Even today, you can see Japanese traditions as they were in ancient times by visiting regions such as Kyoto. The unique scenery of geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) entertaining clients is so beautiful that not only men, but even women fall in love with them.
This is because they are professionals. Drinking sake while listening to them play instruments such as the Japanese harp is surely a delightful experience. Although these women earn money through prostitution, their origins are not shared with yūjo. Yūjo were born in the mid Heian period and are the equivalent of what we call prostitutes today. Geisha, on the other hand come from Chinese culture.
By the way, if you spend some time watching movies and reading manga, you can spot some scenes where Westerners talk about their impressions of Japan, often citing words like “sukiyaki,” “banzai,” and “geisha.” The “geisha” they refer to are the same geisha and maiko known throughout Japan.
Why is it that Westerners use geisha to characterize Japan? The answer is that they are stunned by the geisha’s (or prostitutes’) mastery of music and dance. That strong impression is often cited as the cause behind geisha becoming known as a uniquely Japanese culture.
Where, then, do the roots of geisha lie?
Their origin is China
Before gijo (a term that collectively refers to all types of geisha, maiko, etc.) appeared in Japan, gijo culture had already been born across the ocean in China.
Under Taoism, a religion practiced in China, sex and health are closely linked concepts. During the Tang dynasty, scholar-bureaucrats founded the Royal Academy as a place to practice Taoism as well as to teach music and dance to gijo.
In addition to sex, Taoism also prized the arts. Therefore, women of the Royal Academy also became skilled at poetry, the Japanese harp, alcohol, etc. in order to entertain and charm men.
Gijo known as kisaeng were also present in Korea. These women combined the arts and prostitution to charm men in the same way as their Chinese equivalents. In ancient Korea, plain prostitutes who did not perform the arts were known as karpo.
The gijo culture in Japan
In the 8th century, during the reign of Empress Genshō, the culture of the Royal Academy found its way to Japan. In Japan’s case, the academy was established inside of the imperial palace and called the Training Center of Entertaining Girls.
This was Japan’s first piece of gijo culture.
One difference between China and Japan with respect to this training center was that, for Japan, the center could be established within the imperial palace. This was because there was already a custom of members of the imperial court having sex with ordinary women, so there was no need to build the center outside of the palace walls.
Depictions of outside sexual activities can be seen in classic literature such as The Tale of Genji and Yoru no Nezame.
Why Westerners are intrigued
It is said that Westerners find the concept prostitutes adept at the arts to be fascinating.
In the West, music and other performance arts were considered as activities performed under the authority of Christianity. In other words, there is a more than slight correlation between music and religion.
In addition, Christian morals also dictate that sex is bad. This leads to an inevitable feeling of strangeness when they see that a prostitute who has sex for a living is also performing music, an art associated with God.
East Asia and the West have completely different value systems with respect to prostitution. It is said that clubs which forgo elements of entertainment and offer purely sexual services, such as modern-day soaplands and fashion health, stem from a Western view on prostitution. Sex cultures incorporating the entertainment of customers, though, have also continued to be a common fixture of Japan, and have transformed into high-class hostesses, etc.
You can see that, although the origins of maiko and geisha are not unique to Japan, the roots of these professions lie in extremely ancient times, and the culture that has been accumulated in Japan should continue to be cherished.