Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

The Japanese have elevated prostitution to a fine art.  There are many grey areas - between pure hooker (who are usually Chinese or Phillipina girls) versus Geisha.  Hostess bars plop a beautiful woman down - in between each business man - who put their hand on your knee, laugh at your jokes and pour your drinks.  They then accompany you outside and hail a cab for you.  But sex is never a part of the equation. 

Lots of blond and buxom American and Europeans are imported for both hostess bars and strip joints, but only a pure bred Nippon Jin (Japanese) can be a Geisha (do don't believe that Shirley MacClaine movie!)  Japanese actually take pride in their Geisha tradition.

I'm not going to take a moral stand here, but will try to point out some interesting facts and thoughts that this quote from Marc Canter highlights.

First of all, it's amazing what gets lost in the translation and the difficulty I am having in explaining the whole geisha thing really shows how different cultures can be.

I think almost all cultures have prostitution and I don't think Japan's sex industry is any different, but you're more likely to get a sex for money offer from Jr. High School girl in Shibuya than from a geisha.

I think geisha represent the polygamist past of Japan more than they represent prostitutes. Even one generation ago, many men had many women with whom they had children. One of my good friends has over 40 siblings, many of the mothers are geisha. Japan is still very arranged marriage oriented and until recently was almost entirely so. What was really happening in a marriage was two families negotiating a relationship that was solidified in the exchange of children. The geisha and other mistresses were often treated at part of the large extended family and were treated well and often publicly recognized. The children were not as recognized as the official children, but were also treated with a great deal of respect.

The geisha have gone through a variety of changes in their roles in the past and are now totally different from where they started out. I think the height of the geisha's role was when poor families would sell their young women to the okiya and the okiya would provide young women to the tea houses to take care of the powerful men. The powerful men would choose from these maiko their favorites and sponsor them to be geisha. The power men would support the geisha financially and indirectly the traditional dance and arts that the geisha performed. These days, people don't "sell" their children so most geisha become geisha to learn the tradition and to meet interesting people. Most people who go to tea houses can not afford to be a full sponsor of a geisha and corporate expense accounts pay for most of the drinks. People still sponsor geisha but it only usually works when both are truly in love and in many cases, this turns into a true marriage.

So, there are a lot of bars and even tea houses that are about prostitution. In fact there is even a service in Gion that provides prostitutes who double as geisha to tea houses for the foreigners who come to Kyoto thinking that geisha are prostitutes and insist on having sex. On the other hand, the bars that have evolved from the traditional tea houses and the old tea houses in Kyoto are still fairly legitimate places for people to meet future wives and for women to look for future husbands outside of the arranged marriage system.

I forget her name now, but there is a female academic who asserts that monogamy is a plot by the weak and poor men in Japan to get their fair share of women. She blames the drop in birthrates in Japan on this. She said that she would rather be the second wife of a wealthy man than the first wife of a poor man and that there weren't enough good men to go around now. ;-)

And as I said at the beginning of this post. I have a very torn moral stance here. I don't think it is fair that women are not treated equally in Japan and the "tradition" is not supportive of women's' rights. On the other hand, there are a lot of amazing things that tradition supports including a great deal of art and culture. The "value" of a man probably should not be defined by their wealth or their political influence. On the other hand, having children that you can't support is probably not a responsible thing to do. Then we can later about whether the fact that there are men who can't support their children is the fault of society or the men...


Well let's be clear - I certainly didn't mean to associate Geishas with Prostitutes in a derogatory manner. In fact - as an American - I think it's awe that I wanted to express.

Whether they're prostitutes or mistresses, it's that different moral approach towards sex, regeneration and monogamy that just downright amazes me!

Marc. Actually, since I know you, I know you didn't mean it in a negative way. I wasn't trying to be negative about your post, but trying to point out that "prostitute" in English sounds pretty negative and when you start talking about sex, children, mistresses and geisha, there is a lot of culture there that's difficult to capture and it shows how different we really are sometimes.

Also, I think you're unique. Most American probably think prostitution is bad and monogamy is good. ;-)

On the other hand, most Japanese probably don't have first-hand experience with geisha either so... Maybe it's just us.

Maybe I should be a bit more controversial, I don't know if it's appropriate:

- It's always difficult for a gaijin (foreigner) to really evaluate and give an opinion on another culture or a right picture... because there's no right pictures, you have only the assumptions made by your own culture in the framework of your country. So a japanese person will make wrong assumption on a french, a french will make wrong assumption on a US person, and the US on japanese, etc.

- I find that ironical that we are three men discussing that when it's something which is certainly something where women should talk with their own voices. Men are always fast to generalize facts about women, but unfortunately not so many men have read "The second sex" of Simone de Beauvoir.

