By the time that the geisha profession became recognized by the government in the 17th century there already existed other professions who worked in the same hanamachi that they did. These include kabuki actors, rakugo performers, and various ranks of prostitutes. The most common type of prostitutes were known as Yūjo (遊女), which means “Woman to Play With,” who would line up on verandas each night to be chosen by customers. In contrast, the highest ranking of them, who were the true courtesans, were the Oiran (花魁) and the Tayū (太夫). Oiran, which means “First Flower,” were found throughout the country and were the top of the hanamachi pecking order. They wore extremely gaudy kimono in multiple layers as a testament to their status, with the most popular and wealthy five layers or more, each with the most splendid embroidery and decoration that money could buy. When they travelled from their place of residence to the place where they’d meet with their customers they’d hold glamorous parades known as Dochū (道中). The oiran would walk in tall sandals that were 30 centimetres/12 inches or higher in a fashion called the Figure Eight movement, in which she would swing one foot out and around in a figure eight motion with each step. This meant that she did not walk very fast, but the point was to show off her wealth, which she also did with the presence of her entourage of retainers, maids, and apprentices. Tayū, meaning “Great Person,” were the apex of the courtesans even above the oiran, and were so exclusive that they only existed in Kyoto. They were very similar to their oiran cousins, but had a more extensive education so that they could act as consorts to the nobility. Tayū and oiran often shared the nickname of “Castle Destroyers” as their beauty could lead to rival lords fighting for their affections and even destroying their houses and reputations in the process.
When the geisha began to exist within the same space as these women and became extremely popular the yūjo lodged a complaint with the government stating that the geisha were taking their business. To satisfy both occupations the government passed laws stating exactly what a geisha and what a yūjo could and could not do. It strictly stated that geisha were not to be part of any prostitution whatsoever, lest they lose their license to entertain, whereas yūjo were only allowed to sell sex and not entertain. To show that they did not and would not sell sex geisha began to tie the knot of their obi on their backs. Up until then all women, from nobles to everyday people to prostitutes, tied their obi knots in the front. Contrary to popular belief, this was not done so that they could undress easily, but rather a fashion style that had originated in the Heian Period (794-1185). The geisha’s look became so popular that it was soon adopted by the townsfolk and eventually became the standard which all obi knots are tied today. Prostitution was made illegal in Japan in 1958, so the yūjo and oiran no longer exist. A small group of tayū still remain in Kyoto to this day, but their function is now akin to that of a geisha in which they entertain at exclusive parties with song and dance.
Geisha continue to pride themselves on the fact that they have not and do not sell themselves for sex. They remain artists who are dedicated to their craft and are not to be confused with the prostitutes that no longer exist.
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