GEISHA GIRL – The geisha is not a prostitute, though GIs in Japan use the term to cover female entertainers generally. She has a long tradition behind her stylized routine.

By Sgt. Knox Burger

YANK Staff Correspondent

TOKYO–They say geisha girls originated about a thousand years ago when the wives and daughters of the defeated feudal samurai were called upon to entertain the victorious warrior chiefs. Being of noble birth, they were women of grace and refinement, well-versed in singing, the composition of verse and the art of how to behave with men.

wwii geisha girl yank magazine tokyo WWII GI soldierMost of the first-rate geishas are lying low out in the countryside today, but the few who remain in the cities are in great demand as entertainers for soldiers of another conquering army. Some of the geishas’ accomplishments, which are basically the same now as they were a thousand years ago, are lost on American GIs. The geisha routine is a little like a night-club act, a little like the behavior of girls at a well-mannered house-party and a little like an Oriental travelogue with no English titles.

Tokyo’s geisha houses have been lumped together with whorehouses by the Provost marshal in a campaign to control venereal disease. But they still do business. Geisha houses in some other cities aren’t even of limits.

The history of geishas and their place in Japanese society gives a little insight into the character of the inhibited, caste-conscious people of these islands. The Japanese traditionally seek entertainment outside their own houses, and as long as Japanese wives and daughters get pushed around by their husbands the geisha system will probably continue to flourish.

Until a few centuries ago the samurai lived off the rest of the population and only women of the best families had the advantages of a private finishing school, where, like some wealthy American girls, they learned how to pour tea and allied accomplishments. Only, in Japan tea pouring is a hell of a ritualistic business, every move loaded with symbolism and governed exactly the way it was done in ancient days.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was in power roughly from 1600 to Perry’s landing in Japan, there was a concentrated isolationist effort to keep the Japanese at home. The geishas flowered primarily because the shoguns thought they’d be good in connection with the policy of keeping people happy at home. However, internal wars grew more and more infrequent so the original source of geisha girls by conquest and capture was eliminated.

During the Meiji, or post-Perry era, when Japan started to absorb Western culture and to copy Western business and industrial methods like mad, wealthy merchant classes started feeling their oats and looking around for high-class diversion. Prostitution was legalized, and girls from poor families who were in debt (virtually all common farmers are debtors) were sold to white slavers or geisha brokers. This is still how most 20th century geishas get into the business. Sold into a household at maybe 15, a girl is trained by a professional geisha “mother” and lives in the house with practicing geishas, emulating their graceful movements, watching them as they spend days in endless rehearsing. They rehearse dancing, singing, playing of the samisen and how to be charming. In a few years the girls is ready to go to dinner parties, where she will be charming night after night for some 25 years. Geisha training was and still is rigid, but the institution itself has deteriorated, with second- and third- and fourth-rate girls–the last being actual prostitutes of joro.

In the Meiji era the girls were chosen for the first time on a basis of face and figure. These had formerly been considerations secondary to family background and brains. The social position of the geisha is tricky. Before the war Jap newspapers had gossip columns on the geishas, as esoteric as any keyhole column in a New York tabloid. These columns usually ran right next to the stock market quotations; the geishas owe their support to the wealthy people of Japan.

Geishas don’t associate with non-geishas. The two aims of geishas are supposed to be marriage or at least mistresshood to wealthy, handsome Japanese and securing their own freedom. Freedom can come about when a girl has worked out the terms of the contract made by her parents or when some man buys here off contract and sets her up as his mistress or as a madam of her own geisha house. In explaining the geishas, the modern Japanese deny the geishas are slaves–or rather they say that the system really isn’t as bad as it sounds, because the girls learn things they would never have learned and they get to wear terrific clothes. They have definitely better taste in color harmony than the average Japanese women. They spend hours in baths which they take together in huge tubs and they patronize hairdressers where they presumably discuss the last night’s customer and the reputations of whoever happens to be elsewhere at the time.

If a man wants to “buy” a geisha and set her up in  business for himself it involves long conversation with a large payment to her mother for expenses incurred during her training. Geishas get only pocket money from their keepers and can’t leave the establishment to which they are attached. However, they can refuse to live with the would-be buyer, if they want. A top-notch geisha is like a high-priced movie star. Because of the influence of her patrons she can afford to be temperamental. Jap men like to spark geishas. With marriage arranged by their parents this geisha business is virtually the only romance open to them.

The geisha house is actually a place where the girls live and receive training. They do business at rioriya or restaurants and at even the more elaborate machiai, literally waiting rooms, which are carefully designed, always spotless.

Before the war the geishas began wearing their hair short like American girls. Also in the gay thirties a new class of female entertainers emerged in Japanese cities. These were waitresses and bar girls who hung around cafes and dime-dance joints. They drank with customers, wore high heels and skirts. This was in line with the general Westernization of the surface of Japanese urban life in the period between World War I and World War II. The bar girls belonged to nobody and were in a sense the poor man’s geisha.

Before the B-29s burned most of them out there were geisha houses or rather rioriya and machiai in each of Tokyo’s districts. They all were said to have their own special characteristiscs. Some were cheap hangouts for students, some were dens for politicians. The Shimbashi and Sakasaka areas catered to wealthy merchants and were most expensive. Nowadays a party of four planks down maybe 3,000 yen for an evening’s entertainment.

Yoshiwara, definitely not a geisha district, is said to have been the largest red light section in the world. It was, before bombing, a walled city in the slums of Tokyo, consisting of thousands of cubicles with girls peering out at customers and urging them to step inside. Yoshiwara was burned out during the war. In pre-Pearl Harbor days it was a must for tourists and flashy Jap gadabouts.