- I agree with Joi Ito, that the concept of what western people call prostitution has a lot of differences in Japan. I also have a tendency in the western civilization we have tendencies to accept our own forms of "prostitution". I will try to be clear (and my point is not to be controversial at all).

In Western civilization, we will accept that a married woman with her husband, being at home, not working, is good (likewise in Japan) and we do say that it's not prostitution, even the idea of mentionning it will be highly shocking for many people. But if you look closely at what's define the definition of prostitution, it's not anymore clear.

The notion of marriage in our societies are a tool to prevent this idea, because we assume that marriage = love, which is often not necessary true. So the whole idea of marriage is sold by love, or because of a religious agreement. For some men, the wife will be here for raising children, take care of the house and have sex with her, even if this last part is not said. How these men consider their wife?

If you go this path of thoughts, you will see that a Geisha is someone (in a western mind) who will become highly moral with regards to what I said before about housewife.

So Once again, we have to be careful at mentionning cultures of other people, even if we are sure of what we are saying, people reading your texts online do not have necessary the same political , philosophical backgrounds... and last but not least...

It would be more interesting to hear the opinion of women on that point (exactly like I asked when I talked about shibari

but I would love to see the discussion going on.

I could not find a better way of expressing my views on the issue than the comment by Karl.

Thanks for this clarity.


First, women have spoken on the subject in their own voices. And until Joi gets the geisha contingent online and commenting on blogs, the available (male) voices will have to do. While I do agree it's difficult for a foreigner to truly understand a different culture, I also believe that being of that culture often leads to an inability to clearly analyze it. Neither condition is permanently debilitating, however, if you are willing to listen, research and learn.

One of the points missed is that Geisha have a very specific historic baggage that makes them difficult to discuss without setting additional context. Modern Geisha will never escape the historical Geisha (particularly in the western mind, I believe). Prostitution was never a function of the Geisha's role as I understand it, if you define prostitution as payment for a specific sex act. Sexual services may have been rendered, but they were in the larger context of the Geisha/patron relationship.

Beyond that, the point is well taken that marriage is in fact a economic relationship, one that primarily controls resources and labor. One of the prime functions of marriage is to control the flow of wealth in inheritance. Historically, the love aspect has been a late comer to the game. As individuals continue to improve the financial stability of their lives, we should see the increasing dissolution of the value of marriage as an institution. Note the rise of domestic partnerships, and the increasingly shrill support of marriage on *moral* terms rather than economic ones.



90% of the world's wealth is in the hands of men - so one could argue that the woman's role is to 'get' that money. They get it by marriage, good old fashioned entreprenuerism (which in Japan has a high rate of women), traditional labor and by renting their bodies.

What struck me most about Joi's photos of the Geisha rituals - is their beauty. One just doesn't get the same vibe from red velvet curtains in a New Orleans or Paris Bordello. But the movie "Dangerous Beauty" gives a fascinating account of women's lives in Venice - when they had only three choices: Nun, cloistered life as a wife or a prostitute. And only the prostitutes were allowed to read.

It seems that a little of that was prevalent in Japan with the Geisha tradition. Not only are they honored, but the role of mistress has come to be accepted in Japan - along with many gray areas in between.

It's worth noting that this could be viewed as the "Japanese safety net" coming into action. Would it be better for girls to be sold off into true prostitution (as in much of underdeveloped Asia), or achieve a position of social status?

Remember the old economic argument about investment in guns or butter? Japan, during the course of economic development, selected 'cows'--investment in productive capacity. Geisha are social repositories, as opposed to the off-colour interpretation of such a service provided by prostitutes.

Would it not be best, however, to integrate women thoroughly and completely into Japan's socioeconomic life? Take the situation of African-Americans, and the use of the drug trade as a path out of the 'ghetto.' I'm glad there's a way out, but a) shouldn't there be a better path, and b) shouldn't everyone have access to the opportunity?

if i were a geisha i think i would be quite content with the system--esp. w/ the arrangement that allows me a bevy of lovers and several dozen children sired by those lovers, all of whom are socially santioned ;-)

it maybe me but this structure in society may be a major item that gaijin (foreigner) do not understand of japan.

This to me implies that the society has been structured so that some amount of men do not have direct decendants. Is that the case? Is there a name for those men who would not be having children.

Also, does this mean that a for the most part many people have a grandfather in their past?

I am wondering how this usage of polygamy orders the society.

