All this in turn took its place inside a larger cultural context. The Edo-period world of licensed prostitution was composed of an elaborate hierarchy of women whose sex was for sale. Those at the top were as celebrated as movie stars are today, while those at the bottom were simply streetwalkers. Geisha were registered separately from all of the above, on the theory that their job was different. When this system of regulated (and legal) prostitution was finally dismantled in 1957, geisha were technically not affected because, in the entire history of the profession, geisha were never licensed as prostitutes per se.

But that does not mean that geisha were Shirley Temples. Under the table, geisha did compete with courtesans and licensed prostitutes, which is why the feudal government had to issue edicts continually demanding that geisha keep their proper place. Their job as gei-sha, literally artistes, was to entertain the courtesans and their clients as singers, dancers, and providers of sociable banter. Geisha were not supposed to make arrangements to meet clients for sex on their own, although clearly many of them did—otherwise there would have been no need for the barrage of edicts. In the end, however, sex with a geisha has seldom been a straightforward, purely economic exchange, and I would venture to guess that this was part of its appeal. Under historical conditions in which marriages were arranged for family considerations, while prostitutes (ranging up to the rank of courtesan) were available for purchase, geisha offered the possibility of that rarest of commodities, romance.

From the 1860s through 1900, Europeans and Americans discovered Japan largely through the medium of woodblock prints. In 1863, Massachusetts-born artist James McNeill Whistler was smitten by Japanese prints in London. He painted several portraits of his mistress swathed in kimono surrounded by japonaiserie. The same year, in Paris, Edmond and Louis Goncourt were fascinated by their acquisition of an album of shunga erotic prints. Throughout artsy international circles, les choses japonaises were the hot new thing. Japanese prints circulating abroad included landscapes, birds and flowers, and historical themes, but by far the most influential on contemporary western culture were the bijin-ga, pictures of beautiful women. It is true that some of the beautiful women were in fact geisha. But many others were tayû+ and oiran—the authentic courtesan queens among the licensed prostitutes. Still others were merchants’ wives, and even servants. All were wearing kimono and sporting elaborate hairdos. To western eyes, they all appeared equally exotic, and they all came to be referred to as geisha. Among nineteenth and twentieth century collectables is a category of painted porcelain that includes sugar bowls and cream pitchers, salt and pepper shakers and vases, as a genre defined by pictures of ladies wearing kimono. No matter what sort of lady she might be, this kind of porcelain is generically called ‘geisha-ware.’

During the century and a half since westerners first discovered the Japanese floating world and its pictures, the images in ukiyo-e have become familiar to the point of parody. To a western eye, there may be a sameness to all those kimonoed figures, but the artists’ goal was to highlight their exquisite diversity. Nuances of kimono, hair, and pose depict the fashions of the Japanese demimonde of the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. This was the world that hatched the profession of the geisha, but within it, geisha themselves were but one type of inhabitant. The way to recognize a geisha in many prints is to look for the more plainly attired figure next to a fabulously decorated courtesan who wears layer upon layer of gold-embroidered collars and forests of tortoiseshell combs in her hair.

The classic icon of the geisha—the trailing black kimono, whitened face, and oiled Shimada hairstyle, an image that appears ornate and mysterious next to modern styles of kimono and makeup—is actually the vestige of a style that was meant to be plain. In contrast to the finery of the professional courtesan in whose world geisha worked as entertainers, indeed their appearance was relatively simple. This was in part because under the law, geisha were not supposed to compete with the courtesans in looks or in enticing customers.

James McNeill Whistler, 1864

La Princesse du pays de porcelaine

geishaware teapot

courtesan (above)

geisha (below)

geisha

courtesan