The Onnagata
"Geisha Dolls"
Oiran and Onnagata
Musume Dojoji
Dancing with the Spring Horse
Fuji Musume
Shiokumi: Legend, Play, Doll

"Geisha Dolls"

     Though the silk-faced ningyo are often generically referred to as "geisha dolls," only a few specifically represent the historical type of the geisha. The training (and regulating) of ladies as professionals in the art of pleasing men is an old tradition in Japan, dating at least from the early 17th century when the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter was established in Edo. The Yoshiwara women were vital to the imaginations both of the woodblock artists and of the kabuki drama.
      The best classes among these women of pleasure were the oiran; an oiran  could pick her lovers among the wealthiest citizens (or love a poor man as well if she chose, especially in a play!), and she might walk out elaborately dressed (brocade obi tied in front, high platform geta shoes, and the most elaborate hairstyle possible), attended by apprentices and little girls. A different class was the geisha, originally an entertainer who played and sang for the oiran and her customers; eventually, however, the more quietly dressed, more variously talented geisha came to be more popular with the men of Edo than the oiran were. (The oiran culture has been supplanted in modern Japan by the geisha, who are still important as women ready to function in public.) A geisha is usually presented as a doll in a rich dark kimono with a simple obi, ready to play her samisen. We must also mention the maiko, a young dancer or apprentice geisha, usually particularly bright-looking with the long sleeves worn only by young girls, often with a parasol ready to go enjoy the world.

Geisha with samisen
The Maiko's geta are high, but the Oiran's are higher! All three are from Sakura Dolls of Japan (Abston & Uchioke, 1963). Is the lady a historical costume doll or a figure from a living dramatic tradition?
Because the ladies of the Yoshiwara and the teahouses were of such great interest to the Edo consumers, they were favorite subjects of woodblock artists, who would draw their portraits in various complimentary guises, or depict them strolling among the citizens. They were also part of the imagination of popular authors of novels, poetry, and plays for puppets or kabuki. As the art of the onnagata developed, the ladies themselves would imitate the actors who imitated them onstage. It may be difficult to tell, except from the literary context, whether a particular image is meant to portray an oiran, an onnagata, or a literary character who combines aspects of both. Although the sex of the "geisha dolls" is usually assumed to be female, it might be helpful to imagine them rather as belonging to this cross-gendered fantasy world.

This delicate creature is an oiran preparing for a customer, as depicted by Suzuki Haronubu in a woodblock illustration to  The Elegant Amorous Adventures of Maneemon, around 1765. Note the tiny hands and features.

This lady with a bull is not a lady but the Kabuki actor Segawa Ugiro as depicted by Buncho (1772). The actor's forelock was shaved, by law, in a specifically masculine style, but  was  usually covered onstage by a purple cap. Note how similar the hairstyle and clothing style, and even the tiny hands, to those of Haronobu's oiran above.
This lovely creature, in a woodblock by Torii Kiyomitsu, would seem to be an oiran: the elegant but elaborate hairstyle, the rich clothing and huge brocade obi bow are beautifully rendered--though her feet are bare. But the 1761 portrait is in fact of Segawa Kikunojo II, in the kabuki role of a young girl, "like a slender twig of plum blossoms," in love. For this poetic rendering, there is no hint of the actor's shaven forelock. The artist seems to have combined the elements of the maiden in the story with the actor's presence and the voluptuous fashions of the Yoshiwara to create a fantasy image that is both male and female, virgin and whore.
 The famous Kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando in an oiran role, circa 1995.  The umbrella and roll of paper tucked above the obi suggest that the character is on her way to a tryst. The face suggests tragedy. The brush sketch of an oiran is by Hokusai, about 1797, illustrating a gently satirical verse about oiran speech mannerisms.