What is a Geisha

What is a Geisha?

A Geisha (芸者, lit. "Person of art"), also known as Geiko (芸子) or Geigi (芸妓) depending of the region, is a Japanese woman who practices and masters the traditional Japanese arts such as dances, fanning, singing, playing instruments, ikebana (floral composition) and the art of conversation. The profession of Geisha, practiced at first by men called Taikomochi, dates back to the 8th century and was taught to young girls from a very young age at Okiya houses during a very intensive training that could last between 5 to 10 years. Apprentices who obtained the rank of Geisha could then sell their talents for profit to wealthy people who hired their services for special occasions such as important events and business dinners. As true women of art, Geisha did not offered sexual favors in exchange of money.  

Without a doubt, Geishas represent the most beautiful and poetic symbol among the myriad of fantasies in Japanese culture. At the same time dancers, singers, specialists in floral art, shamisen (3 stringed lute) and tea ceremony, these beautiful women are the ambassadors of Japanese art. 

Artists and guardians of Japanese traditions, Geishas have even become a Fashion symbol and refinement of traditional Japan. 


    Etymology and Vocabulary


    Formed by the kanji 芸 (Gei) meaning "culture" or "art" and the kanji 者 (Sha) which can be translated as "person", the term Geisha literally means "person of art" or "person practicing art".

    The Plural of Geisha can either be Geisha or Geishas.

    To pronounce Geisha correctly, you need to spell it like [ɡeːɕa}


    Geiko (芸子) is a regional term to describe a geisha in Western Japan cities such as Kyoto and Kanazawa. This term literally translates as "woman of art" in a dialect spoken by geisha in Kyoto and Western Japan.


    Taikomochi (太鼓持ち, lit. "male professional entertainer") were Geisha men and the ancestors of our today's Geisha. Taikomochi were for a long time the only people to have the huge privilege to entertain the noble lords in the 8th century.


    Hanamachi (花街, lit. 'flower town') is the district where a geisha works, is affiliated to, and potentially lives. Generally, each hanamachi is part of a Karyūkai and has its own name. Geisha who operate or are affiliated to a certain district do not usually take works outside of their hanamachi, though customers may call them for special occasions in other districts.


    A Karyūkai (花柳界, lit. 'flower and willow world') is a sector that regroups all the Hanamachi of a certain region. Today, the term Karyūkai refers universally to the geisha world, but in the past, karyūkai referred to all the entertainment districts (the "world") of both geisha and courtesans, with Oiran (high ranking courtesans) acting as the "flowers", ostensibly for their beautiful and showy appearance, and Geisha being the subtler "willows".


    Kagai (花街, lit. 'flower towns') is an alternative term for Karyūkai. It's a term that refers to all the districts in which geisha live and work.


    Gokagai (五花街, lit. ' the five flower towns') are the 5 geisha districts of Kyoto:

    • Gion
    • Kobu and Gion Higashi
    • Ponto-chō
    • Miyagawa-chō
    • Kamishichiken

    Shimabara used to be the 6th hanamachi of Kyoto but is not referred to as an hanamachi anymore.


    Oiran (花魁) were the term for prostitutes in the region of Tokyo during the Edo Period. Oiran were very popular and highly regarded as their beauty were said to be exquisite.


    Han-gyoku (半玉, lit.  half-jewel) is the term used to describe an apprentice geisha in some regions of Japan such as Tokyo.


    Maiko (舞妓, lit. dancing child)  is the most common term to refer to an apprentice geisha. This is the first stage during the process of becoming a Geisha.


    Shikomi (仕込み, lit. "preparation" or "training") is the first typical stage of a maiko's training. Shikomi apprentices wear a simple type of kimono, a distinctive hairstyle and makeup of fully-fledged maiko.


    Minarai (見習い, lit.  learning by observation) is the second typical stage of a maiko's training, after shikomi. A minarai apprentice wears a version of a maiko's outfit, with a shorter obi, shorter kimono sleeves, and more hair accessories (kanzashi).


    During the minarai stage, an apprentice will receive training through one specific teahouse, referred to as the minarai-jaya.

    Mizu shōbai

    Mizu shōbai (水商売, lit.  water business) is term used to describe the entertainment and red-light districts in Japan, including the kabuki districts (Japanese theater) and geisha districts (Hanamachi).


