Playing the Geisha Game in Present-Day Japan!

  Boyé Lafayette De Mente

 TOKYO–During the 1600s in Edo (Tokyo) a special class of women entertainers who were skilled at playing the shamisen, singing, and dancing gradually came to be known as geisha (gay-ee-shah). Famous courtesans in Japan’s numerous red-light districts regularly hired geisha to help them entertain their high profile customers.


   The geisha also performed for private parties in inns and restaurants. As the decades of the Edo era (1603-1868) passed, their training became more formalized and strict, and the profession grew in stature.


   Although geisha did not work as prostitutes it became customary for them to form intimate liaisons with affluent men who patronized them regularly and treated them more or less as mistresses.


     With the deterioration of the licensed gay quarters following the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867, the social status of prostitutes began to drop and that of the geisha to rise. Their training was expanded to include lessons in etiquette, grace, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, and in how to be stimulating conversationalists, making them among the most accomplished women in the country.


   Within a few decades the position of prostitutes and geisha had completed reversed. Geisha were the most elite of public women, and prostitutes the lowest. Wealthy businessmen and high-ranking politicians began to vie with each other to make the most famous geisha their mistresses.


   It was, in fact, common for men of wealth and power to marry their geisha mistresses, with one notable example being Hirobumi Ito (1841-1909), who played a key role in the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 1860s, became the chief architect of Japan’s first constitution, and served as prime minister four times.


   Since Japanese wives did not participate directly or publicly with men in business or in politics, and therefore could not act as hostesses for their husbands or other men, geisha came to perform this valuable function, dressing up meetings and making sure things ran smoothly.


     As late as the 1950s, Tokyo alone had over a dozen large so-called geisha districts, which consisted of clusters of ryotei (rio-tay) or inn-restaurantsthat called in geisha to serve their customers. The services of the geisha were so costly that only wealthy businessmen and high-ranking politicians and government bureaucrats could afford to patronize them.


   Then the rapid transformation of Japan into an economic super power from the 1950s to the 1970s saw the equally rapid rise of thousands of cabarets and night clubs that featured hostesses as drinking, dancing and conversational companions, with fees far below what geisha inns charged.


   The more attractive the hostesses, and the more skilled they were in entertaining men, the more they could earn. This naturally attracted some of the most beautiful and socially talented young women in the country. Hundreds if not thousands of these remarkable women became millionaires. Like the geisha of an early day, many of them married well. One married the then president of Indonesia, Sukarno, and became an international celebrity.


     The reign of the huge businessmen-oriented hostess cabarets and nightclubs ended in the late 1980s when Japan’s economic bubble begin to deflate. The geisha survived the economic fallout but they remained on the fringe of Japan’s entertainment world. In Kyoto, in particular, there are well-known geisha districts, with many of the women in the trade being third and fourth generation geisha.


   In the evenings in Tokyo’s Akasaka district, which borders the country’s government center, one can still see geisha being delivered to ryotei and ryokan in rickshaws pulled by men wearing traditional Edo age garb.

   Most geisha now voluntarily enter the profession when they are in their late teens. Their training is less formal and less comprehensive—often as little as a few weeks, as opposed to years in earlier times.


     But today’s instant geisha are just as fascinating, just as entertaining, if not more so, than their predecessors. And they are almost always more attractive because today their popularity and success is more dependent upon their looks.



Boyé Lafayette De Mente has been involved with Asia since the late 1940s as a member of a U.S. intelligence agency, journalist and editor. He is a graduate of Jōchi University in Tokyo, Japan and Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, USA. In addition to books on the business practices, social behavior and languages of China, Japan, Korea and Mexico he has written extensively about the moral collapse of the U.S. along with books on his home state of Arizona. To see a full list of his books go to: Recent books include: CHINA Understanding & Dealing with the Chinese Way of Doing Business; JAPAN Understanding & Dealing with the NEW Japanese Way of Doing Business; AMERICA’S FAMOUS HOPI INDIANS; ARIZONA’S LORDS OF THE LAND [the Navajos] and SPEAK JAPANESE TODAY – A Little Language Goes a Long Way!