Geisha: Protectors of Japan’s Traditional Music and Dance

Culture Society History

Geisha has long been one of a handful of iconic words that instantly conjure up images of Japan. Few Japanese today have actually encountered geisha, though; while many have vague images of graceful kimono-clad women who enliven banquets or parties, few know that geisha are professional entertainers who have preserved and passed on shamisen music and contributed to the development of Japanese dance.

Traditional Social Gatherings Fading Away

Foreign readers may not be very familiar with the professional traditional entertainers called geisha, but nowadays it’s not unusual even for older Japanese to be unaware of what geisha actually do. That state of affairs sadly reflects the decline of the profession.

At least until the 1960s, every town, large or small, had traditional restaurants called ryōtei where customers could arrange for parties or banquets. These functions were not simply occasions for enjoying gourmet cuisine; they were also vital as venues for social interaction or business networking, and it was a given that geisha would be hired to assist the host in entertaining his guests.

Geisha in Tokyo’s Akasaka district in the 1960s. (© Jiji)
Geisha in Tokyo’s Akasaka district in the 1960s. (© Jiji)

But things began to change after the 1970s with the passing of the generations born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who had led Japan’s postwar economic revival, and when those born a few decades later, who dreamed of social change, also came into their own. By the 1980s, hotels and nightclubs had increasingly become the venues of choice for banquets and parties, and the geisha districts known as kagai or hanamachi—the areas in which ryōtei were allowed to hire geisha for entertaining—began to fall into decline. The first kagai to wither away were the small areas in regional cities whose geisha had been patronized by local politicians and prominent businessmen, and this took the ryōtei favored by customers frequenting these districts down with them.

Next, in 1993, politicians began to refrain from meeting at ryōtei when the new prime minister, Hosokawa Morihiro, declared an end to the practice for his administration. Business leaders of the generation born in the immediate postwar years, who had risen to prominence by then, took their cue from the political world and followed suit. These changing tastes sounded the death knell for the kagai of Tokyo and other major cities that had flourished for well over a century, marking the start of their decline.

Although times have changed, a handful of kagai redolent of Edo period (1603–1868) culture have managed to survive, and the geisha of those districts dress as they did in their heyday. But with these entertainers having virtually disappeared from the scene, rare is the Japanese man who has had the experience of having a geisha pour drinks for him.

Singers, Dancers, and Intermediaries for Romance

I was tasked with highlighting the role that geisha have played in upholding traditional culture. The first thing that comes to mind is their contribution to preserving and handing down shamisen music and supporting the development of Japanese dance.

The word geisha describes someone who is accomplished and excels at some form of art. That is the origin of the word. Writers of renga or haikai poems, prominent nō actors, kyōgen comic theater performers, and others who made a living in the performing arts were often referred to as geisha. And when Yoshiwara, the licensed pleasure quarters established by the shogunate in 1618, began to flourish, the term began to be used to refer to men who served as go-betweens between the ladies of the quarter and their customers. Art in those days referred to all forms of entertainment, from poetry composition and tea ceremony to flower arrangement, incense appreciation, and more. In particular, popular songs accompanied by shamisen became essential entertainment at banquets, and the main role of geisha was to play the shamisen.

By the mid-eighteenth century, unlicensed prostitutes from outside Yoshiwara had begun taking business away from the women of the Yoshiwara quarter. The Yoshiwara brothel owners, concerned at this turn of events, made the unlicensed prostitutes promise that they would no longer ply their trade. In exchange, they decided to officially recognize and supervise these women as geisha alongside women already working in the system. This is supposedly how the kenban official registry office system, which handles geisha assignments and payments for their services as entertainers, got its start. The number of female geisha grew vigorously, and male geisha started to be called hōkan or taikomochi instead.

A primary role of female geisha during the Edo period was, like that of their male predecessors, to play the shamisen. But another of their jobs was to act as the intermediary, at a customer’s request, to arrange a liaison between the customer and a courtesan, essentially acting as the go-between for an assignation.

Dress Regulations

To differentiate them from the courtesans, the geisha of Yoshiwara followed specific dress rules: they wore a kosode short-sleeved kimono adorned with a crest and with a white collar, in contrast to the red collar worn by courtesans, and an unadorned, woven obi sash tied at the back. They were not allowed to wear the nagajuban, a sort of under-kimono, since it was forbidden to remove their outer garment and display anything underneath to customers. They also had to wear a prescribed hairstyle that resembled that of a youth. These dress regulations gave them a rather neutral appearance, to show that they did not offer sexual services.

Geisha wearing the prescribed dress and hairstyle at a rehearsal before the annual Azuma Odori dance and music performance at the Shinbashi Enbujō in May 2019. The Azuma Odori is a yearly recital where geisha showcase their singing and dancing. (© Jiji)
Geisha wearing the prescribed dress and hairstyle at a rehearsal before the annual Azuma Odori dance and music performance at the Shinbashi Enbujō in May 2019. The Azuma Odori is a yearly recital where geisha showcase their singing and dancing. (© Jiji)

The geisha manner of dress began to be imitated by the increasing number of machi-geisha, as women working out of unofficial pleasure districts like Fukagawa and Yanagibashi were called, and eventually all geisha in Edo came to dress this way. Since the late nineteenth century, the dress has remained much the same, except for wearing luxurious nagajuban and sumptuous obi, and it has become standard formal attire for geisha in Tokyo and the rest of the country.

So far I have been describing the situation in the kagai of the capital. I am not very familiar with the kagai of Kansai and other regions, but except for the fact that prior to the enactment of the Anti-Prostitution Act in 1957, in some prefectures geisha were also openly allowed to offer sexual services in licensed quarters, I believe that they were basically similar to Tokyo’s.

