Japan's geisha and the unfortunate image of sex workers

Japans geisha and the unfortunate image of sex workers
Japan's geisha and the unfortunate image of sex workers. imago/ZUMA Press
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Norie has just completed her morning dance practice and is in a hurry as she gets ready for her next class. The whole of Tokyo's Asakusa geisha district is similarly in preparation for the Asakusa Odori Dance, a major event that is held once every seven years and will take place in October.

There will be traditional geisha dancing, music and a lot of parties where Norie and her colleagues will pour their patrons' drinks, perform skits, tell jokes and be witty and flattering.

But before the fun can begin, the training is arduous, she admits. "We really are very busy right now because this is such a big event on our calendar and we have to be perfect," she told DW. "And even though I joined my geisha house more than 20 years ago, a geisha never stops learning."

The word geisha is made up of two "kanji" characters; "gei" means art and "sha" means person. In Kyoto, the traditional term is "geiko," which translates as "woman of art."

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Educated young women

Japan's famous female entertainers can trace their roots back to the late 600s, when educated young women earned a living by entertaining patrons at social gatherings. Women who were talented at dancing, singing or musical instruments were in high demand among the elite in society.

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They were a very different class of entertainers to the prostitutes who were also working in the "pleasure districts" of Japan's emerging cities.

In truth, while modern-day Japan bears little resemblance to the country in the 18th century, the women who choose to become geisha are entering a sisterhood that sticks closely to its traditions.

"In their heyday, in the 1920s and 1930s, there were 80,000 geisha in towns and cities across Japan, but now there are a mere 800 in 47 officially recognized districts," said Peter Macintosh, a Canadian author and expert on geisha culture who moved to Kyoto in 1993.

"Up until the outbreak of the World War II, women in Japan had very few options in terms of a career and they could either become a servant, a prostitute, a geisha or get married," he told DW. "But the war created factory jobs and women started to earn money and became more independent."

"But the traditional geisha districts were hit even harder in the 1980s, the peak of Japan's economic bubble, and when karaoke bars started opening, along with hostess clubs and other forms of instant entertainment," he added.

Macintosh said that the geisha world has adapted and is stable again now. "One of the biggest changes that we have seen in the last 10 years or so is the number of women who are choosing to visit a geisha house to be entertained in a very traditional way. Previously, only men who would go there, but young Japanese women now have good jobs, a good income and they will spend their money on whatever they want."

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Empowered role models

"And for some of them, they want to spend time among women who are talented and skilled, but also empowered by their jobs and roles, meaning they are almost role models," the Geisha expert added.

The Gion district of Kyoto is one of the largest geisha districts in the country. Most evenings, "geiko" and apprentices, known as "maiko," can be seen clip-clopping down the narrow paved lanes of the district in their wooden "geta" sandals and their finest kimono on their way to tea houses or restaurants where they will perform.

They wear elaborate and perfectly coiffed wigs with delicate ornaments that shimmer as they catch the light. Geisha wear the traditional pure white makeup but show their individuality through the shades of pink or red makeup that they use to highlight their eyes and their lips.

"Typically, girls will become an apprentice when they are 15 and they have to study for many years before they are able to make the step up," Macintosh said. "The oldest geiko that I know in Kyoto is 86 and they will always tell you that they still go to their dance or music classes every day 'because we never stop learning.'"

Naomi Mano, who operates an event management company in Kyoto that includes evenings in the company of geiko, says the women who choose this career are respected in Japanese society.

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Skilled professionals

"They are professional and deeply skilled professionals and the misconception that they are in some way involved in the sex industry is a very unfortunate image that spread internationally after the war," Mano told DW. "The term 'geisha girls' was slang among the occupation troops for prostitutes, but any true geisha would be horrified if a man offered her money to spend the night together."

Yet Norie says the geisha world is still under pressure in modern-day Japan.

"When I started in Asakusa, there were maybe 60 geisha, but we are down to 20 now and there are only four restaurants in the district where we can perform," she said. "In the old days, wealthy executives would come to Asakusa, but companies don't spend as much as they used to on entertainment and young businessmen do not seem to want to meet geisha any more."

"Things are changing, but I am sure we will be able to find a way to keep our culture alive," she said.

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