On the subject of Geishas: Some excellent points were made by all respondents. However, all must keep in mind Geishas are first and foremost chattel, to be moved around by whomever holds title. The geisha is released from whatever house that owns her only upon payment of a large sum of money by someone who wishes to make her his for life. Usually this transfer is more often than not the result of love developed over a reasonably long period of time.

While this may appear to some to be a matter of economics, the truth is this exchange of money is the only way to free a geisha from her owner and employer. But love is usually the underlying reason a man pays for her freedom.

I first went to Japan in 1946, and have been devoted to the study of Japan and things Japanese. Nowhere have I come across writings of Geisha prostitution.
An authentic geisha would find it impossible to engage in prostitution, and the house that owns her would be foolish to build their reputation on offering an establishment where wealthy businessmen, politicians, etc. could relax with a favorite Geisha and then jeopardize all for a couple of extra bucks[yen]. Should a "Geisha" offer a roll in the hay for money, you can bet your house she is not a licensed Geisha, and the house is not a Geisha

Thank you for this opportunity to express my views.



I have found all the comments on this page interesting and valid, however, the comments are still based on a male's point of view. Undoubtedly, traditionally geishas have achieved a certain level of freedom in a patriarchal society, in terms of access to education, the arts and a self-determined sexuality. They are also, in a way, treated with a similar status to men within female company.

They are not prostitute in the traditional sense in that they have the choice of choosing when and if they want to have sex, and also the option to choose their lover(s). But one must also never forget the fact that in order for a maiko to become a geisha, she will have to be deflowered by an important patron who pays for the 'previledge'. She has no choice or say in that. One must also not forget that she is forever a submissive party in the relationship between patron and geisha.

In other words, a geisha enjoys more freedom than other women within society, only if she agrees to play her role within the patriarchal ideology. In a way she is punished for her freedom and education by forever being chattel within the male hierarchy. She is a status symbol, a luxury commodity, an object of beauty, a symbol of male dominance over femininity, but she is never an individual in her own right.

Now whether this is a fair trade-off is up to the individual. But I believe that there must be an equal opportunity for all people to achieve autonomy and freedom without anyone having to submit to established gender politics within society.

P.S. I'm not arguing against the potential sensuality and erorticism within dominant/submissive sexual play. However, that is role-playing, the individuals involved can leave the sexual experience and resume a self-determined life.

I just wanted to comment on some of the notes I read. It seems as though the majority (not all) are focused on past practices of geisha. I just want to quickly clairify that geisha do not have their virginity sold anymore, they are choose to become a geisha of their own free will, and they may leave will they feel they no longer care to continue a career as a geisha. Geisha today are their to entertain tourists, and entertain high business men, and if you don't have considerably deep pockets and you aren't a man, then you will more than likely never have the pleasure of saying you've spent time with a geisha.

I just wanted to comment on some of the notes I read. It seems as though the majority (not all) are focused on past practices of geisha. I just want to quickly clairify that geisha do not have their virginity sold anymore, they are choose to become a geisha of their own free will, and they may leave will they feel they no longer care to continue a career as a geisha. Geisha today are their to entertain tourists, and entertain high business men, and if you don't have considerably deep pockets and you aren't a man, then you will more than likely never have the pleasure of saying you've spent time with a geisha.

thanks for the clarity... people in australia think they are too :P but at least, I know different

I am truly ignorant of the actual function of a geisha, but have enjoyed reading all of the comments. If a woman, no matter what her training, is "sold" to the highest bidder, doesn't this constitute sexual slavery/or prostitution (receiving $$ for pleasure and sex) and wouldn't that make the "house" who "sold" this woman, the "pimp"?
What do the legal wives, of these wealthy business men who buy a geisha, think of this "perk" for their husbands?
How do the children of the legal wife of the wealthy businessmen view their "siblings" by these purchased women?

I have read a bit into geishas and feel that it's wrong to call them prostitutes. I think, in fact, they are (and I'm quoting here) "they are wives by night" I think calling them prostitutes is an injustice. They work hard to get this social status and are truly artists which is what geisha actually means. While they may be invovled sexually with a patron who sponsers them (known as a danna) it is totaly up to them. If they are involved sexually, it is never a one night stand, but a relationship. A respect everyone's opinion, and I thought I just might put my two cents in. I just wanted to get across the point that these women are far from prostitutes, but are women who have devoted their lives to art.