To get into a good geisha house (GIs in general don’t use the term in strict sense implied above) it is necessary to be taken by a Japanese host. Because of the rarity of first-rate places and the high venereal-disease rate in cathouses, all geisha houses are off limits until corrective hygienic measures can be taken by the authorities. GIs still manage to muscle in, but the parties have to be arranged well in advance.

We were taken last week through the maze of streets in the unbombed sector of the Shimbashi district winding up in front of a lighted doorway opening on a narrow alley. This was the rioriya.  We took off our shoes, put them in cubbyholes in the foyer, then walked up the broad, beautifully polished staircase. The stairs opened on a hallway, the walls of which were sliding paper doors leading into fairly spacious rooms with straw mats on the floor. Sound of revelry from the room next to ours was loud. The walls were plain and thin.

We sat on cushions around a low table, and in a little while the girls came in, kneeling and bowing in the doorway and crawling over to our sides on hands and knees. This lowly position is traditionally assumed by an Japanese female entertaining or leaving a room so she wont be put in the embarrassing position of looking down on the superior males. It is refinement of the old business about nobody being allowed to look down on the Emperor, another manifestation of ironclad inferior-superior relationship in Japan.

The girls don’t usually eat with the customers, but since the advent of the Americans they have changed that because Americans feel uneasy when the girls just sit and don’t eat. Geishas like this innovation fine, because the food served in restaurants tastes better and is more plentiful than what they get elsewhere.

The girls gave us their names, poured us cup after tiny cup of warm saki and showed us how to use hashi (chopsticks).  They laughed when we demonstrated our clumsiness with chopsticks. The customer is apparently always funny. They kept ladling out food. It consisted of hors d’oeuvres, jumbo shrimp served hot and fluffy, and bowls of exotic Chinese slumgullion containing fish, meat, clams and vegetables.

We asked our host about the natural inclination of men to make passes at geishas after they had drunk a few pints of saki. He said that with second- or third-rate geishas, if they know you very well sometimes it becomes man and woman instead of customer and entertainer. As the geishas smiled and poured saki and otherwise made like highly interested dinner companions, our Japanese host held hands with one or another of them and talked what must have been Japanese baby-talk. The girls played right along with him and seemed to enjoy it.

Pfc. Patrick Gleason of New York City, one of our party, called the experience “colorful.” “As I see it,” said Gleason, “it’s strictly a class proposition, not national. Just the Japanese version of a rich man’s pleasure.” Gleason, a former Broadway publicity man, pointed out the modern-day American parallel in the visiting butter-and-egg man from Detroit or Buffalo who comes to New York and is introduced to a show girl, whom he may possibly set up in a suite at the Waldorf on his future visits.

After eating and drinking we filed out into an alley and walked four blocks with the girls to the machiai, where we were again ushered to a big straw-matted room to watch the geishas dance. their dancing consists of graceful posturing, coy bends of the head, and flat-footed movements around the room. It is formally mannered and hasn’t changed much from the dancing done by geishas hundreds of hears ago. Each dance is an interpretation of some familiar classic poem, usually dealing with birds, animals and the beauties of nature. Jap customers are thoroughly familiar with each movement of the dance and look on with a considerably more critical eye than the GIs. The GIs regard the whole thing as something alien and slightly embarrassing, like tolerant, old folks in the U.S. might look on their first exhibition of jitterbugging.

To most Americans, geishas have an unreal, doll like quality. They are so carefully costumed and heavily made up that they are like animated versions of the beautifully-gowned miniature mannequins that are sold in little glass cases as souvenirs. They speak only a few words of English–usually “Hello,” “Good-bye,” and “Oh my aching back.” Their actions are so carefully pretty that it is hard to believe you are in the presence of real, live women.

If a bona-fide geisha strays seriously from the path, she is dropped from the geisha guild, a sort of welfare organization which takes care of old beat-up geishas and serves as a watered -down union. Such ostracism is almost unheard of. When a case arises, the head of the guild for that district usually a former geisha or some geisha mother or machiai executive , will go to bat for the girl if she thinks her side of the case is justified. If the gal is kicked out, it reflects on the guild and on the prestige of the whole geisha system; also it outlaws the girl from all but the lowest stratum of society. A hell of a lot of face is lost all around.

During the war the geishas had it rough. In line with the Japanese Win-the-War program of Spartan living, the Tojo Government made them close down in March 1944, and a lot of girls had to find work in factories. Others headed for the countryside, where they hid out until things blew over. A few remained to give private entertainment to Government officials like Tojo, who by the way, was no Spartan. he took personal geishas to some of the southern islands when he flew down on inspection trips early in the war.

A few top-notch girls are drifting back now into the big cities. There are many houses of prostitution, which GIs call geisha houses, but they are no more real geisha houses than a hamburger joint is the Ritz.

Experts on geishas say that the old system will remain but will undergo modification now that the Americans are here and now that Japan is groveling more or less blindly around the bottom of her steep road back to the good graces of the rest of the world. What the modifications will be nobody knows for sure. Probably the girls will be taught English in addition to other duties, and they will modernize certain aspects of their behavior. The method of procurement may come to be a little less sordid.

Geishas themselves, like party girls any place seem perfectly receptive to change, but, like common people caught in the toils of every other feudal institution in Japan, they don’t seem to know quite how to go about it.

For Further Reading Check Out:

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

Geisha: A Life

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