    Ochaya (お茶屋, lit. 'teahouse') are the teahouses where Geisha take and entertain their guests.


    An Okiya (置屋, lit. "Geisha House") is the house that a geisha is affiliated to. All geisha must be registered to an Okiya to operate inside an Hanamachi, even if they do not live inside it anymore. Okiya are usually run by a Okāsan (お母さん, lit. "mother"), many of them were ex-geisha.

    In certain cases, Geisha may entertain guests within their okiya instead of a Ochaya.


    Ozashiki (お座敷, lit. gathering) is the term for a geisha's engagement for a part or the whole of an evening. The term Ozashiki is a combination of the word zashiki (座敷, lit. dinner party in a tatami room) and the honorific prefix O- (お), which exclusively refers to a geisha engagement.


    Tōde (lit. 'distant outings') is a term that refers to all Geisha engagements that are not held in licensed restaurants, teahouses, or at a geisha's own hanamachi. 

    History of the Geisha


    Since the beginning, the universe of Geisha is a very closed and secret world full of myths and secrets that intrigues even the most érudites of Japanese Culture. But, did you ever asked yourself where do Geishas come from?

    The origin of Geisha dates back to the 13th century and started in Gion (祇園), the most popular district of Kyoto at that time. However, some sources say that the first glances of Geishas dates back to the year 794 with the dancers of the emperor Kammu. At that time, the first Geisha were mostly men commonly called Taikomochi. 

    ● Are Geishas Japanese or Chinese?

    Although many elements of Japanese culture were imported from China, Geisha are purely Japanese, and so despite the fact that there are professions similar to Geisha in Chinese culture.

    What do Geishas do?

    The main role of a Geisha is to entertain prestigious clients and accompany the elite of Japanese society at shows or banquets called Zashiki (座敷, a traditional Japanese-style room with tatami flooring). To do so, Geisha need to master and own a wide range of artistic talents such as:

    • Traditional Japanese dances
    • Fan Dances
    • Great knowledge in Literature
    • Floral composition
    • Singing
    • Playing instruments (like the shamisen)
    • Poetry
    • Art of conversation
    • Great general culture

    Even today, Geishas are highly respected and their clients, who are usually businessmen, politicians or wealthy individuals, spend huge amounts of money to enjoy their company. Note that the price of a Geisha's services varies according to the time she spends with her client.

    The more time spent, the more expensive the bill will be. Also, it is important to know that if the meetings take place in a Ochaya (Japanese tea house), the client is also required to pay for the meals and drinks consumed.

    Difference between Geisha and sex workers

    Do never compare a Geisha to a sex worker in Japan, and that for good reason. From the beginning, Geisha have fought to differentiate themselves from other low class entertainers such as courtesans and prostitutes called Yūjo.

    Yūjo (遊女, "women of pleasure") worked in the pleasure districts and practiced art and entertainment while offering sexual favors to samurai warriors. However, despite the fact that they lived in the same districts, Geisha were not known to ever offer sexual services to their customers. Geisha were above all women of virtue who devoted their lives to traditional Japanese arts.

    17th century: The Prelude of the 1st Geisha

    In the early 17th century, contrary to what one might think, the vast majority of Geisha were men, descendants of the Taikomochi.

    Taikomochi, the Male Geisha

    Taikomochi (太鼓持ち, lit. "male professional entertainer") were Geisha men that  for a long time were the only people to have the huge privilege to entertain the noble lords since the 8th century.

    Indeed, Taikomochi were true masters in the art of the tea ceremony and fine dancers. Moreover, at the very beginning, the white powder, the Oshiroi (白粉, lit. "White powder"), was mainly used by men. 

    But as the periods progressed, female artists known as Saburuko (さぶる児, lit. "sexual entertainer") were increasingly in demand. Thus, a few carefully chosen women joined the ranks of Taikomochi where their role was to provide artistic services such as music, reciting poems, but also to offer carnal pleasures.

    18th century: The Birth of the Geisha Profession

    The 18th century, there were several important changes in the association of Geisha in Japanese society.

    The first major event was the opening to women of the Zashiki (座敷), a traditional Japanese-style room with tatami flooring previously only reserved only for men. So the Geisha started to work in Zashiki as sake servers for guests and their ability to hold conversations allowed them to step closer to important figures of Japanese society. Thanks to this, they were able to take a more important place in the role of artists during the Tokugawa era (1603 to 1867) during which they finally earned their famous name of "women of art".

