The Geisha: white faced, dosage cherry lipped, robed in luxurious silks, full of delicacy, grace and mystery. They’re a cultural icon of Japan, a definition of femininity and temptation rooted in a cultural evolution of…. men?
Counter to every image and emotion geisha conjure in today’s world, the first geisha were actually men. Known as ‘taikomochi’, they first emerged in the 1300s as chief assistants to Japan’s feudal lords. Not only did they provide entertainment similar to European court jesters, the taikomochi were also military advisors and strategists who fought in battles. Given a sword, paint brush or tea pot, the man was equally talented and highly regarded for his diverse skills as soldier, artisan and tea connoisseur.
During the 1600s, as Japan entered a time of peace, the taikomochi’s role began to change. No longer needing to provide warfare support, storytelling, humour and conversation became their focus. As dedicated performers, demand for them grew among Japanese courtesans while hosts guests and giving parties.
In 1751, the first female taikomochi, called ‘geisha’ meaning ‘artistic one,’ arrived at a dinner party forever altering the tradition. Her coquettish behavior, singing, dancing and ability to charm beguiled the guests. Enchanted by the allure of women in the sophisticated role, the geisha’s popularity grew quickly. Within 25 years, females outnumbered males, with men now assisting the women as the primary entertainer.
Today, after a peak of over 500 taikomichi, there are only five left in all of Japan, four in Tokyo and one in Kyoto. While geisha communities are also dwindling, the mystique lives on, created by men and refined by women.