In the end geisha's are/were nothing more and nothing less than call girls. Some top class call girls who could afford to be kept by one very rich man for a very long time, some shrewd enough to become a "madam", most girls/women in this industry are/were not that lucky. I get so fed up with the hypocrism surrounding geisha's in particular and sex in general in Japanese culture. Geisha's are in the first place trained to please men, to be submissive: singing and dancing and pouring tea they sell sex or the illusion of sex. They are not independent, strong woman, their art only has one gaol: to please men with money. Don't be fooled by their fairytaile outfits! Thank god nowadays geisha's are becoming a relic of the past, something for tourists. I'm part Japanese, so I know a little about the twisted way many Japanese men's mind works when it comes to women and sex. Geisha's fit into this fantasy about women having to please men at all time, being available when it suits the men, and not be seen as real persons with real feelings and opnions and minds of their own.

Dear Cindi Chwang,

"But one must also never forget the fact that in order for a maiko to become a geisha, she will have to be deflowered by an important patron who pays for the 'previledge'. She has no choice or say in that. One must also not forget that she is forever a submissive party in the relationship between patron and geisha."

This has been outlawed. If you ask a Geisha, or a Maiko or even a Geiko they will tell you that is in the past. If you have watched the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha" most people think that they are prostitutes. They are not. Prostitutes in old Japan used to be locked up like animals. Not dressed in expensive kimonos, dancing.

A little more history for everyone...

A Geisha wears white make-up to show that shes wearing a mask. This mask shows to a male client that she would really care. They don't put there hands on mens laps or anywhere else for that matter. What is wrong with serving tea? In Japan people serve each others teas and not there own. Geisha usually wont be drinking that much anyways. This has become a sterotype.

A Geisha dosen't really have many freedoms. They can't marry, they can't talk about there house, and they owe debt for most of there lifes.

Being a Geisha really does help children who are Orphans.

Some people should research into this topic further then by the standard media of movies.

hey; nice site.
but i NEED to no a simple answer by friday
why are Gieshas important to the society?

NO websites actually answer that question..
PLEASE; can i get a simple answer to that questions..
maybe 4 lines or 5?
thank you soooooooo much!

ok...this is really turning into a heated debate now. i will say now that i am not an expert on japanese culture but i merely sustain an interest in it. I don't think Geisha are prostitutes because prostitutes sell sex and geisha represent an idea of maybe...its an ideal. prostitution is just a job whereas the art of geisha is more of an art. geisha are about beauty, and represent something than cannot be had. some men like looking but not touching, the fact a geisha does not provide sex as part of her service makes her more attractive. and the geisha culture is not merely about that, there is an art to it. geisha are...providing something, it is something of a profession. i mean, yes there is a certain eroticism to geisha but i think western society oversexes things and looks at anything mildly erotic or titilating as wrong and shocking and dirty. and that certain has nothing to do with geisha. though i do agree that there is something a bit...well i don't exactly believe in the whole men dominant, women submissive relationship. but the men are paying for the pleasure, they are the ones controlled by their own desire, geisha are professional, they are essentially perfomring, keeping up an illusion. besides...prostitution, is just another job. women do this job to earn money. many of them still have their own degree of self respect. most of them i imagine. (for reference read belle du jour a book about a woman who became a prostitute, someone who upon meeting you wouldn't disrespect.) i still do not understand how something that we all do, all want, all experience in some way has become something to fear, something distasteful. anyways...thats my bit for now. hope i havent said anything stupid or offensive. thanks for reading. x

my name is emily im 15 and from the uk i desperatly want to become a geisha in the next year me and my mother are planning to go to kyoto and find a hannamachi and a nice okiya and ask if i could join it i dont think a girl from britan has ever become a geisha so hopefully i would be the first! i am awear of every thing there is to know about geisha (i think every thing) and i no it will take up to 5-6 years to train. so can you point me to a okiya in kyoto (a popular one) so i can try to start the jerney on becomming a geisha emily xxx

It could be argued that modern geisha are no longer being oppressed - I personally haven't experienced the way geisha's are treated so I couldn't say for sure - but, they simply cannot be separated from what they represent. The modern day geisha represent the traditional geisha, the geisha that were treated with great sexism (being sold to houses as children, having their virginity sold among other things), and it's just an attempt to glorify past oppression. They have no particular use in society, and holding onto such a mysoginistic idea is not respecting culture, it's an attempt to maintain the strength of the patriarchy.

