Japanese Entertainment: The history of Geisha

Over the years, many Japanese traditions have evolved, including that of the geisha; a piece of Japanese culture that exemplifies just how much influences from all areas of history and society can alter a long-held tradition. Geisha are Japanese women who entertain through the performance of ancient skills such as art, dance and signing. Characterised in appearance by distinctive Japanese costumes and makeup, the signature style is instantly recognisable. With many stages to the training of becoming a geisha and the levels of accomplishment thereafter, there is more than meets the eye to this iconic part of Japanese culture. Let’s take a look at the history of geisha and how its traditions have changed over time.

Early origins

In early Japanese history, female entertainers were often girls whose families were displaced during the struggles of the early 600s. Whilst Saburuko girls sold sexual services, others with a higher level of education made their living by entertaining at high-class social gatherings, initiating the start of geisha culture.

As this new culture grew, so did the emergence of beauty-focused, elite female performers.

‘Tayuu’ would entertain both as an actress and a prostitute during the 16th century. This early geisha performed dances and skits, a new form of Japanese art dubbed as ‘kabuku’ which meant ‘to be wild and outrageous’. These dances and acts were also the beginning of Kabuki theatre, a classical Japanese dance-drama that features dance and elaborate looks similar to that of the geisha.

Emergence of the geisha

Near the turn of the 18th-century, the first geisha began to appear. The first recordings were males who entertained customers waiting to see the most popular and gifted courtesans. It wasn’t until after 1760 that female geisha become more known and worked in the same establishments as male geisha after first performing as ‘dancing girls’ from a young age in the private homes of the upper-class samurai.

Rise of the culture

By 1800, being a geisha was considered a female occupation and as time evolved so did the style of dress, which would soon be emulated by fashionable women throughout society. The many different ranks and classifications of geisha meant that whilst some still chose to have engagements with male customers, others were strictly seen for their performance of traditional art forms.

Highly accomplished geisha began to offer an even more unique style of entertainment during the 18th century. Many courtesans entertained their clients by singing, dancing and playing music, with the exception of some renowned poets and calligraphers.

The popularity continually grew until World War II. The war brought a huge decline in the arts, meaning most of the women were forced to work in factories or elsewhere. The geisha lost its name and status during this time as many prostitutes began to refer to themselves as geisha girls to American military men. In 1944, geisha tea houses, bars and homes were forced to close. Within a year they were allowed to re-open, but with only a few women returning to the areas that were once at the heart of geisha culture, it was decided that as much of the custom and culture linked to the geisha name as possible would be preserved by rejecting Western influences and reverting back to the traditional standards of the profession.

Modern influence

Modern geisha still live on in traditional houses called ‘okiya’, where they spend their time in training as young apprentices, though the number of women taking on the role is continually in decline. New rules mean that girls must go to school until they are 15 before they can make the choice to train to become a geisha; a contradiction of traditional training methods where girls began training when they were around the age of six. However, they can still study and practice traditional Japanese instruments, songs, calligraphy, dances, tea ceremonies, literature and poetry to have the skills needed to perform in the future. In modern Japan, geisha and their apprentices are now a rare sight outside of the tea house and entertainment district, with the most common place to see their influence being that of tourists paying a fee to be dressed up as one.

There is a lot to learn about this culture, history, and its continual transformation. The performance and lifestyle of the geisha will always remain a tradition of Japan with the efforts to increase the numbers of geisha being something of a priority. For many people, this ancient form of entertainment is one that should remain extraordinary, not just a tourist attraction.

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