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The first geisha were men. No they weren’t cross-dressers, and no they weren’t gigolos either. The taikomochi (also known as houkan), were the original geisha of Japan and they were manly man men. I bet you didn’t know that the first geisha were male, now did you?

So what happened to them? What brought about their downfall and how come nobody really knows or cares about them anymore? Well, this article will answer those questions and introduce you to the relatively unknown world of the taikomochi. Brace yourselves.

Who Are These Strange Men?

The taikomochi men got their start as the Japanese equivalents of jesters, and they were once attendants to the feudal lords of Japan. Houkan was the formal name for a jester with taikomochi being a less formal name for them, literally meaning “drum bearer”. Not all of them used drums, but it nevertheless became the common term for them.

Taikomochi started doing their thing in 13th century Japan, focusing mainly on dancing, the electric slide and gangnam style being two of their favorites. These men both advised and entertained their lords with many being tea ceremony connoisseurs and artists. By the 16th century, they also became known for their superb storytelling, focusing mainly on humor and conversation. The taikomochi also acted as advisors to the military, were involved in strategizing, and even fought alongside their lords in battle.

Basically, the taikomochi could do anything – a jack of all trades, if you will. Need to be entertained? Taikomochi. Need someone to fight in battle for you? Taikomochi. Need some tea? Artwork? Music? Stories? War advice? Love advice? The winning lotto numbers? Taikomochi did it all, and they enjoyed their extreme usefulness for about four centuries.

Time for a Change

Photo by nicojay

An era of peace began in the 17th century, however, making the taikomochi not as useful to their lords as they used to be. No longer being needed for military advising and soldiering and the like, taikomochi had to focus their skills to a particular area. Entertainment. Ultimately, they changed from being men of many hats to becoming pure entertainers. A number of them found employment with oiran, high class female courtesans.

These courtesans were employed at pleasure quarters that had quickly become glamorous entertainment centers offering more than just sex to their patrons. The highly accomplished courtesans of these districts entertained their clients by dancing, singing, and playing music, much like the taikomochi did for their lords back in the day. Some were even renowned poets and calligraphers, just like the taikomochi.

What a perfect place for the taikomochi to get involved with. Gradually, the taikomochi and the courtesans both became specialized in their new profession of pure entertainment. The first pure entertainers of the pleasure quarters were the taikomochi, and they were dubbed geisha (arts person). These male geisha were responsible for entertaining customers waiting to see the most popular and gifted courtesans of the day.

Women Ruin Everything #sadface #misogynyisntfunny

Around 1750, the first onna geisha (female geisha) emerged, causing quite a commotion. She was called a geiko (arts girl), and this is still the term for geisha in Kyoto because they like to talk differently than everyone else in Japan. But anyway, this geiko was a Fukagawa prostitute. She was a skilled singer and shamisen player named Kikuya, and she was an immediate success. Kikuya pretty much singlehandedly started the downfall of male geisha everywhere.

I mean, if you think about it, most of the patrons of these pleasure quarters were men, and most men would rather be entertained by a woman instead of a man. All entertainment skills equal, most men would probably choose a woman to entertain them, just because they’re more fun to look at.

Kikuya made female geisha extremely popular in Fukagawa during this time. As female geisha became more widespread, many courtesans began working only as entertainers (rather than prostitutes) right in the same places as male geisha. By the end of the 18th century these onna geisha outnumbered the male geisha and the men became so few that they had to go by the name of otoko geisha (male geisha) to avoid confusion with their female counterparts.

The female geisha took over due to their artistic skills, contemporary outlook, sophistication, and boobs. The men, not wanting to throw in the towel just yet, continued to assist the women working in the pleasure quarters.

According to the book “Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World”, in Yoshiwara there were 16 female geisha and 31 male geisha in 1770, 33 female geisha and 31 male geisha in 1775, and then a whopping 143 female geisha and only 45 male geisha in 1800. The females started to really take over the field here and the role of the males was relegated to a role of supporting, rather than assisting, and most often only at big parties. The role of a geisha was now truly considered a female occupation.

The Decline of Geisha and the Rise of Maid Cafes and Host Clubs

During their heyday, there were about five or six hundred taikomochi in Japan. Since then, the geisha of both sexes started to decline with the increasing popularity of maid cafes and host clubs starting around 1920. Their decline sped up with World War II, and the taikomochi continue to decline today.

The main reason for the decline during the war was because most men and women had to go to factories or other places to work for Japan. The geisha name also lost status and respect during this time because prostitutes began referring to themselves as “geisha girls” to the American military.

In 1944, all of the geisha tea houses, bars, and houses, were forced to shut down, and all employees were put to work in factories for the war effort. About a year later, they were allowed to reopen, but very few men and women returned.

Although there are still small communities of geisha in Kyoto and Tokyo today, there are less than ten taikomochi in Japan. Few young women are interested in becoming geisha these days, and even fewer young men are interested in becoming taikomochi. Host clubs and maid cafes, however, are still going strong.


So tell me, did you already know that the first geisha were actually male? What do you think about their beginnings and how they eventually got stomped out by the female geisha and then society itself? Would you rather be a taikomochi or a host club host? Let us know in the comments!


