth with their crest. Their collars were to be of white material. The hairstyles were to be of a uniform style, namely the “Shimada” style and they were only allowed to wear three ornaments in their hair. One comb, and two hair-pins, one longer than the other.


  • To avoid familiarity with their guest, geisha had to be hired out in groups of three (this was reduced to two in later years) and she was not to sit next to the guest unless there was absolutely no other choice. If a geisha was suspected of being too intimate, an inquiry would be held by the kenban and the offending geisha could be suspended for a couple of days.


  • The hours that they were allowed to work was strictly limited from noon till 10pm, although this was later increased till Midnight.

In conjunction with these rules, it was also encouraged to recruit rather ordinary and plain looking women to help curb competition between courtesan and geisha. Artistically skilled and talented women were also thought to be much more suitable for this role.

This system for regulating and controlling the geisha became so effective within Yoshiwara that other pleasure quarters around Japan were soon to adopt the same rules and regulations. These rules and regulations, rather than hindering the geisha, created the perfect conditions that paved the way for a new age in the popularity of geisha.



Author: Naomi Graham-Diaz
Date: October 2001
Contact