geisha and sex

Do they or don’t they?

From Japanese Eyes

The question always comes up...just how ‘available’ is a geisha? Could it be that despite all the talk of art, a geisha really is the world’s most expensive prostitute? Do they really auction their virginity to the highest bidder (as portrayed in Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, and vehemently denied by Mineko Iwasaki author of the autobiographical 

Geisha, A Life?)

   There is no simple answer. People want to know if sexual favors are part of the job of being a geisha. The best answer is they are and they aren’t. Geisha regularly have affairs with married men, and can form other sexual liaisons at their own discretion. They do not marry, but they often have children by a patron, or a lover.

   That said, geisha are paid for their company, not for sex. They derive their actual livelihood from singing, dancing, and chatting with men at banquets. In order to polish their art, they devote much of their private time to lessons in traditional forms of music and dance. They must dress in kimono for work, although not always the full formal geisha costume. If a geisha accepts a man as her patron (danna) he is expected to shell out a large amount of money for the privilege of sponsoring her performances, wardrobe, and lifestyle.

   There is no doubt that coerced sex and bidding on a new geisha’s virginity occurred in the period before WWII, the setting of Arthur Golden’s novel. After Japan lost the war, geisha dispersed and the profession was in shambles. When they regrouped during the Occupation and began to flourish in the 1960s during Japan’s postwar economic boom, the geisha world had changed. In modern Japan, girls are not sold into indentured service, nor are they coerced into sexual relations. Nowadays, a geisha’s sex life is her private affair.

As Japanese women, the most important social fact about geisha is that they are not wives. Geisha and wives are mutually exclusive categories because of the way women’s roles have traditionally been defined in Japan. Wives have always controlled the private sphere of the home and children, while the profession of geisha, for all its exclusivity, came into existence in a space separate both from the private world of the home and the public one of business. Geisha inhabit a space where men get together on neutral territory to socialize. Although geisha are by no means the only women who serve this function—they are outnumbered a-thousand-to-one by bar hostesses in Japan today—this is still one of the two reasons the profession still exists. 

 Geisha dwell in the most exclusive reaches of Japan’s mizu shōbai, the ‘water business’ of bars, clubs, and entertainment. What differentiates a geisha from a bar hostess, waitress, dancer, call girl, escort, and other women of the mizu shōbai, is her gei, or art. Gei is the other reason geisha continue to exist today.

   As early as the beginning of the twentieth century geisha began to see that their profession had to change and adapt to new circumstances. The feudal regime under which they had come into being two hundred years earlier was gone. Individually, geisha could no longer count on the largesse of a single wealthy patron to finance their arts. So instead, they gradually went public in a conscious attempt to interest the larger society in their artistic activities. Eventually, the different geisha communities came to present lavish public performances of traditional music, dance, and theater several times a year. Like the ‘dynasties’ of contemporary Kabuki actors, geisha have come to be recognized in Japan as an expertly trained cadre devoted to the traditional performing arts. Their gei has been transformed into their professional salvation. Since the Japanese are extremely proud of their artistic heritage, geisha have found their niche as curators of highly esteemed genres of music and dance.