    Later, the profession of Geisha was officially recognized by the Japanese government in 1779, The Geishas of Kyoto and other Japanese cities became more and more numerous which led gradually to the end of the male Geisha.

    Moreover, the Geisha title became heavily regulated by the Japanese government, which helped the affiliation of the profession of Geisha to prostitution to be gradually eliminated. Geishas also received a status of artists in their own right, thus obtaining a higher rank and embodied aestheticism, spirituality, intelligence and voluptuousness.

    Because of these huge changes in their profession, Geishas no longer needed to rely on sexual relations to earn their living as they were now solicited for their great mastery of Japanese arts (dance, musical instruments, singing, calligraphy, poetry...). But, of course, many Geishas still kept selling their bodies in secret for profit.

    According to legends, the first Geisha as we know her today was named Kikuya, a female artist who lived in Fukagawa around 1750 and was known as a great shamisen player.

    19th century: The Golden Age of the Geisha

    From the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, Geisha women, more popular than ever, experienced a great period of prosperity. They were considered true fashion icons and ambassadors of Japanese customs.

    During this period, the number of Geisha women increased exponentially. There were tens of thousands of these living dolls not only in Kyoto, but also all over Japan. Propelled by a samurai clientele particularly fond of Geishas and by the Meiji government, the economy of the pleasure districts where they worked became extremely profitable.

    A simple evening with prestigious guests could bring in hundreds of thousands of yen for their Okiya (Geisha house). Moreover, the most coveted Geisha were never short of work.

    20th century: The Decline of the Geisha Profession

    Unfortunately, during the Second World War, the golden age of Geisha came to an end with the closing of the pleasure district in 1944. At that time, Geiko and Maiko were requisitioned for the war effort by working in factories. After the defeat of Japan, another type of Geisha was born: the Onsen Geisha.

    Onsen Geisha were free women who sought work from American soldiers in the Onsen areas (thermal bath). In reality, the Onsen Geisha were more like a prostitute than a Geisha.

    In 1957, prostitution was formally forbidden in the Japanese archipelago. A clear distinction was therefore made between prostitutes and Geisha. Moreover, from this period, it was forbidden for a young girl to leave school before the age of 16 and 18 in Tokyo. As a result, the number of Geisha continued to decline.

    Do Geisha still exist?

    Although Geisha still exist today, unfortunately, the profession is slowly disappearing and there are now only a few hundred women in training or practicing. According to figures, only 200 Geishas practice this profession in Japan today.

    Figures from the Foundation for the Development of Traditional Arts and Music of Kyoto counted in 1965 nearly 65 female apprentices in Kyoto. By 1975, this number had dropped from 65 to 28.

    Modern Geisha Today

    Modern Geisha still live in traditional Geisha houses called Okiya in hanamachi areas, especially during their apprenticeship. Many experienced Geisha who are successful enough choose to live independently and may rent accommodation for themselves.

    Young women who wish to become Geisha most often begin their training after completing high school or even college. As a rule, they begin their careers as adults. Still today, Geisha study traditional instruments such as the shamisen, shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and drums, as well as traditional songs, traditional Japanese dance, the tea ceremony, literature and poetry.

    By watching other Geisha, and with the help of the Geisha house owner, apprentices also become skilled in the intricate traditions surrounding the selection and wearing of kimono, and the art of dealing with customers.

    Kyoto is considered by many to be the place where the Geisha tradition is the strongest today where they are known as Geiko but the Tokyo hanamachi of Shimbashi, Asakusa and Kagurazaka are also very notorious.

    Even today in modern Japan, Geishas are often hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally in teahouses (茶屋, ochaya) or traditional Japanese restaurants (ryōtei). Earnings of a Geisha are measured by the time it takes to burn an incense stick and is called senkōdai (線香代, "incense stick price") or gyokudai (玉代 "jewelry price").In Kyoto, the terms ohana (お花 and hanadai (花代), which mean "flower fee," are preferred.

    Customers can book a Geisha through the Geisha union office known as kenban (検番). Kenban then takes care of the schedule of each Geisha and makes her appointments for the day.

