The Teen Book Club finished discussing their chosen historical fiction novel; Memoirs of a Geisha. It has me wondering how best to explain the role of a Geisha. Contrary to popular Western belief, a Geisha is not a prostitute. It bears repeating, a Geisha is NOT a prostitute. What she is, in essence, is a kept woman. It is difficult for Western minds to comprehend the nuances. Goodness, it is difficult to for us to understand Japan has never had a monogamous culture. Ever. For either sex. Once this is truly understood then the role of a Geisha is much easier to grasp.
She is a companion and an artist. She entertains men with conversation and drinks. Her role is to make men feel better about themselves and take their cares away. They do not discuss menial topics such as politics, chores, occupations, child care, war or any other depressing issues. She plays various instruments, sing, and dance as well. Men pay her for this conversation and musical inclination. She does not sleep with every man who pays. In fact, by rule she is not to be intimate with any man other than her “sponsor.” This man pays her for her conversations just like all the others do, he also pays for her apartments, and more importantly he pays for her clothes which cost thousands and thousands of dollars. Just because she has this sponsor, does not mean she no longer entertains other men. She will continue you to entertain other men, unless her sponsor tells her otherwise. A geisha may have more than one sponsor but it is exceedingly rare. The geisha typically does not reside with her sponsor and unless he pays for her own apartments she lives at the Madame’s House, for lack of a better translation.
It is the Madame that are closer to the pimp equivalents in modern parlance. These were business women, often former geishas, but not necessarily. The Madame’s House did not typically have numerous amounts of geishas, usually two or three as the demanding personalities tend to clash. The geisha is indebted to the Madame for all expenses amounted for when she was first brought to the house as a maid, her food, schooling, and fines for infractions accrued over the years. By the time a girl first comes out as a geisha she is already thousands of dollars in debt to the Madame and continues occurring debt until she catches a sponsor.
Most geishas were orphans, from poor families who sold their daughters unable to keep up with the cost of another child, or she was born in the Madame’s House. It is inferred those who were “geisha born,” if you will, were only born if the man who sired her allowed for her birth. The man must be the geisha’s sponsor. If he finds out he impregnated the geisha he can order her to rid herself of the inconvenience by drinking herbs designed specifically for this purpose. If he has a kind heart, he will allow the geisha to give birth to their child. If it is a girl, she typically grows up in the Madame’s House. Under rare circumstances is a geisha born raised by the Geisha and the father. The sponsor now has to provide and pay the expenses of the child along with the geisha fees to the Madame.
Occasionally, a sponsor will “buy out” the geisha, making it a more monogamous relationship. They could never officially get married, but she is essential his wife and will live with him and no more fees needed to be paid to the Madame. However, she is expected not to do hard manual labor and keep conversations jovial as possible. Keep in mind, almost all men who interacted with geishas were married men with wives and children at home. So even if a geisha is bought out she is not his wife. Also the geisha in question really has no say as to what man becomes her sponsor or buys her out. This is all arranged with man and the Madame. If love and affection ever grow, it is a plus. If not, is just a lifetime job. All this would happen over the course of many years.
Sure there are perks, such as wonderful clothes, sparkly jewels, expensive dinners, travel and mingling with prominent people of means. However, as one women said “It is exhausting to pretend to care all your life.”