Geisha are the beautiful and enigmatic Japanese hostesses, often misunderstood by those outside of Japan who think they are prostitutes or causal entertainers in bars. In fact, geisha lead a very disciplined life in a closed, almost secret society governed by complex hierarchies. They are highly trained in the art of traditional dance, music and social etiquette and are hired by clients to provide entertainment for an evening. It can’t be denied, however, that sex does exist to some extent in the world of geisha – most notably in the traditional and now outlawed act of auctioning an apprentice geisha‘s virginity – though it has never been the objective of their work.
In 21st century Japan, geisha are a dying breed and exist in a world that has moved on from what they represent. World War II saw women working in factories to support the war and leaving the geisha houses, and modern Japanese women are not interested in this old fashioned way of life. If you take a trip to the Gion district in Kyoto, however, you can still enjoy a bit of “Geisha spotting”. Hang around some of the geisha houses in this area and you might see a one or two quaintly tottering down the road on their way to an appointment. They really are a beautiful sight with their exquisite kimonos and elaborate hair pieces – which only serve to heighten the interest surrounding them. Thanks to the large heels on their sandals and a tight fitting kimono though, they can never outrun the pesky foreign tourists intent on grabbing a photo of this rare sight, much as they might try.
The film Memoirs of a geisha, based on Arthur Golden’s book of the same name, recounts the tale of a young girl sold to a geisha house by her poor parents. Both the book and film fared well with audiences, though less so in Japan where people were unhappy that the lead role of the geisha was played by a Chinese actress. China also saw fit to cancel the film’s release because the Chinese star was thought to be effectively playing a Japanese prostitute. Meanwhile, everyone else thought the issue of nationality was largely irrelevant and it was an entertaining story with beautiful cinematography and costumes.
Sir Edwin Arnold (1832–1904) was an English poet and journalist who lived in Japan in his later years, writing books about the country and marrying his third wife there, Tama Kurokawa, a Japanese national. He wrote an article in the British magazine The Contemporary review in 1866 commenting on a party which all of the geisha in Kyoto would be attending. Kyoto is the cultural home of geisha and Arnold would have lived in Japan at the height of geisha popularity. Perhaps he was lucky enough to meet with them and find out a little more about their mysterious world.