Throughout all of geisha history there are a few names that withstand the tests of time and are passed down through the years as records of talented women who bore them. One of these names belongs to a young girl from edo-era Fukagawa whose renown and actions changed Japanese culture forever: Kikuya.
To understand what made Kikuya more than just renown for her skill but also her role in history, one must be familiar with the role of geisha in 17th century Japan. Geisha were far from the demure and feminine image that many people associate with these entertainers today. In fact, it is widely believed that they didn’t even exist until the early edo period, when one of the founders of the red light district Yoshiwara became so fond of one of the male entertainers in the town that he bestowed his official crest upon him. From that point on, many brothels and businesses began to employ male entertainers to act as comedians and musicians for guests under the title of geisha. Later, around the early 1700’s, the profession split and geisha came to refer to male entertainers who specialized in song and dance rather than comedians, who gained their own separate title of taikomochi. It wasn’t until nearly 1750 when Kikuya transformed the meaning of the very word “geisha” into a term that would describe one of Japan’s most famous traditional female professions.
Although little is known about her after centuries without any official records, her significance and background are clear. Kikuya began life as an odoriko, or little dancer, in the mid 1700’s. The profession began when families, seeking a way to earn money, sent their daughters off to become entertainers for hire. Fukagawa in particular was home to a number of wealthy kabuki actors and merchants who would hire many of these young girls. Additionally, the prospect of catching the attention of one of these well-off men and eventually marrying them into the family was a possibility too alluring for many families to pass up. As a result, thousands of girls, some not yet even in their teens, were sent to train and become dancers in Fukagawa. The amount of girls that also became prostitute is unclear, however the term odoriko is, for some, synonyms with selling one’s body. Regardless, most historians agree that Kikuya must have began her career as one of these girls.
What sets Kikuya apart from her peers however, is not only her unparalleled skill but what she chose to do with it. By roughly 1750 she had gained enough fame for her talent in shamisen playing and singing that she had amassed considerable fame. Enough fame, at least, to support her as a full time freelance artist rather than a prostitute or odoriko contracted under one man. It said that she adopted the title of a geisha, after the male entertainers in yoshiwara, and the name caught on among women not just in Fukagawa, but in many districts across edo Japan. Soon the popularity of female geisha had expanded to vastly overshadow their male predecessors. Because of Kikuya’s ability and fateful choice, she is still known today as the first of one of Japan’s most famous traditional professions.
Downer, L. (2005). Geisha: the secret history of a vanishing world. London: Headline.
Geisha: beyond the painted smile. (2004). New York: George Braziller.