In 1974, I went to Japan to interview a number of geisha for my doctoral research in anthropology. I never dreamed that as part of my research I would put on a kimono and join their ranks in Pontocho. Certainly, the idea was not mine — it came from my geisha “mother” who thought I could not write my thesis properly until I had experienced their world from the inside.
Twenty-five years later, I can say with authority that geisha are misunderstood in the West. Being a geisha means learning the gei,or traditional performing arts — singing, dancing and playing theshamisen (a three-stringed instrument). At the same time, geisha must also cultivate an aesthetic of understated feminine sexiness called iki. This sexuality is greatly exaggerated and distorted in Western perceptions of geisha; iki is not submissiveness, nor is it blatant sexuality. It is an elegance that intrigues — an alluring style that reflects a whole philosophy of life. This attitude, deeply ingrained in the self-image of all geisha, extends back to the earliest years of their existence.
Many great cities in seventeenth century Japan had walled enclaves, surrounded by moats and weeping willows, where money could buy anything — the most beautiful women, the kinkiest sex, the most elaborate banquets, the most famous entertainers. The women in these guarded quarters were “playmates” (yuujo) or prostitutes (shougi). The highest ranked ones were called oiran or “great court ladies” (tayuu). These women were dubbed “castle-destroyers” (keisei) because
their sex appeal, like that of the mythical beauties of history, could destroy a man as easily as any army. Somewhat misleadingly, we call them all “courtesans” in English. These courtesans wore layers of ornately decorated kimono and a multitude of lacquer and tortoiseshell combs in their hair. Their wide, brocaded obi were tied in front — not, as some suppose, because it was easier to undress that way, but because that was the practice of married women and a yuujo was, in a sense, a wife for an evening.
If they played wives for the evening, they certainly knew secret tricks a wife would never dream of. They knew how the dessicated tube of a sea cucumber could be rehydrated and squeezed, slippery and nubbly, over a man’s penis like an organic French tickler. They shaved their pubic hair and inserted rinno tama, chiming nested balls, deep into themselves to entertain the man who explored there. With such women, a man could be led to the outer bounds of sexuality with seppun — an advanced form of kissing where the partners placed their open mouths together and alternately inserted and retracted their tongues.
The attraction of the walled quarters was legendary. Every biological and social pleasure was
intensified in a setting removed from the cares and responsibilities of normal life. To set the mood of
These entertainers were male, and they were called geisha.
Everyone remarked when one day a singer was summoned and a woman walked into the room. What a novelty — a female geisha! Perhaps the castle-destroyer narrowed her eyes, but the woman carrying a shamisen was rather plain, after all, and so commonly dressed. Let her sing — she could never compete with the gloriously opulent woman whose specialty was pleasure.
But when the company of female geisha proved popular, the government took pains to ensure that these
newcomers did not upset the carefully constructed hierarchies of the licensed quarters. Geisha were
And within all these social restrictions, geisha developed iki. Compared to the elegant simplicity of a geisha’s dress, the castle-destroyer began to seem overdone. The Japanese aesthetic of understatement was developing during this time and strict sumptuary codes turned necessity into artistic virtue. A nouveau-riche merchant could come to the Yoshiwara and buy the favors of the most expensive courtesan, but a man of taste considered it a greater challenge to win a geisha by his style and wits, as well as his wealth.
Sex with geisha rarely involved a straightforward cash transaction. Nor were geisha specialists in sexual practices — their gei lay in their mastery of traditional genres of dance and music. Geisha inhabited the narrow space between sex with one’s wife for procreation and sex with a specialist prostitute for sheer erotic fun. A man might be able to get a geisha for a mistress, but it would cost more than money. It demandediki on his part as well — geisha have always had a wide degree of choice to whom they grant sexual privileges. And sleeping with a geisha is a much bigger commitment than a one-night stand. Even the men who have the means to throw a geisha party today do not necessarily have the means to support a geisha mistress.
Today, Japan’s walled enclaves are gone and prostitution is now illegal, though easy to find. All manner of eccentric sex is still available, of course, but no Japanese would dream of looking for it with geisha.
Whether there will be a place for geisha in the future largely depends on the current generation of young Japanese wives. These women have been brought up to have more expansive relations with their husbands and are less likely to allow them to consort with women like geisha. The geisha’s domain is narrowing remarkably. Still, it does not appear that they are on the endangered list quite yet. Geisha still survive in modern Japan, largely, I think, because they are the last bastion of the subtle and sensual elegance that is iki.