After 100 years of war, peace and prosperity came to Japan in the early 1600s—at a price. A military ruler, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, united the country and strict rules governing society maintained order for the next 250 years. Prostitution and related entertainment were confined to walled-off “pleasure districts.”
The pleasure districts were originally created to isolate prostitution from the rest of the city. But more reputable forms of entertainment and creative expression—theaters, restaurants, the fashion industry—were drawn to the districts. The hedonistic goings-on, real and imagined, fed a national obsession with the so-called “floating world” lifestyle of urbane style, extravagance, and beauty.
Social strictures faded inside the pleasure districts. The common denominator was money—if you had it, anything was possible. But there was a ranking system for prostitutes. Those capable of artful entertainment—music, singing, dance, storytelling—commanded high prices for their company, and were the only prostitutes portrayed in prints. This was the only way most people would ever see them, as the unreachable fantasies they were.
Geisha literally means “art person,” not prostitute. In fact, they originally entertained patrons who were waiting for the services of a courtesan (a more elegant word for high-end prostitute). Like courtesans, they offered music and dance, poetry and erudite conversation, but without the sex (most of the time).
Paid companionship is a tradition that continues in Japan today. A few rarefied geisha continue to offer refined entertainment to those who can afford it. Since around 1999, “Maid Cafés” employ coy waitresses- dressed as maids- who offer food, drinks, and games to patrons of all ages and genders. In other types of cafés, the waitresses are dressed as characters from manga comics or anime movies.