Why Did Geishas Sell Their Virginity in Historical Times?

Last Updated on January 21, 2024 by Team CrazyJackz

Japanese culture’s countless unique features remain the source of fascination to many people around the world. One of such feature is the old tradition of geisha, which leaves many in awe.

Well, the tradition of geisha is very rich in artistic and social offerings, yet the opinions about this old traditional practice vary depending on culture and one’s knowledge of Japanese traditions. In the whole journey of geisha what always sparks controversies is “mizuage,” the ceremony of offering a young woman’s virginity for a fee to a wealthy man who won the bid.

But the story behind this traditional – and no longer existing – Japanese practice is not as simple as many may think. Let’s look deeper into the world of geisha and the reasons why geishas sold their virginity in history.

Who is a Geisha?

Why Did Geishas Sell Their Virginity in Historical Times?

The history of geisha goes back to the Japanese artists of 17th century Japan, though some sources point to many older and different roots that led to their establishment. The term “geisha” originates from a Japanese word “gei” (meaning: arts) and “sha” (person). Geisha is a highly trained artist, a creative companion and a hostess. Talented and well-trained geishas are known for their ability to create a lively mood. As talented artists, geishas often perform at special gatherings, entertaining men of high social status gathered in special geisha houses.

For many years, the youngest girl students (such as “maiko,” the apprentice geisha in Kyoto) attend “nyokoba”, vocational schools, where they follow lessons given by experienced female mentors “okaasan” and observe older geisha. Maiko studies traditional Japanese arts – dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, poetry – and savoir-vivre, and learned how to take very good care of their appearance, which includes extensive and complicated hair styling, traditional clothing and makeup.

The most talented and skilled maikos can be promoted to the geisha status, which involves the controversial “mizuage”.

Understanding Mizuage: The Apprentice Geisha’s Transition and Loss of Virginity

The mizuage ceremony, in which a geisha transitions from maiko to geisha status, usually took place when the maiko reached the age of about 20. However, there is no exact age, as it is all linked to the specific events surrounding the girl’s life. In the past, bidding on maiko’s virginity was a part of some – not all – “mizuage” ceremonies.

Bidding was a process in which potential clients made financial offers for the right to accompany a young geisha in her first intimate sexual relationship. The details of the mizuage were often kept secret, primarily due to the importance of protecting the reputations and privacy of those involved. Women who underwent this part of “mizuage” rarely spoke publicly about their situation, and information about it was not widely available. This was mainly due to cultural conventions and social expectations, and geisha’s strong code of silence.

It did happen, however, that some mizuage involved a more direct bidding with the potential customers submitting financial offers for the right to participate in the ceremony. Offers were written on special cards or boards, and the bidding took place in a manner similar to an auction. Customers could increase their bids until the highest bid was accepted. The highest bid won the right to accompany the young geisha to the ceremony. It still remained part of cultural discretion and respect, so it was not generally announced publicly.

Why Did Geishas Sell Their Virginity in Historical Times?

The reasons for the maiko (apprentice geisha) to accept financial bids were many, all depending on her specific situation.

Though today, this approach to virginity (and intimate relations at large) is frowned upon, not to say it’s illegal, we also need to understand the specificity of this old Japanese culture, and look at it from the perspective of the time when bidding for virtue was actually practiced. It is important to think from the perspective of geishas as entertainers and companions, and their job is to provide entertainment and elegance, not to provide sexual services.

A depiction of a party in the house of the Dutch chief

To some maikos, loss of virginity during the mizuage ceremony was an important step in her transformation to geisha, completing her “graduation”. Geishas were highly respected within the community for their unparalleled artistic skills, elegance, politeness and ability to behave in society. Their professionalism and ability to establish relationships make them respected as companions and hosts. In addition, geisha played an important role in preserving and transmitting the traditions of Japanese culture; they were the guardians of artistic heritage, dance, music and costumes. Their presence at ceremonies and banquets was considered a sign of prestige and emphasized the importance of tradition.

In this context becoming a full-fledged geisha was considered a great honor. And since in the Japanese culture, virginity was highly valued, as it has always been associated with purity and modesty, it was considered an unparalleled privilege for a man to accompany an apprentice geisha’s transformation. The bid was one of the ways to assure the highest possible recognition for the young geisha who agreed to undergo this part of “mizuage” ceremony. The auctions were a way to show respect and support for both the young geisha, and her okiya, the lodging house with which a maiko or geisha is affiliated.

And since many elements of geisha traditions are sealed with secrecy, it is not clear how the distribution of the money was dealt with. Some sources suggest that at least part of the gain was taken by the okiya as a respect for all the care and education the establishment has given to the geisha.

On the other hand, the fee was also a form of compensation for geishas when they ended their careers or had to interrupt them. In this way, their transition to life outside the geisha profession seemed easier. This money could also be used to financially support the girl and her family, for further education or other purposes.

Although mizuage included maiko’s first sexual encounter, this element was not always present in her departure from the apprentice. The ceremony also included a change of clothes to a more subdued, single-colored kimono with simpler patterns. Obi (the sash or belt) also becomes narrower and more elegant. Their hairstyle is changed to a more modest one, usually an elegant updo that seems more mature, while the makeup becomes more subtle and delicate, with less use of white base and strong colors.

The ceremony also featured fruits of geisha education: art, dance, and other aspects of training. The history reveals a number of geisha who did not offer their virginity in a bidding process. The question of virtue always remained fundamental among geishas as it is a very important factor in Japanese culture in general. The geisha who chose this path might have accepted a bid for the loss of virginity within the context and specificity of the Japanese culture and tradition, and a historical moment, in which they functioned.

Are Geishas still engaged in Virginity selling traditions?

In more recent decades, geishas who offered physical activities to customers became additionally vulnerable to new laws. The prohibition of prostitution in Japan in the mid-20th century, and specifically the introduction of a law protecting public morals in 1956, had an impact on the situation of some geishas.

Coming into effect in April 1958, The Anti-Prostitution Law criminalized “the act of committing sexual intercourse in exchange for actual or promised compensation.”

The Japanese government also took steps to reorganize and supervise the entertainment industry, including that of geisha. This resulted in the introduction of stricter regulations regarding the employment and working conditions of geishas, which may have influenced their situation.

Some sources point to the fact that the ban may have reduced the demand for geisha services, since many beneficiaries may have felt that using a geisha was morally unacceptable, just like prostitution. On the other hand however, the ban on prostitution limited its availability, and some customers may therefore have turned to geishas as an alternative form of entertainment.

Today, geisha still exist in Japan, but their numbers are much smaller than in the past; they can still be spotted in certain neighborhoods, such as Gion in Kyoto and Asakusa in Tokyo.

Geisha continue the professional practice of traditional Japanese arts such as singing, dancing, playing musical instruments and having interesting conversations; they are still a symbol of artistic excellence. Visiting a geisha is a popular and exclusive way to spend time for tourists interested in Japanese culture. Modern geisha do not have to undergo mizuage ceremony, and their status as geisha is not related to either mizuage or virginity.

Team CrazyJackz