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Boston University Academy The development of thegeishaand their present status as symbols of Japanese culture, tradition, and femininity By David Sumner Thayer 08 Advisors: Professor Merry White, Anthropology, Boston University & Dr. Richard Horn, History, Boston University Academy April 2008
Table of Contents
Introduction ........................................................................................ 4 Imperial Ladies-in-Waiting .............................................................. 8
Tay大夫....................................................................................... 11
Geisha 芸者.................................................................................... 19 Conclusion ........................................................................................ 35 Works Cited ...................................................................................... 37
The Wests opinions of Japan have historically been ill informed, overly critical, and rarely understanding. In fact, we continue to view the Japanese in ways that are completely contrary to their own history, instead preferring our Western fantasies of the Orient. For example, we view Japan as a docile, subservient nation that only develops the technology that powers the world, yet we forget that not more than 70 years ago, our ships and soldiers were taken by surprise by the ferocity of the Japanese naval and air forces. Kamikaze are not so far removed from our time that we can pilots forget about them lightly. And before that, the Russo-Japanese War wreaked havoc on the Russian tsarist state. Or how about the centuries of vicious wars between clans of samurai that wrought thoughtless destruction throughout Japan? Still, our culture prefers to think of the Japanese as the creators of Nintendo, Pokémon, and Sony. Before World War II, however, the Japanese culture was unique and still distinctlynot Western. The emperor maintained control over the people of the country, and while the Japanese people did use Western Europe as a model after trade was officially opened, they still approached their problems in a uniquely Japanese way. Because of their basic, deeply engrained nationalistic fervor, however, the Japanese still struggled with foreign policy. This dual system of governmentone dealing with domestic affairs and the other with foreign oneswas so starkly separated that the Japanese government appeared to the Victorian West to be run by barbaric, two-faced politicians. Beginning with the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853, the Japanese had struggled with the pressure to Westernize and  4
become an industrial country. Because of Japans lack of many essential natural resources, however, the desired industry developed only slowly. The real move towards Westernization was in the popular culture of the time. From that point onwards, if given the choice between native trends and Western ones, many Japanese would have chosen the Western ways because they were considered more advanced and fashionable. Oriental fever in the West was a noticeable occurrence, often found in artistic circles, e.g. Japonaise-style, but the Japanese reciprocation of that fever was startlingly intense. While the trend to Westernize was most noticeable in male circles, many women also subscribed to the new Western modesof course with their own Japanese additions, e.g. kimono with lace-shoes. This dualistic culture provided an interesting look at how Japanese society adjusted to foreign exposure. Furthermore, in an effort to conform to Western standards, it is interesting to note which aspects of Japanese society were left untouched. One of the first things that the Japanese were criticized forand yet did little to fixwas their allowance of districts where sexual services were blatantly offered. To the Victorian world, which had red-light districts but regarded them with its standards of sexual repression, conceiving of a world where sex was acknowledged publicly was the same thing as dreaming of hell. The Japanese, however, did not have these moral hang-ups. It is my goal, however, to examine the nature of these pleasure districts, and how, despite the criticisms of the West, the so-called flower and willow world became and remains the heart of Japanese cultural tradition. This world will be examined through the lens of several periods of Japanese historyall within the Common Erathat had an
effect of the development of thegeisha, the contemporary manifestation of the flower and willow world. The goal of this paper is to show that, despite their developmentaway from the established pleasure districts traditions, thegeisha1have come to symbolize those very traditions that are now regarded as integral to Japanese cultural heritage. The differences betweentay andgeisha the differences between the demonstrate classes they serve, and if their development and diminishment parallel the development and diminishment of the samurai and merchant classes, respectively, then perhaps that can explain why Japan and the world currently view thegeisha as the retainers of Japaneseness. Instead of actually being repositories of tradition, they are the maintainers of it. Thegeishas existence, by extension, reflects and demonstrates the status of Japanese culture. Japanese prostitution predates much of the characteristics that Westerners might feel define Japanese culture. The ways that prostitution developed in Japan, however, provide an interesting comparison with how Westerners view prostitution. The West has certainly had its share of prostitution and courtesanship, but we still view these conditions with Victorian-esque attitudes, often denying their existence and reality and projecting a form of socially acceptable sexual repression onto them. Throughout Japans history, however, 1For the readers ease, the words of Japanese origin have been italicized throughout this paper. It should be noted, however, that the Japanese language does not have separate singular and plural forms for nouns, verbs, etc. This frequently creates difficulties in the translation or transliteration of Japanese works. As the reader continues through this paper, he or she should keep in mind that the subject might be plural when, in fact, it appears to be singular. To be sure, look to the verb to determine the number of the subject.
including through times when Western influences were present,
Japan has been exceptional for its frank acknowledgement of the
existence of prostitution in all forms. This levelheaded approach to
the sex industry has its roots in times before the influence of the court,
but the types of prostitution and courtesanship that concern this
paper can be traced most effectively to that era. It should suffice to
say that, like many other cultures, shamanistic priestesses who had
the ability to divine the gods wishes also acted as prostitutes, and
therefore provided the root of Japanese prostitution. Not until noble
ladies-in-waiting, however, did sex and romantic intrigue expand
beyond the court and enter popular literary culture. This paper begins,
therefore, with a discussion of the roles of these women.
