It is no small wonder that there is confusion between Courtesans, Oira and Geishas in Japanese culture. While courtesans and oiras specialised in sexual and sensual pleasure for men, geishas specialised in entertainment and art. Is there, or was there, a fine line? Shunga art suggests there may have been, as many of these women are featured similarly in erotic paintings.
Shunga art honours the Geisha. Geisha were women who entertained men. Men would choose their geisha her job would be to make him happy. It could be through any of the ancient traditions of art, music or dance. Geishas were not thought to become involved in sexual activity; this was left to courtesans. Yet if you look at shunga art, geishas were often at the feet of the man, pleasuring him, perhaps not with her hands but with her instruments.
Geishas would wear kimonos and traditional forms of Japanese make up, known as oshiroi. They did not look unlike courtesans and if you look at the various images of men and their geishas, also known as geikos (translated into Women of Art), there was a fine line. Women would be trained to become Geishas, often starting as young as fifteen.
An apprentice geisha would pour wine for a man – look at the shunga images – and look after his general needs. An apprentice geisha would earn a low salary while she learned and trained on the job. It could take a year to become a full geisha, and it could be said that many Japanese men preferred to have younger geishas. Geishas were obedient.
A geisha paved the way for a courtesan. Geishas would look after the man, give him wine, feed him, dance for him, and then – the courtesan would appear for sexual favours and more. It is for this reason that Japanese men, courtesans and geishas appear together in shunga art.