Geisha Netsuke

Geisha Netsuke, late 18th c., held by Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Did you know it takes years of training to be a geisha? And that “geisha” means “artist”?

Geisha and their world are very mysterious. That is part of the charm. However, its complicated and somewhat confused history means that geisha are quite misunderstood.

This female dominated industry provides means for women to achieve great wealth and independence. And in some instances and eras, their role was highly valued. As professional entertainers though, their role was often conflated with courtesans and prostitutes. And part of their training was to be seen and not heard.

Historically, many girls came to be geisha as the result of unfortunate circumstances, like being sold or bonded to geisha houses (girls as young as 3 were sold to into geisha service) or simply being born to a geisha mother.

A netsuke is a small carving that originally was a toggle for a man’s kimono in Japan. But they evolved into an art form of their own, becoming collector’s items. In the 18th century, showing everyday life and people became common practice for netsuke.

This netsuke carving depicts a geisha and her maid (a maiko). The maiko is a training level for geisha. She must serve another to both learn the tricks of the trade and to pay her dues. Since she is housed and clothed by the okiya (geisha house), she must work to pay off this debt, a self-perpetuating cycle. Once she becomes a full geisha and earns her way out of debt, she is free to leave the house.

Does this sound at all glamorous?

Even with the gifts, patrons, parties, and musical training, geisha were still virtual slaves. And it is unclear whether or not a geisha-in-training had control over her sexuality, or if it was also owned by the house. This ambiguity is capitalized on in romanticized depictions of geisha in art, film and literature today. They are even tourist attractions, with people flocking to Kyoto’s Gion district to see these highly stylized and eroticized women from seemingly another time/world.

There are many geisha who are successful business women, which some take to mean that geisha are not submissive, but strong. This is a typical argument amongst contemporary Japanese feminists; some see geisha as exploited while others see themselves as liberated.

Today, girls must go to school until they are at least 15 before deciding to become geisha. Some wait until after university or even later. This shows that an ancient tradition that oppressed and exploited girls can be turned around and used to empower instead.

-Ashley E. Remer
Head Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls’ history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.

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