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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
Author: Naomi Graham-Diaz
Date: October 2001