Imperial Ladies-in-Waiting
Court life in Japan has many characteristics of other divinely conceived monarchical governments, particularly China. In fact, the Japanese court system has its origins in China. Taking the Chinese court as a formal precedent for their own government, the Japanese placed their emperor in a position of ultimate supremacy. The redundancy of that phrase is intentional, as the emperor was actually believed to have descended from the sun goddess (hence the origins of the Japanese flag), and his divinity helped to protect the country. While a divinely inspired national sovereign is not unique to Japan or China, the fervid respect with which the people regarded the emperors holy ancestry actually shaped how the countrys government was administered. Unlike Western sovereigns who often used divine heritage to justify tyranny, the emperor was not maliciously despotic; the people of Japan expected and honored his overwhelming power. The role of the emperor, therefore, transcended the titles of head of government and state. He performed religious rituals in order to seek favor from the gods on behalf of the nation, and his courts members were compared to planets and stars orbiting his sun. Despite the eclipsing nature of the emperors position, however, the courtiers were the celebrities of the realm. Describing the effect that the court had on Japanese society, Jansen writes, the court became and remained the most authoritative source of precedent and rigor for the entire range of Japanese culture1 is It impossible to overstate the importance of the court. It should also be
1Marius B. Jansen,The Making of Modern Japan(Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), 98.  8
noted that many of the courts very own rituals and formulaic administrative duties, while ultimately based in the Chinese court, used precedents established in Murasaki Shikibus 11thcentury novel
源氏物語, translated as theTale of Genji. This novels stature in
Japanese culture is so significant that, even today, it is considered the height of Japanese literature, perhaps accorded more respect and admiration than Westerners give such classics as the Homeric epics or Shakespeare. The most recent translator ofGenji, Royall Tyler, describes some of the customs of the court: Good manners maintained proper distance, which amounted to upholding the accepted social orderDomestic space, divided by screens, curtains, blinds, and so onsimilarly upheld distance and inviolate dignity.1 While traveling, most aristocratic women would strategically drape the sleeves of their kimono out of their litters, showing the splendor of their attireand identifying them to passersbyand hinting at the women beneath those kimono. When not traveling, aristocratic women were required by custom to sit behind curtains of state, concealing their faces, but they would also arrange their sleeves in those circumstances to flaunt wealth and rank. In courtships, this custom of distance became understandably cumbersome, and it was possible for a man not to see the woman he was courting until the first time they made love. It is therefore understandable why the sound of an aristocratic womans voice or the sight of her hand had definite erotic underpinnings. To see is often a euphemism for
1Murasaki Shikibu,The Tale of Genjitrans. Royall Tyler (New York: Penguin,, 2003), xix.
coitus inGenji. Tyler, describing a potential courtship, elaborates, If he then takes it upon himself to brush her curtain aside and go straight to her, he will by that gesture alone have claimed something close to the final intimacy.1These restrictive policies and customs, however, seemed hardly to hinder the promiscuity of courtiers or the emperor. In the diary written by a 14th court lady named Lady Nij century and
entitledTowazugatari (問 わ ず 語 り)unprompted remark or
statement2the protagonist, a high-ranking lady-in-waiting to the Empress and a lover of the Emperors, has more trysts than can be counted. To be fair, courtiers rarely viewed these sorts of affairs as wrong; instead, they considered them the norm. Nevertheless, after Nij with the his brotherand, coincidentally, his political sleeps rivalthe Emperor grows frustrated with constantly having to shield her from the courtiers suspicions that her children are not his, and he accordingly stops visiting her. She, despondent and feeling abandoned, follows a path common for ostracized women of her rank and takes holy orders, thereby becoming an itinerant nun.3 Her previously brazen sexual behavior provides understanding for the development of thetay. Nij and the other ladies-in-waiting provided sexual intrigue for courtiers, but when the court began to diminish in size, this lascivious class of ladies-in-waiting combined with the services of the priestess-prostitutes to create thetay. 1Ibid. 2Jim Breen, WWWJDIC, Monash University, (accessed February 20, 2008). 3Nakanoin Masatada No,The Confessions of Lady Nij, trans. Karen Brazell (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1973.  10
The Japanese governments views on prostitution have historically been lax compared to Western mores. Dalby explains, [G]overnment, instead of focusing on the pleasure quarters as a source of negative social influence, recognized them as legitimate areas of relaxation and release from humdrum everyday life.1 The government, however, believed that these pursuits of pleasure were characteristics of only the middle class. In order to keep this class from getting beyond its control and to remind its subjects that it controlled every aspect of their lives, the emperorsand eventually the shogunsgovernment restricted prostitution to walled-in areas on the outskirts of major cities. The most famous and decadent of these government-licensed prostitution districts was the Yoshiwara in Edomodern day Tokyo. This district was moved outside of Edos city walls in 1656, and afterwards became the flagship red-light district of the nation. Within the walls of the district, prostitution developed its own society, influencing and shaping the world outside. The women contained in these districts ran the gamut in class and 2 served a clientele who could vary greatly in social status. The
1Liza Crihfield Dalby,Geisha(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 68. 2The women that I refer to as courtesans are those women who served men of noble or aristocratic rank and had proven artistic abilities. Of course, these women could serve men of lower classes, but this only happened near the end of their reign in the Yoshiwara. The lower classes were usually served by prostitutes who were enslaved by profit-seeking madams and pimps. This type of prostitution is closer to what we would consider street walking, which the courtesans would have never participated in. Additionally, the term prostitution may be used to refer generally to the services provided by both courtesansandprostitutes, but the term courtesanship will be used  11