The history of the Geisha - perhaps the world's first emancipated women [Part I]

Geisha with a red oil-paper umbrella

What do you think if you hear ‘Geisha’ – does a certain image manifest itself in your mind's eye?! Usually it is unfortunately a stereotype - I'm sure you're not alone.In contrast to the most imaginations of the prior exercise, Geishas are very well trained artists and entertainers. They have mastered casual conversation, music, dance & instruments in any form, as well as the strict etiquette of a tea ceremony, for example. Even today, although their number has decreased, they are still considered the preservers of Japan’s traditions and culture. Their beauty secrets, their clothing style or their etiquette still fascinate and inspire the whole world today.But how did it start with the Geisha and what are the secrets of this inner circle? Let's take a closer look at this and at least immerse ourselves a little in the - but very extensive - story of the Geishas.

There was a time prior the Geishas

Traces of the Geisha, or her precursors, date far back in Japanese history. In the year 600 after Christ the term ‘Saburuko’ was already common. These women were female entertainers, but also maidservants. Due to war and poverty, these often well educated women, were forced to move across the country and to earn their living by entertaining the society at high-calibre social gatherings.

Geishas with traditional oil-paper umbrellas "Wagasa" walking down the streets of Kyoto, Japan

From the year 794 after Christ the so-called Heian period began in Japan: a very splendid, glamorous, warless, but also promiscuous time. During this time, art and culture were able to develop well, and people increasingly enjoyed poems and other luxuries. The face, for example, was powdered and the teeth blackened, called "Ohaguro" (protected from discoloration and at the same time from diseases of the teeth).

Mighty men had enchantingly beautiful and educated court ladies. One of them was called “Ono no Komachi”, who was educated, wrote poems, and where the men first had to prove themselves worthy of her. The story about her beauty is still handed down today - she is regarded as one of the first femme fatale. Legend has it that one of the men who courted her wanted her to spend the night in front of her door for 100 days despite the wind and weather, before she thought she would listen to him - but unfortunately he died on 99 days. As a result, she was driven out and lived as a beggar from then on. Her tragic story fascinates in Japan until today in plays.

The Shirabyōshi dancers also appeared during this period. Shirabyōshi means "white rhythm". The name came from their make-up and the fact that they wore white men's clothes inspired by Shintōismus (Shintō is a Japanese religion). In addition they led Samurai swords and man fan. The make-up already reminded at that time of those who were later associated with the Geishas. To rhythmic music the dancers offered dances and songs. They were all well-educated, could read and write; they were not only dancers and singers, but also talented poets. They were celebrated and known as superstars today. Their music was distinguished by voice, drum and flute. It is said that the Shirabyōshi culture strongly influenced the later Japanese Nō theatre by producing Kusemai - an unorthodox form of dancing that can be found in Nō.

Famous Shirabyōshi dancers of that time were Kamagiku (favourite of Emperor Gotoba in the 12th century); Shizuka Gozen; Giō and Hotoke. And also around these women interesting, but also very dramatic legends entwine themselves. It is a fact that these dancers were able to impress high-ranking men, convince them with charm and skill and even become their companions. Shizuka Gozen, for example, is still known and loved for her passion and courage, so she is still celebrated at various Japanese festivals, her story has been filmed and she has even made it into today's video games. 

After the successful Heian period, Japan's history was followed by a long period of wars for over 200 years. Kyoto, the cradle of culture, burned down several times. In the 16th & 17th century there was finally a time off the wars again: Japan sealed itself off from the outside world for 200 years under a new ruler and thus developed a unique culture. Entertainment and amusement districts sprang up; theatre, dance and street stall spread. A clear class society with hierarchy, strict codes of conduct and obedience to the authorities were important. For women, this time meant obeying their father, then their husband, and when he died, their son. Amusement areas were considered unwelcome and were built away from the big cities or the palace. Yet there were no penalties for any man to seek them out, and it was even quite common. 

To be continued soon!!!

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