Geisha, or geiko as they are called in the Kansai region, originated in lively districts that developed near major temples or shrines, and kagai banquets in more recent times derive from events rooted in ancient festival-based faith, when geisha made offerings to the gods and sang and danced to attract divine favor.

Ever since the days of male geisha in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters and up until the late nineteenth century, singing and dancing were part of the entertainment in the Tokyo kagai. Once the banquet guests had assembled, geisha would appear and sing seasonally appropriate nagauta, tokiwazu or kiyomoto ditties, accompanied by shamisen tuned in san-sagari mode to create a chic, voluptuous sound. Once the party got into full swing, songs accompanied by the plucked strings of the shamisen, and finally celebratory songs, were performed. This was the standard form of entertainment in the Yanagibashi and Shinbashi kagai since the days of Yoshiwara. Closing out the entertainment were ha-uta (short love songs), or dancing by young apprentice geisha or male dancers. It was rare for geisha to perform dances.

Kagai Produce Living National Treasures

Playing the shamisen had been an essential skill of Tokyo geisha since the Edo period. The performers needed to be proficient not just in the standard nagauta, tokiwazu, and kiyomoto repertoire but also had to master other genres like ha-uta and ko-uta (popular ballads). We may picture geisha singing and playing in front of the assembled guests like they do today. On the contrary, in those days it was the geisha’s job to encourage guests to enjoy themselves singing, so they had to be ready to accompany any songs that the guests might request.

Geisha play an important role in preserving and passing down shamisen music. At a rehearsal for the Azuma Odori, May 2019. (© Jiji)
Geisha play an important role in preserving and passing down shamisen music. At a rehearsal for the Azuma Odori, May 2019. (© Jiji)

The shamisen is said to have come to the main Japanese islands from the kingdom of Ryūkyū between 1558 and 1570, around the time that the daimyō Oda Nobunaga was unifying the country. In Kamigata (the Kyoto and Osaka region), biwa hōshi, blind musicians who played the biwa (lute) or other stringed instruments, began offering entertainment at banquets, playing the koto, a zither-like instrument, or the kokyū, a stringed instrument played with a bow, in ensembles with the shamisen. In Edo, meanwhile, nagauta or jōruri performers who narrated kabuki plays became teachers (iemoto) and their performances became increasingly elaborate with the passage of each successive generation.

At the same time, itchūbushi, katōbushi, and miyazonobushi, styles of jōruri recitation considered outmoded as accompaniments to theater performances, and ogiebushi, a type of nagauta that had been sung at banquets in Yoshiwara and other kagai, both male and female geisha continued to perform these genres, although on a much-reduced scale. These styles of singing survived the political upheavals of the last decades of the nineteenth century, and are still with us today.

The role that wealthy, cultivated patrons called danna played in supporting this art should certainly be mentioned. Geisha, skilled at humoring these self-centered, capricious men, kept generations of them focused on helping to preserve and pass on these esoteric forms of singing. Thanks to the support of danna, two individuals from the Shinbashi kagai—singers of itchūbushi and miyazonobushi, respectively—were designated living national treasures by the government in the 1960s. One more itchūbushi singer, from the Asakusa kagai, was designated a living national treasure in 2007.

In Kansai, meanwhile, it was standard practice for geisha to perform dances at banquets, which they had been doing since the seventeenth century. By the late nineteenth century, the geisha of Gion began appearing in the Miyako Odori dance recital, and other Kyoto geisha also gave dance performances at theaters owned by their kagai. Ryōtei owners in Shinbashi copied this idea in the first decades of the twentieth century, inviting officially approved dance school iemoto to give lessons to the geisha and nurturing those especially talented in dancing to perform at banquets. Female dancers who were former Shinbashi geisha emerged from this system and, thanks to their wealthy business world supporters, were able to present gorgeous performances. These women drove the “new dance” movement that sprang up in the 1910s and thanks to them, dancing, which until then had been viewed as part of kabuki theater, became an independent art called Nihon-buyō, Japanese dance.

Japanese dance would not have developed without geisha. At a rehearsal for the Azuma Odori, May 2019. (© Jiji)
Japanese dance would not have developed without geisha. At a rehearsal for the Azuma Odori, May 2019. (© Jiji)

Geisha Financially Support the Arts

Up until the 1940s at least, various forms of traditional culture were sustained by kagai groups of boosters called renjū, who supported kabuki and other performances in large theaters. Working with Mitsukoshi and other leading kimono drapers of the day, they created increasingly attractive accessories for kimono, which were soon adopted by ordinary women throughout the country. Traditional arts and crafts, which were not recognized as deserving of public preservation efforts until the early decades of the twentieth century, only survived through the financial support of geisha as consumers.

Geisha from Shinbashi add glamour to the opening of the new Kabukiza theater in April 2013. (© Jiji)
Geisha from Shinbashi add glamour to the opening of the new Kabukiza theater in April 2013. (© Jiji)

But as the kagai lost their vitality, overly strong views developed, even among geisha, that their job was simply to sing and dance. The art of conversation, whereby geisha facilitate exchanges between host and guests, and thoughtfulness as a method of communication, are skills that seem to have fallen by the wayside.

It is true that generational change has created a different mindset among guests, and that people have forgotten that kagai banquets are meant to reproduce memories of ancient festivals. Nowadays, they believe that these gatherings are simply for drinking and having a good time. They seem to have forgotten that these banquets were once a stage for serious intellectual repartee—with participants at times amicably consorting and relishing the arts, and at other times pitting their wills against one another in serious conversation. Geisha alone cannot be faulted for that.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Geisha, whose performances normally take place at ryōtei traditional Japanese restaurants, at the May 2019 Azuma Odori, staged annually for the general public. © Jiji.)

culture geisha kabuki history Yoshiwara shamisen