In early seventeenth-century Japan (long before the word geisha was ever used), the predecessor of the geisha was a combination of actress and prostitute and worked on the stages set in the dry riverbed of the River Kamo in Kyoto. The line between actress and prostitute was blurry, as the women would perform erotic dances and skits for their audiences. This new type of performance was dubbed kabuku, meaning “to be wild and outrageous”. The dances were called “kabuki,” and this was the beginning of kabuki theater.
Traditional Japanese views of sex were very relaxed. It was a society that embraced sexual delights and where men were not constrained to be faithful to their wives. In fact it was socially acceptable to be in love with one’s wife, but only when she was considered a “professional” woman.[vague] For sexual enjoyment and romantic attachment, men did not go to their wives, but to courtesans. In order to maintain this profession, the Japanese government created “pleasure quarters” where the courtesans could reside and work and men could go to relax and enjoy the entertainment.
These pleasure quarters quickly became glamorous entertainment centers that offered far more than just sex. The highly accomplished courtesans of these districts entertained their clients by dancing, singing, and playing music. Some were even renowned poets and calligraphers. Gradually, they all became specialized and the new profession, purely of entertainment, arose. It was near the turn of the eighteenth century that the first entertainers of the pleasure quarters, called geisha, appeared. The very first geishas were men, entertaining customers waiting to see the most popular and gifted courtesans.
Around 1760, women began to join men in the art of the geisha and very quickly outnumbered the men. The first woman to use the term “geisha” was an Edo prostitute named Kikuya and[vague] became a full-time entertainer. Soon, many women, whether they sold sex or not, began using the term geisha. Doing so was a way of acquiring respectability and proving that they were professionals.[dubious – discuss] The geisha who worked within the pleasure quarters were essentially imprisoned and strictly forbidden to sell sex in order to protect the business of the courtesans. Geisha who worked outside the pleasure quarters, however, could do as they pleased. Eventually, the gaudy courtesans began to fall out of fashion and the geisha were seen as the chic and desirable entertainers they are in modern Japan.
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