Ok First off theres way too much mixing of fact and fiction here, A Maiko and Geisha's profession is based on preserving the traditional arts such as dance, singing and music and entertaining in a non-sexual manner. They are not, have never been, or ever will be prostitutes, Oiran and Tayuu where prostitutes in The Edo era. And while they resembled Geisha the two where VERY diffrent. Arthur Golden's FICTIONAL novel Memoirs of a Geisha have been used as Historical Fact. In fact Arthur Golden was later sued by Mineko Iwasaki a Real, and famous, Geisha for many inaccuracies in the book, and that the book has brought shame upon her, her family and the geisha world. The book Memoirs of a Geisha portrays the Mizuage as a financial arrangement. The Maiko would find many interested and wealthy buyers to bid on her virginity so the Maiko could fully become a Geisha. However, this is a common misperception of the ceremony. This was a ceremony that Oiran would typically go through. The Erikae ("turning of the collar") ceremony marks the transition from Maiko to Geisha. They didn't have their virginity sold, Once again Sex is not part of the Geisha world. Do they have sex, of couse there not Nuns lol, They have normal Relationship like anyother women but they where out side of there job as a Geisha not part of it. In fact many stop being Geisha becuse they are geting married. Although some girls were sold to geisha houses ("okiya") as children, this was not a common practice, In fact it was not tolerated by reputable okiya. If you want to learn about Real Geisha, the first book I generally recommend is Mineko Iwasaki's autobiography due to her involvement with the creation of Memoirs of a Geisha and the lawsuit that followed. It is an interesting look into the life of one of the most famous geisha to emerge from Gion.

"Geisha, A Life" by Mineko Iwasaki

Thanks for the thoughtful post Elminster.

As a fellow neophyte, may I recommend Liza Dalby's book "Geisha" for information about their 'function' in Japanese society (and information about them in general)?
A particularly revealing phrase in this book is that: "Geisha embody precisely those aspects of femininity that are absent from, or only incidental to, the role of wife." These women, geisha and wife, have complementary roles and natures, and thus do not impinge on one-another's 'territory'. They see themselves as complementary opposites. A man would not discuss politics and current affairs with his wife, nor flirt with her. He wouldn't have a geisha clean his house and cook his meals (this would actually destroy her primary charm), and thus a geisha will never 'displace' a wife. There is no cause for jealousy between them, especially as it is mostly the wife's children who inherit. The thing is, marriage isn't (or wasn't) regarded as a matter of love, but of economics and suitable alliances between two families. A wife isn't someone to have fun with. A geisha is.
To cassie: I do not think that a 4/5 line answer defining why geisha are important to society exists, not a complete one anyway.^__^

for me geishas are not prostitute...they are just called prostitutes because of the american during world war 2... and it is a tradition to be a geisha in japanese..... and one of there cultures....

This discussion gave all aspects of the roles and traditional practice on Geishas, which in the west have no equivalent. So, for the western world it is almost impossible to make a just judgement, which honors the institution of Geisha activities.
It is also interesting to see that prostitution is considered as something bad, instead of different. Well, this is due to our cultural background, the old Testament/Genesis. Just jump to the
Indian culture, the tantra ideas (sex is a holy activity) and practice having started already in the west and you realize that we are in a process to learn & overcome the negative opinions on sex by prostitution. It is the church which condemned it in the past and still does so today.
Having come out from this jail of negative concepts you can classify the life of a Geisha more clearly. It contains a unique mastery of cultural art. And that is a huge wonderful achievement. Well, some feel that art has no value for the society. I will not delve into this field of opinion.

Result: Please try to see that the life and practice of a geisha is something admirable.

It is interesting that it seems by the posts that males are generally sympathetic and appreciative of the geisha tradition while the most negative comments are from females. I think the western equivalent of a geisha is the movie star sex symbol - think Marilyn Monroe - it is the female ideal, the fantasy, the ultimate sex tease. Did Ms Monroe sleep with many men? Sure she did, does your typical movie starlet sleep around and sell sex? (Sex marketing because sex sells - not necessarily their bodies) Absolutely. Calling Geisha prostitutes is Hollywood BS and typical western cultural ignorance.

The Western world doesn't have a parallel to geisha because we don't value education. A geisha is cultured, refined. She is beautiful, and trained to cater to the ego of pretentious men. Any woman worth her salt would kill for that kind of finesse.

Interesting point of view. I've read now a lot of books and pieces of information about geisha and it appears that the truth is not so clear. Depends on time, depends on Okiya...

Came across this during some research and find it tediously predictable and also incredibly depressing that in all of the rich complexity and difference a westerner can find in the practices of geisha, what we find here is a group of western men distilling the geisha experience to sex, for the benefit of men. The most interesting aspect of the experience becomes what the women do or do not do for men.

Yes I know the post is old. Sadly the practice of minimising the experiences of women to the aspects in which they benefit men is not.

Hi Rachel. Understand totally. Not all of my geisha posts are about men. For example:

I am not posting this to start an ugly argument, but these women are trained to service men. Where is the equality in that? They must suppress their personalities to conform to a rigid idea of a man's ideal. Just because something is old and traditional does not make it right.