Courtesans, Kabuki, and Geisha: The Rise of Celebrity in Japan


The Edo Period (1603-1868) marked a time in Japanese history which saw immense social, political and artistic changes. There was a growing market for accessible art which could be bought by ordinary people: ranging from peasants to the rising merchant class community.  The demand for cheaper art saw the development of coloured woodblock printing, which was a radically new technique that allowed for cheaper and more efficient production.

These prints are indicative of ‘the Floating World’, also referred to as Ukiyo-e, which is symbolic of this generation and was a new kind of art. Due to Japan’s economic expansion new kinds of entertainment were springing up in the city, such as Kabuki Theatre, Sumo wrestling and Geisha. They were all industries which boomed in this time and benefited from the hedonistic desires of the newly rich. Art and the more accessible woodblock style flourished along with this new ethos, and through it we see a fascinating explosion of celebrity culture and artistic growth.

Kabuki is a style of theatre performed exclusively by men, who even adopted female roles. It is extremely diverse in its story telling with narratives displaying epic historic tales to domestic melodramas. However Kabuki performances would last all day and include interludes of dancing, as well as elaborate face makeup and costumes. In Tokyo, which was then known as Edo, there were three licensed theatres dedicated to Kabuki, which would perform regularly each season to throngs of people. Naturally there was an increased interest in the actors who took part in these performances, and a heightened need for admirers to obtain images of them.

Ichikawa Danjuro VII as Matsuomaru in Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy by Utagawa Kunisada, 1831

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) was a prolific artistic of the Edo period who themed much of his work around the subject of Kabuki. He depicted stars such as Danjuro VII who was so outrageously extravagant he was banished by the government in a censorship crackdown for his luxurious lifestyle. Here we see him in full costume with a savage expression, capturing all the charisma and stage presence he must have possessed as a performer. Female impersonators (onnagata) were first introduced as a way of curbing licentious behaviour in the theatre, despite this the male actors proved to be hugely popular among audiences, and became legendary subjects for many Ukiyo-e prints. Performers such as Segawa Kikunojo V took their female personas so seriously that they often would parade around in full female garb outside of work and would even venture into the female part of bath houses.

Segawa Kikunojo V by Utagawa Kunisada, 1822

The culture of Courtesans during the Edo period is intrinsically tied up with Yoshiwara, which was the official licensed pleasure district in the city. It was first established in 1617 on marshy swamp land and it was swiftly established as an integral part of the city. As Edo grew however, the city had to move, freeing up the land where it stood and the pleasure quarters were then relocated to a site close to Asakusa Temple, which further encouraged business as it allowed for ‘pilgrims’ to take discreet detours to indulge in their lusty desires.

Girls as young as five were sold to the brothels and trained vigorously as they were expected to be masterful socialisers as well as accomplished. In these communities there was a stringent hierarchy, which differed enormously from one end to the other. Lower down courtesans were confined to the Yoshiwara. They were not allowed to leave without permission, and they were required to give a large portion of their earnings to the brothel and were displayed in a cage like structure as they waited to receive a patron.  Courtesans of the Yobidashi rank could move freely and often found immense wealth and fame among the public, who would hungrily purchase woodblock prints of their image. Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 -1806) was known for his prints of beautiful women and often depicted such famous beauties, who were distinguished from geisha by their elaborate hair styles. A perfect example of this would be this image of Karagoto of the House of Chojiya captured in an intimate pose.

Karagoto of the House of Chojiya by Kitagawa Utamaro, date unknown,

Like Courtesans, Geisha also drew admirers for their beauty, however they were strictly prohibited from selling sexual favours and were instead expected to take on a more erudite role. Geisha would serve as companions to large groups, mainly consisting of men, although there were some male Geisha, it was thought of as a female occupation, and was visually represented through their elaborate Kimonos and painted faces. Geisha were expected to be extremely accomplished, adopting musical and dance skills as well as being educated and able to hold their own in a conversation. In woodblock prints Geisha are much more modestly represented often playing a shamisen or arranging their hair, showcasing their talents and feminine appeal such as in this Masanobu print of two busy geisha who are elegantly transporting their musical instruments to another performance. In a way these prints probably were used as adverts for their services as well as mementos for their fans.

Two Geishas with attendant carrying box for musical instrument by Okumura Masanobu, 1755

Ukiyo-e prints depict the social trends of the era, perfectly capturing the dynamic changing landscape of Japan in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. This includes the thriving economy and the development of art mediums, as well as, the emergence of more every day subject matters such as depictions of celebrities who dominated popular media. It is a crucial and fascinating time capsule that is rich with information and beautiful visual details.






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