In the early stages of Japanese history there were female entertainers: saburuko (serving girls) were mostly wandering girls whose families were displaced from struggles in the late 600s. Some of these saburuko girls sold sexual services, while others with a better education made a living by entertaining at high-class social gatherings. After the imperial court moved the capital to Heian-kyō (Kyoto) in 794 the conditions that would form Japanese Geisha culture began to emerge, as it became the home of a beauty-obsessed elite. Skilled female performers, such as Shirabyōshi dancers, thrived.
Traditional Japan embraced sexual delights (it is not a Shinto taboo) and men were not constrained to be faithful to their wives. The ideal wife was a modest mother and manager of the home, by Confucian custom love had secondary importance. For sexual enjoyment and romantic attachment, men did not go to their wives, but to courtesans. Walled-in pleasure quarters were built in the 16th century, and in 1617 the shogunate designated “pleasure quarters”, outside of which prostitution would be illegal, and within which “yūjo” (“play women”) would be classified and licensed. The highest yūjo class was the Geisha’s predecessor, called “Oiran”, a combination of actress and prostitute, originally playing on stages set in the dry Kamo riverbed in Kyoto. They performed erotic dances and skits, and this new art was dubbed kabuku, meaning “to be wild and outrageous”. The dances were called “kabuki,” and this was the beginning of kabuki theater.
These pleasure quarters quickly became glamorous entertainment centers, offering more than sex. The highly accomplished courtesans of these districts entertained their clients by dancing, singing, and playing music. Some were renowned poets and calligraphers. Gradually, they all became specialized and the new profession, purely of entertainment, arose. It was near the turn of the eighteenth century that the first entertainers of the pleasure quarters, called geisha, appeared. The very first geishas were men, entertaining customers waiting to see the most popular and gifted courtesans (oiran).
The forerunners of the female geisha were the teenage odoriko expensively-trained as chaste dancers-for-hire. In the 1680s, they were popular paid entertainers in the private homes of upper-class samurai, though many had turned to prostitution by the early 18th century. Those who were no longer teenagers (and could no longer style themselves odoriko adopted other names —one being “geisha”, after the male entertainers. The first women known to have called herself geisha was a Fukagawa prostitute, in about 1750. She was a skilled singer and shamisen-player named Kikuya who was an immediate success, making female geisha extremely popular in 1750s Fukagawa. As they became more widespread throughout the 1760s and 1770s, many began working only as entertainers (rather than prostitutes) often in the same establishments as male geisha.