Sites Referenced:
Wikipedia Taikomochi
Wikipedia: Geisha

  • Helio Perroni Filho

    ‘The geisha name also lost status and respect during this time because prostitutes began referring to themselves as “geisha girls” to the American military. (…) In 1944, all of the geisha tea houses, bars, and houses, were forced to shut down, and all employees were put to work in factories for the war effort. About a year later, they were allowed to reopen, but very few men and women returned.’

    So it’s more like “War (and American GI’s) ruin everything”, really.

  • ex-marine

    The GI’s only called them what they were told to call them. When I was there (as a GI) in the 60’s everyone knew the difference between a Geisha and a hooker. I imagine the girls figured they could tell the foreigners anything they wanted to.Might have been an ego trip being called a Geisha.

  • Koichinochichi

    I am pretty sure that Koichi would make a wonderful neo-geisha. Brojo power (as opposed to shoujo power)!

  • tomi

    I’d love to see a post on how men ruined kabuki, since the earliest performers of that kind of theatre were women #menruineverything

  • Applesauce 21

    The female geisha took over due to their artistic skills, contemporary outlook, sophistication, and boobs. pahahahaha XDXD

  • Applesauce 21

    Ok, I can sense I’m going to get hissed and booed, buuuuuuuuuuuut: Memoirs of a Geisha anyone? Accurate representation as exotic Japanese culture, or sensationalist romance?

  • Yuume

    Here, here! There’s always two sides to everything :p

  • Yuume

    Not quite. The article refers to how the male geisha business was ruined, not the geisha business in general. And the GIs called them what they were told, but mistakes that this come with any language barrier.

    However, it is true the war pretty much destroyed the business. I think though, it also kind of helped add a certain mysticism that wasn’t there before also. Now, people (tourists and such) go out of their way to go see the geisha, or are excited when they actually spot them out and about.

  • Ben Steed

    Very interesting read (as always). Had no idea they were originally men, but I knew men had something to do with geisha for quite a long time. Didn’t realise they were what they were, though. Great post, thanks John :D

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Luckily, hash tags fix everything. #hashitag

  • Jirugi

    Wait, Kabuki performers were originally women?

  • Brittney Howdyshell

    I believe The Hustle was also quite common, though only for the first half of the 16th century.

  • eplizo

    great read lol. learned lots from this. I as well knew that men had something to do with it and I’m pretty sure I knew they were the first geisha, but I wasn’t exactly sure and this helped refreshed my memory lmao.

  • YUP!!!

    So tell me, did you already know that the first geisha were actually male? Nope.

    What do you think about their beginnings and how they eventually got stomped out by the female geisha and then society itself? Nothing; things change.

    Would you rather be a taikomochi or a host club host? I would be a delectable taikomochi host in a fancy host club. Now, how’s that for two birds and one stone?

  • sadakokimono

    There is at least one cross-dressing geisha at the moment–Eitaro of Asakusa. His mother (Matsumoto Mariko) inherited her mother’s okiya and made sure that her children were trained in the arts. Both Eitaro and his sister were trained in dance and other gei, and he was trained as an onnagata (specialist in female roles). When Mariko died, Eitaro took over for his mother and now runs the Matsunoya.

  • sadakokimono

    It’s Asian Cinderella, as written by a white man. Arthur Golden at least did some research, and MoaG isn’t as bad as it could have been (i.e. $.99 pulp romance novels with geesha girls), but it’s a fairy tale, not research material.

    They took even more liberties in the movie, though.

  • sadakokimono

    Yeah–the dancer Okuni would write plays for the women in the pleasure houses to perform as entertainment/advertising during the day. She and her girls became wildly popular, and they were even invited to perform in Edo. But, like all good things, the government had to get in the way to cut down on the number of fist fights men were getting into in the audience while they tried to decide who would get to bed the lead actress that evening. A series of laws was passed that banned women from the stage in Japan, but by that time, this ‘proto-kabuki’ had become so popular that troupes of male performers could draw crowd just as big (and rowdy). This early history established many of the tropes still seen in Kabuki today.

  • Micaela

    TSUNEYUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!! <3 <3 <3

  • Lucas

    Why are you saying that women ruin everything? They rose to popularity because of how MEN chose them themselves, since most MEN see them as only sex objects.

  • John

    Haha, it’s a joke.

  • John

    I had no idea!

  • John

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  • #1MikuOtaku

    that’s very interesting. I’ve always wanted to work in a cafe in Japan, but becoming a geisha sounds more interesting. I hope they stay around for a while.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1438943897 Stephen Knight

    Actually, Eitaro and Matsunoya are one of the last remaining Oimachi (Shinagawa-ku) okiya. So great to see how the siblings have kept things together!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1434168513 Juan Fernando Castellón

    Brojo power? Bro-girl? 少女 I think you might want to say shou-bro (little bro) power. 少ブロー

  • Juliet

    ^ This. There seems to be a problem with people using fiction as fact. I read Iwasaki Mineko’s (the geisha Arthur Golden interviewed for his book) autobiography. It’s really interesting and worth a read.

  • http://twitter.com/etoile Meredith

    This is correct – Eitaro is based in Omori, not Asakusa. For those looking for more info, here’s a recent article: http://japandailypress.com/japans-only-male-geisha-who-performs-as-a-female-follows-his-mothers-footsteps-0619470

  • http://twitter.com/etoile Meredith

    And unfortunately, she was disappointed by his treatment of her story. :(