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Many news stories and plenty of ensuing comments about geishas have people making a strong point that geishas are not prostitutes.

However, the wikipedia article makes a meal out of the topic and makes various claims.

From the past:

  • The highest yūjo class was the Geisha's predecessor, called "Oiran", a combination of actress and prostitute
  • The geisha who worked within the pleasure quarters were essentially imprisoned and strictly forbidden to sell sex in order to protect the business of the Oiran. While licensed courtesans existed to meet men's sexual needs, machi geisha carved out a separate niche as artists and erudite female companions
  • Some women would have sex with their male customers, whereas others would entertain strictly with their art forms

And currently:

  • Before the war, a maiko's virginity would be auctioned (the original "mizuage") this was outlawed in 1959, but has been reported as relatively normal in the 1990s, and happening "on a limited basis" in 2001 (this doesn't sound like it died out to me)
  • At the opposite end of the spectrum are the hot-spring geisha. These geisha work in the spa resorts and are viewed by most Japanese as no better than a common prostitute. They normally cater to far less exclusive patrons, and are much less expensive. If their income is supplemented by selling sex, they remain distinct from regular prostitutes; like all geisha, they are trained in the art of Japanese dance and music. (are they still considered geisha?)
  • There remains some confusion about the nature of the geisha profession. Geisha are regarded as prostitutes by many non-Japanese. However, legitimate geisha do not engage in paid sex with clients.
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I've also heard that it's uncommon to get sexual services from the many nice ladies in the massage industry. –  Randolf Richardson Jun 6 '11 at 16:54
    
The Wikipedia article also says: Geisha are regarded as prostitutes by many non-Japanese. However, legitimate geisha do not engage in paid sex with clients. Their purpose is to entertain their customer, be it by dancing, reciting verse, playing musical instruments, or engaging in light conversation. Geisha engagements may include flirting with men and playful innuendos; however, clients know that nothing more can be expected. In a social style that is common in Japan, men are amused by the illusion of that which is never to be. [accompanied by citations] –  Robert Harvey Jun 14 '11 at 3:11
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That would fit official description of an escort. But official description is not a proof. –  vartec Jul 4 '11 at 16:54
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I'm not clear if you're asking about prostitution among Geishas right now, or prostitution among Geishas generally, like the geisha figure in history? Shouldn't you specify in the title and the question? –  Duralumin Dec 14 '12 at 10:42
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@AndrewGrimm I have, but most of it was related to other topics, I did get some more relevant books on the topic that are on my to read pile though. I haven't forgot about this question. ;) –  rjzii Feb 23 at 0:19

1 Answer 1

TL;DR: There is a basis of fact in claims that sex existed in the geisha world. However, it is not always the case.

Geishas are trained in a variety of art forms ("Geisha" literally means "Artist") that prostitutes would not be trained in. So in that sense, geishas are not prostitutes.

But is sex a part of their work?

Wikipedia is a tertiary source, often edited by people with widely diverging views, who insert claims that fit into their opinions on the subject. As a result, some parts of an article are not entirely consistent with other parts.

However, in the case of geishas, the variety of claims is not the result of Wikipedia having a poor editorial process. Even secondary sources written by a single author, such as Liza Dalby's "Geisha", say that it is a complex issue.

In Geisha, Dalby mentions in a number of places a variety of factors that can influence whether sex is involved in being a geisha. This includes the time period you are examining, whether you're looking at geishas who live in major cities versus onsen town geishas, and even which geishas districts you are in for a given city.

It's stated that the role of sex varies between geisha districts (hanamachi) on page 6:

Midori's natural mother was a retired geisha in the nearby area of Miyagawa-chō, one of the six recognized geisha communities (hanamachi) in Kyoto. Why didn't Midori become a geisha there? I wondered. This was the sort of thing one could not inquire about directly but about which my okāsan, ex-geisha, mistress of an elegant inn, and pillar of the Pontochō community, could enlighten me as we had tea in the afternoon or snacks late at night after a party at her establishment, the Mitsuba.

"You're making a study of this, Kikuko," she said, using my ordinary and familiar Japanese name, "so you should know about Miyagawa-chō. There's a word called 'double registration' - that's what many of the geisha in areas like that are. You can call them geisha if you like, but they do a bit more than dance for the customers."

[Notes section] "Double registration" (nimae kansatsu) dates from the days when prostitution was legal in Japan. Prostitutes had to be licensed as such, and geisha were licensed as geisha. A woman could not hold both licenses, so double registration became the derogatory description for a geisha who slept around.

It's stated that the role of sex has varied over time. On page 116:

Sex undoubtedly used to be simpler in the geisha world. A maiko was a maiden, and her sexual initiation was part of becoming a full geisha. Ordinary girls put aside their swinging sleeve kimonos when they married; maiko put aside theirs when they graduated into geisha. In both cases, adulthood presumed sexual experience. A virgin geisha would have been as odd as a virgin wife. Now, however, freedom of choice has muddled these once straightforward categories. I know a maiko who has stolen away to meet her young boyfriend in one of the hotels that offer special day rates. On the other hand, Ichiume and Ichiteru passed into geishahood with maidenheads intact.

Geisha generally know more about sex than housewives do, but a man who thinks of a geisha's gei [art] as rampant eroticism will be disappointed. Even in the long-gone era of licensed [pleasure] quarters, geisha were not the foremost sexual adepts. The appeal of a romantic entanglement with a geisha has always embraced more than sex. [Words in square brackets added]

On pages leading up to the following quote, there was the description of the host of a geisha event helpfully describing mizuage to Dalby. Dalby's matter-of-fact description of how older geishas feel about the topic makes it seem like someone describing reality, rather than feeding the reader's preconceptions back to them:

"What about now?" I asked, seeing this as a chance to find out more about sex in the geisha world - a topic that geisha are understandably touchy about. "It's all changed now," said the okaasan. "There's no mizu-age ceremony any more, with or without eggs. All the maiko have been through junior high school, so they aren't as ignorant as we were - right, Ichiume? They pretty much pick their own boyfriends and patrons when they're ready. That's not the same as mizu-age."

I sensed a faint embarrassment in a few of the older geisha as the curious young ones listened. Today geisha and women in general have more control over their sexuality. Older geisha automatically say how wonderful it is that their daughters do not have to submit to mizu-age. Yet this means that their own experiences, far from being a useful guide to the younger women, are dismissed as "feudalistic" - a term used in Japanese not only in a political sense, but also to refer to any practice considered passe, unenlightened, or simply unfashionable. I often found that the older geisha spoke more freely about sex when the young women were not present.

Liza Dalby's okāsan was a genuine geisha. She wasn't a prostitute who put on a kimono and pretended to be a geisha. She's as real as real can get, and probably as prestigious and up-market as any.

On page 173, Dalby talks about onsen geisha. To answer the question "Are they still considered geisha?", Dalby says they are, but that combining different categories of geisha is ludicrous. Before the quoted section, she talks about some derogatory terms for geishas, including "Korobi" (roll-over) geisha and "Daruma" geisha (named after Daruma dolls, which go horizontal very easily).

The more I found out about the geisha world, literally the world of flowers and willows, the more diverse it appeared. But soon I understood one thing. The common misunderstandings and arguments about the connection between geisha and prostitution springs from an indiscriminate collapsing of categories of geisha. Whereas in one sense we may speak of a Kyoto apprentice and an onsen geisha in the same breath as part of Japan's living geisha tradition, in another sense combining them at all is ludicrous. When I began my detailed look into the various characteristics that differentiate geisha - the part of the country where they work, the prestige of their particular hamamachi, their ages and so on - it became clear that I was dealing with a very complicated phenomenon indeed, and that making an easy general statement about "the geisha" would inevitably be misleading.

When stating that variations exist over time, or between different geisha districts, my intention is not to say that sex always exists in some circumstances, and never in others, but merely that it is a complex issue.

The book "Autobiography of a Geisha" (not related to the book "Memoirs of a Geisha") provides a first-hand account of someone who was a geisha for part of her life. She had to do sex as part of being a geisha. I have not read the book yet, but a couple of reviews of the book note that she underwent mizuage a total of five times, even though it's supposed to only happen once. This review notes that she learnt several geisha arts, such as dance, song, shamisen, and song, so she wasn't just a prostitute pretending to be a geisha.

As a counter-example based on personal experience, I had dinner with two geishas, plus a translator, in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima prefecture. They did not have sex with me. Instead, the geishas performed two dances (one for me, a guy, and one for my translator, who was female), played a variety of ozashiki asobi (geisha games) with me and the translator, and talked a lot. A further description is available on Travel Stack Exchange, and on lang-8.com.

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