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
an evening, entertainers were called in to sing, dance and tell jokes for the "courtesans" and their guests.


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
registered separately from prostitutes. They were restricted in the materials of their dress and the number of hairpins and combs they could wear. They were not to have sex with customers.


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.

For a complete list of content in the Sex in Japan Issue, read the


©2000 Liza Dalby and Nerve.com

Commentarium (18 Comments)

Mar 22 00 - 4:35pm

yine guzel bir article

Mar 22 00 - 5:46pm

Um, whats with the wierd gender switch thing in the middle of the article. this is shit writing.

Mar 23 00 - 3:24pm

read it again. and think this time.

Mar 26 00 - 6:46pm

Hey VA, you dumbass, didn't you notice that the first geisha were male? That's what with the gender switch. Helloooo!

Personally, I'd like to see more about what it was like to enter the bowels of the geisha's world. Come on, a brief history is fine, but how did you experience affect your work? Was your geisha mother right? Did experience affect perception?

Mar 29 00 - 9:26am

very imformative

Apr 06 00 - 3:18pm

I enjoyed this article wuite a bit, but am also interested in hearing more about the writers personal experience as a Geisha. Perhaps the writer would be so kind as to post a "postscript"?



Apr 06 00 - 5:03pm

Last bastion of feminity.. Give me a break.. Last bastion of female enslavement you freak.. Why must female servitute still be fetishized. It's fucked up.. And if you really think those women aren't enlaved just remember who has the money and who has the power and then tell me again how beautifully romantic the whole thing is. Fucking bullshit.

Apr 07 00 - 8:09pm

this was a great article because i am reading Memoirs of a Geisha. ever heard of it? excellent book and this article explains a lot

Apr 22 00 - 10:05am

is very good

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Apr 22 00 - 1:33pm

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May 09 00 - 12:56am

After viewing your documentray piece on television, I was prompted to do an internet search for more information on the mysterious (at least to we Westerners) Geisha.

I was pleased to see your website, and encourage your website developer to include more pictures, especially of elegant kimonos.

I would like to know if the Geisha style kimono and accessories are available for purchase yet, here in the U.S.?



Jan 03 02 - 12:48am

had a lot sex with geisha girl went i was in serve

May 05 02 - 10:04am

I'm reading Geisha for the 2nd time. Working as a Japanese lounge hostess in Malaysia 10 yrs ago, as well as being a gf to a married Japanese man, little did I know I was living in an ambience parallel to geishadom. Although geisha is not the straight precursor of lounge hostess, it's interesting that we entertained the same egoistic Japanese men with certain similar ways - rock-scissors-paper game and other chidish amusements. Lastly, I'm looking forward for Spielberg's movie, which is based on Arthur Golden's novel. satreelex70@hotmail.com

May 26 02 - 3:56am

I'm very grateful for this article about the Geisha. It presents a very clear picture of how Geishas came about and defines clearly the nature of their profession. Sincerely hope to read more about the Geisha in Japanese too... however, there doesn't seem to be any book written in Japanese that is solely devoted to the Geisha... ^_^

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