Fascinating stuff this – and a real challenge to Judeo-Christian mores. This also gives me a chance to enter into a new topic that is closely related to my novel Navaratri, that of the sacred prostitute.

Prostitution is not a sin under Buddhism. The payment of money, support, patronage, etc for sexual favours is considered fair and ethical. The Judeo-Christian condemnation of prostitution has a number of causes, which I will discuss at a later date. For now let me say that one is purely religious – several competing religions allowed some form of sacred sex and as the patriarchal Hebrews fought to remove any mention of the goddess, they also attacked any and all priestesses (some of whom engaged in sacred sex).

Shinto also has no moral issue with either sex or prostitution, so prostitution has always been legal in some form in Japan. This does not mean it was unregulated. There were periods when it was highly regulated. During the Edo period prostitution was only permitted in designated areas. These were collectively called ukiyo, the Floating World, because it was usually separated by a moat. These areas were filled with brothels, inns, tea houses and kabuki theatres. And with all things Japanese, these traditions became highly ritualised, mostly for aesthetic reasons.

I was familiar with the image of the Geisha, but what I did not know is that the Geisha is a relatively modern invention. The first woman to use the term was Geisha was a prostitute called Kikuya in 1750. Until then, the role of the chaste performer was performed by teenage dancing girls called odoriko, but the Geisha became more than a dancer: she was also a singer, musician, poet and conversationalist.

But here’s the interesting thing. I can recall seeing pictures and film of modern Geisha walking through the streets in traditional clothes. Except they weren’t Geisha, they were oiran – courtesans. To avoid offending Judeo-Christian sensibilities the narrators called the Oiran Geisha and pretended that she was a highly respected, high-class prostitute.

Geisha were hosts and entertainers and they were often called upon to entertain the guests at a high-class brothel. It was the Oiran who would perform the paid sexual favours.

Both the Geisha and Oiran were considered professions and both had a system of apprenticeship. A modern apprentice Geisha is called a maiko, but in earlier times a young girl would enter her training as young as 5 and begin as a shikomi (servant) then become a minarai (watching apprentice) and finally a maiko at around 13.

Oiran with her Shinzo and Kamuro

Oiran with her Shinzo and Kamuro

A similar system applied to Oiran. A young girl was sold to a brothel at around age 5 where she became a kamuro, the Oiran’s servant. A successful Oiran might have several kamuro who would act as messengers, attendants and maids. When she reached the age of 9-10 she would become a shinzo, an apprentice.

This may seem shocking to the Western mind but the Oiran was considered a worthy and highly skilled profession. It was a way for a poor rural girl to gain wealth and prestige. It must also be understood that the Japanese did not (and do not) find it necessary to hide the reality of sex from children. As a peasant girl she very likely slept in the same bed as her parents as they had sex. Remember, Shinto does not see sex as a moral problem that children need protection from. It is considered a natural part of life. Therefore the Kamuro understood the nature of their future profession and likely witnessed the Oiran at work. It is also highly likely that they experienced some playful sexual teasing at the hands of clients. Again, Japanese children were not excluded from ribald humour or ‘playful’ sexual teasing and I must hasten to add that there seems little evidence that there was ‘serious’ sexual abuse or the type of child prostitution found in 19th century England (or paedophilia as such).

This is where we come to the tradition of mizuage, the initiation into full Geisha or Oiran status. This unambiguously involved a patron paying a considerable sum to take the virginity of the meiko or shinzo, usually around the age of 13-14. In the case of the Geisha this was a one-off event and he was not allowed to continue a sexual relationship.

Again this is often a matter of considerable misunderstanding in the Christian West. The Judeo-Christian concepts of virgin and loosing virginity do not apply. It is unlikely that the apprentice Geisha or Oiran had an intact hymen or that the client expected her to experience pain and to bleed. This seems to be an Abrahamic cruelty imposed to replay the sin of Eve. Certainly the apprentice had been instructed in sexual technique with the Oiran or Geisha onee-san (older sister) awakening the apprentice’s sexuality and stretching her hymen. Nor did the chosen patron necessarily see this as a kind of conquest. In the case of the Geisha he was expected to pay a large enough sum to guarantee her career and secure her livelihood. To be a patron of a Geisha was an honorific and a status symbol, similar to being a patron the Arts. It is also unlikely that the patron would have wanted to try and break in a scared, inexperienced girl. He would have expected some skill and responsiveness, not distress and blood. Indeed, like many in the East, the Japanese saw sex as an art with the Geisha and Oiran being masters of the erotic arts. The patron was more likely to approach the apprentice with reverence and respect, not crude lust.

The tradition of the mizuage continued until it was outlawed in 1959, largely due to pressure from the Christian West (although the age of consent remains 13 in Japan). The tradition of the Oiran is still honoured in the form of the oiran dõchu, the Oiran parade, and little girls still dress as Kamuro.

Although I haven’t yet found a supporting source, it seems remarkable that the word Kamuro bears a similarity to the Sanskrit kumari, which means virgin. And the tradition of the Oiran also very similar to the Indian tradition of the devidasi and courtesans (baiji, tawayaf), but more on this later…