For most of her history the geisha has been misunderstood by the outside world, namely Western civilization. This is not surprising, however, when one considers the great fundamental differences that evolved between the East and the West. While the West places high value in the individual, the East continues to emphasize the collective as its primary moral obligation. Furthermore, while women of the Western world have fought to shed their “delicate” and “subservient” image in exchange for gender equality, there has always lingered in Japan a traditional structure that greatly polarizes gender roles. Emerging from this culture of traditional Confucian values was the geisha. While some people erroneously mistake her for a prostitute, the fact remains that the geisha’s mystique and beauty have captured the curiosity of everyone searching to discover, “What is geisha, really?”
Although geisha still remain misunderstood by the outside world, it is possible to uncover the mystery of her allure by first understanding that her role in Japanese society is strongly rooted in Confucianism, one of the most influential philosophies in the East. Also, she has developed into a prized symbol of Japanese tradition because much of her work is connected to theatre and the arts, which suggests she is highly refined and educated. Finally, to the same extent that the beauty of the geisha lies in philosophy and the arts, it also lies in a more obvious place—her original, trademark style. It serves to distinguish her as the highest standard of grace, elegance and perfection throughout Japan.
Going back to its origin, Confucianism is a philosophy aiming to create a harmonious society on earth. The foundation of Confucianism was that correct behavior would bring order and that the correct way for individuals to behave depended on their position in a hierarchical order that strongly emphasized subordinating women to men. (Bingham 1987: 31 – 32). This structure began to take root in Japan’s feudal period when the ruling class imposed a strict Confucian ethic. Part of this ethic required women to follow the Confucian rule of three obediences: “as a daughter, obey the father; as a wife, obey the husband; and, as a mother, obey the son” (Matsui 1995: 315). Women were, in a sense, regarded as breeding machines— the means by which to produce a son and successor to the head of the family. This view of marriage in which the roles of man and wife are drawn very distinctly, regarded love as an unessential part of the equation. With regard to sex, it was even considered immoral for a married couple to take pleasure in the act (Matsui 1995: 315).
During this feudal period, if women did not fall into the first category of wife they were surely considered to fit into the second category of whore. There simply was no room for a woman to be employed or living independent from her husband, father or son. Although it was thought that this societal structure would be strong enough to suppress forces that opposed the ethical system, a third kind of woman was beginning to carve her own niche into Japanese feudal society and would change it forever. She was the type of woman that had the unique ability to bridge the deep divide between the sexes: she was a “geisha.” Her profession created an exception to the strict rules of the Japanese moral code by giving occasion for men and women to meet together in an informal setting.
There are many theories about the exact origin of geisha. To some degree they all conflict with each other; however, in many ways they also tend to overlap. These theories may represent geisha as the symbol of elegant slavery, as a distinct artist, as a bridge between the worlds of men and women, or as an independent businesswoman. This variation merely suggests the complexity of the geisha’s role in Japanese cultural development (Bingham 1995: 110). Vital to understanding the development of geisha as a symbol of beauty are the theories of the geisha as an artist and as the bridge between men and women. Both of these theories see the arrival of the geisha in Japan as resulting from the influence of Chinese tradition in which women entertain official visitors as public hostesses with their graciousness, artful skill and beauty (Bingham 1995: 113).
When this tradition developed in Japan the first geisha were not women but men dressed as women. This sprang from the belief that men were superior comedians and musicians but it was also a result of the Confucian ethics of separation. However, in 1751 some customers were surprised when a female drum bearer pranced into their party. A few years later similar female entertainers began to appear. They were called onna geisha, or female geisha to specify their sex. By 1780, female geisha began to take over the field and outnumbered the men. Then customers began to say otoko geisha when they meant to speak of male geisha since they were now the minority. By 1800, the term geisha began to be a reference, unmodified, to a woman in this profession (Dalby 1983: 56).
This transfer of the geisha role from men over to women was an important turning point in Japanese society. Although there does not exist an exact reason for why the Confucian ethic of separation crumbled so easily in the face of these female entertainers, one could rightly assume that it was a simple matter of supply and demand. In other words, female geisha had the ability to fill a social void in men that was left by their wives. She embodied all the aspects of femininity that were absent from the role of wife. “Where a wife is modest, a geisha is risqué. A wife is socially reticent; a geisha is witty and talkative. If a wife lacks romance or sensuous appeal, a geisha, whether she sleeps with a man or not, has a certain sexual allure that can be an object of fantasy” (Dalby 1983: 171). None of this, however, should suggest that geisha were a replacement to the wife. Rather, the roles of geisha and wife functioned in a complementary fashion. Marriages were always arranged and functioned primarily as political alliances between families, so love and companionship were not considered part of the union (Liddell 1989: 212). This notion of companionship with a graceful and sensuous woman was precisely what men needed. And, now if they did not find these qualities in their wives, they could easily find them in the geisha.