During the mid-1870s, fearing the legal innovations of a “civilized” state, geisha and their employers recast Tokugawa-era practices of civic engagement and educational attainment in the language of enlightenment. Proprietors built schools intended to transform geisha into productive and moral mothers, and geisha donated to local educational institutions and suggested that their own studies would lead to self-sufficiency and freedom. These efforts associated geisha with the values of productivity and enlightenment, although similar strategies proved less successful for prostitutes. However, by the 1880s, both geisha and prostitutes were increasingly denied access to education and excluded from ideals of enlightened femininity that were predicated on marriage. This article considers how a group of unlikely actors deployed the Tokugawa past to become civilized, and in the process promoted ideas about the purpose of women's education that would later be expressed by an icon of Meiji modernity: the “good wife, wise mother.”

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