Fukagawa may have only been a small district in the history of geisha in Tokyo, however there are several historical aspects that make the Fukagawa geisha stand out, such as how the very beginning of female geisha is said to have originated within this districts borders. This major aspect of Geisha history makes it important to understand the culture and circumstances under which the birth of female geisha was possible in the first place.
Fukagawa in the Edo era was an area that was ripe for female entertainers to work for multiple reasons; the physical location of Fukagawa, demographics, and social circumstances.
The town of Fukagawa was a “Shitamachi” area, meaning it resided near sea level. Furthermore, Fukagawa was situated adjacent to the river Sumida, which allowed the area to flourish as an industry for lumber and, on a smaller scale, kimono. The presence of an active and successful lumber industry was possible due in part to the river Sumida. Before motorized vehicles like trucks that could haul logs quickly were developed, one of the only feasible ways to transport lumber on a commercial scale was by boat, as the buoyancy of a raft on water would combat the intense weight of its cargo. This industry was most prominent supporting factor that transformed a relatively rural Fukagawa into a suburb. Additionally, running water enabled artisan tailors to practice their craft, as the creation of kimonos required a source of running water. And where there could be kimono shops, geisha houses could more easily exist. Thus the Sumida river determined a large portion of why Fukagawa would become a prime location for one of edo’s greatest geisha districts.
Not all of the tatsumi geisha’s success was due to to Fukagawa’s geographical structure however. The presence of the Hachimangu shrine for example, was of crucial importantance. Because Fukagawa was a sort of suburban area that was inconvenient to access, particularly if one didn’t have any business crossing the river, the town may have remained an essentially industrial had it not been for the shrine and the decision of a few government officials. At the time, the shogunate government had strict regulations about everything, including prostitution and the kind of jobs women could hold. These regulations should have made it impossible for Fukagawa to house brothels or geisha as it was not a licensed district like Yoshiwara. Fortunately for geisha and prostitutes though, the government had a few conflicting interests. The officials overseeing Fukagawa were sympathetic to pilgrims to the shrine who would have to travel far from of their paths without much else to occupy them just in order to pay their respects. In the interest of increasing the shrines attendance and popularity the officials claimed to be merciful and, for the most part, allowed prostitutes to conduct their business without being immediately shut down. This, in combination with the fact that Fukagawa location somewhat distant from the capital encouraged police to be more lax with law enforcement made Fukagawa an environment in which red light workers and eventually geisha could prosper for much of the edo era.
- Downer, L. (2005). Geisha: the secret history of a vanishing world. London: Headline.Fukagawa. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2017
- Fukagawa Edo Museum, Koto City, Tokyo. Accessed November 25, 2017.