shutterstock_266867657

As any visitor to Kyoto will soon notice, geisha are not just historical figures. With some luck, a visitor wandering in the city’s ancient Gion neighborhood may well catch a glimpse of one of these exotic, mysterious women as she moves quickly through the area’s narrow streets, on her way to work. But who are the geisha? What do they do? And in the 21st century, what is their role in society?

Misconceptions about geisha are many, and their history is full of contradictions and confusion. Right from the start, their identities were uncertain: What kind of women were they? Were they entertainers? Servants? Courtesans? Prostitutes? The answers are complex; to show just how complex, let’s note that the first geisha were, in fact, not women at all: the first geisha were men.

The word geisha combines two kanji: gei, meaning “art,” and sha, meaning “person” or “doer.” A geisha, then, is a person who does art: An artist.

shutterstock_88681129

During the Edo period that began around 1603 and continued for more than 250 years, the court system revolved around the samurai class, and those samurai needed to be entertained. Thus, the early Edo saw the development of walled pleasure quarters, or yukaku, in Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo). Dancing, gaming, drinking and legal prostitution were among the offerings, the last supplied by sophisticated courtesans, or oiran, who entertained the samurai aristocracy. The role of entertaining the men while they waited for the oiran fell to entertainers known as geisha – who were exclusively men at that time.

Meanwhile, teenage dancing girls called odoriko, of a lower class, would find themselves unemployed as they grew into adulthood, and many fell into prostitution. Around the mid-1700s some began referring to themselves as geisha, after the male performers. The first was a woman in Fukagawa called Kikuya, a prostitute who was also a skilled singer and shamisen player. Kikuya’s success as a geisha inspired other women to adopt the name, and after two decades, the two forms of geisha, male and female, grew together, the female geisha becoming known for their entertaining skills rather than their sexual favors. Thus, the geisha’s role became distinct from the courtesan’s. Instead, as with the men whose title they adopted, geisha were hired for their expertise as entertainers, for their skill in conversation and for the felicity of their company.

shutterstock_225056125

These new female geisha added something the courtesans had: Great beauty and style. Developed in part from the styles worn in the kabuki theater that developed in Kyoto, by the mid-19th century the distinctive geisha style was being emulated by many fashionable women.

Geisha cut a distinctive figure, with a dramatic style that remains as powerful as it was 200 years ago. Everyone knows what geisha look like, but when one really breaks it down and looks at it piece by piece, it is a remarkable, and very expensive, illusion to maintain: Every hair is pomaded into its proper place; the clothes, elegant silk kimono and exquisitely-tied obi, are of the finest design; and the make-up – that astonishing make-up – is applied with methods that have developed over the centuries, each detail refined to the brushstroke.

But that is just the beautiful package. Young women receive extensive training, serving apprenticeships of several years before becoming full geisha. Known as maiko, these young women learn the arts of conversation, music, calligraphy and ikebana. They are also trained in the many subtleties of the rarified geisha culture, hanamachi (“flower town”), which is complex even by the subtle standards of Japan.

The original geisha also developed a business model that created one of the few arenas where a woman could be a success in what was otherwise a male-dominated society. Thus the geisha operated in a subculture populated almost entirely by women, who ran the businesses, earned the money, organized the unions and lived in a world that was almost entirely devoid of men – except those who came as customers. In a Japan in which women, particularly unmarried women, had no rights or economic power, the hanamachi were a powerful exception.

Maintaining the standards of the geisha was and remains so expensive that, after it’s peak 150 years ago, the geisha gradually declined, almost disappearing entirely during World War II. Ironically, it was the abuse of the term geisha, during the American Occupation – when G.I.s and the prostitutes who served them corrupted the term geisha as “geisha girls” – that prompted women who understood the historic place of geisha to restart the culture.

shutterstock_208337059

Today, even in Kyoto, even in streets full of young female tourists dressed in a simplified geisha style, there are not many real geisha left – probably no more than a few hundred – but their rarity makes them that much more magical. To be able to hear the sound of a geisha quickly moving down a quiet Gion street in her wooden sandals is one of the most satisfying delights to be had in contemporary Japan.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON