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The History of Geishas in Japan

by Jack Guy

Feb 17, 2020

ID 137988102 © Shuo Wang | Dreamstime.com

Destinations / Asia

In some quarters, the term geisha has been twisted to become synonymous with call girls or prostitutes, but that is historically incorrect.

 

A literal translation of the word geisha is “artist,” and that is what they started as. While most modern geisha are women, the first were men. At the start of the 18th century, geisha were known as entertainers who would provide a kind of warm-up act before the main event at upper-class parties.

 

By the 1750s, women were increasingly joining the ranks. They would dance for the crowd, but it was illegal for them to sell sex. However, by the 19th century some geisha were known for selling their bodies, and sometimes auctions of young geishas’ virginity would take place.

 

This continued until World War II, when many entertainers had to find alternative employment. When U.S. soldiers occupied Japan after the war, they were often offered sex by prostitutes calling themselves “geisha girls,” contributing to the Western misunderstanding of the profession.

 

These days the few remaining geisha still learn traditional songs, games and poetry, and make a living as hostesses at parties. Tourism has also provided an income stream especially in places such as Kyoto, where tourists will pay to dress as a geisha for a day.

 

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