    The world of Geisha is changing rapidly while still respecting traditions. Whereas in the past, one could only become a Geisha through personal connections, today some training houses advertise on the Internet. Geisha are adapting to a new niche and fear extinction if they are not able to find enough customers in a changing world.

    in the 2010s, there has been a small increase in the number of young women who wish to join this very special artistic milieu and become a modern Geisha, but the profession of Geisha does not attract as many as before. Among other things, it takes at least USD 5500$ to afford a real Geisha kimono, which explains why this discipline is nowadays not very accessible

    Do Geisha still sell their virginity?

    Even if some rituals surrounding this universe still exist today, it is important to note that traditions have changed a lot today. Among other things, the ritual of Mizu-age which meant that a Geisha needed to loose her virginity is no longer necessary.

    Most Famous Geisha

    Even today, the most famous Geisha recognized throughout the world remains Mineko Iwasaki.

    Mineko Iwasaki is a Japanese businesswoman, author and former Geiko (Kyoto's term for Geisha). At the peak of her career in the 1970s, Mineko Iwasaki was probably the most famous and highest-earning Geisha in Japan

    During her career, Iwasaki worked with many celebrities and political figures, both Japanese and foreign, such as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles.


    Where did Geisha live?

    Even today, the vast majority of Geisha live and are trained within special neighborhoods called Hanamachi (花街, lit. "flower town"). However, before the founding of these districts following the rise in popularity of Geisha in the 1700s, they used to live alongside courtesans and prostitutes in other districts called Yūkaku.

    Yūkaku, the Prostitute Districts

    Yūkaku (遊廓, lit. "red light district") were the hot districts of Japan that preceded the arrival of the Hanamachi. In the 17th century, the Japanese governement had decided to legalize prostitution by opening 3 Yūkaku; the 1st one was established in Yoshiwara and the others in Shimabara (Kyoto) and Shinmachi (Osaka).

    Yūkaku were thus the brothels where sex workers known as Yūjo (遊 女, lit. "pleasure woman") received their clients. Far from the idea that we may have of this kind of place, the Yūkaku were heavily regulated in order to avoid excess. In addition, there was also a hierarchy between the different sex workers, with the highest grade recognized directly by the Japanese government at the time called Oiran (花魁, a category of high ranking courtesan who offer both sexual and artistic performance).

    With the rise in popularity of the Geisha profession, they gradually began to settle within these neighborhoods beginning in the 18th century. In the mid-1700s, Geisha services were so requested that they began to compete for services against other Yūjo and courtesans, however retreating themselves to offer sex like them.

    This important distinction between Geisha, pure and artistic, offering companionship and entertainment to men at parties gradually marked their history as a woman of art, free of all constraints unlike courtesans. Moreover, the profession of Geisha were heavily respected unlike the Yūjo who, in addition to have a reputation of depraved, were known to be thieves and swindlers.

    As Geisha became part of the cultural landscape of pre-war Japan, they gradually began to move into specific areas called Hanamachi.

    Hanamachi, the Geisha Districts

    Hanamachi (花街, lit. "flower town") were the districts where Geisha lived and entertained their clients. The first hanamachi originated in the Kyoto district where they were more commonly known as Kagai (加害) which also means "flower town" but in a dialect unique to Kyoto.

    There used to be 6 active Hanamachi in the Kyoto area, but only 5 remain today which are often named the Gokagai (五花街, "five flower towns"). They are located in:

    • Gion (祇園)
    • Miyagawa-chō (宮川町)
    • Kamishichiken (上七軒)
    • Pontochō (先斗町)

    In Tokyo, there are 6 famous Hanamachi located in:

    • Asakusa (浅草)
    • Akasaka (赤坂)
    • Kagurazaka (神楽坂)
    • Shimbashi (新橋)
    • Mukōjima (向島)
    • Yoshichō (芳町)

    At that time, each Hanamachi had its own internal hierarchical system and functioned independently of the others. Moreover, each of them had its own name and its own emblem called crest, a symbol that was found notably on the embroidery of Geisha's kimonos and on the Japanese lanterns at the entrance of each house.

    Thanks to these demarcations, it was easy to recognize from which district a certain Geisha belonged. Moreover, this demarcation forced the Geisha to work only inside the Hanamachi from which they were from, thus avoiding any unfair competition with the others.

    Within each Hanamachi, there were many strategic places for the Geisha:

    • The Ochaya (お茶屋, literally "tea house") where Geisha brought their clients
    • The Kaburenjō (歌舞練所) which are large rooms where Geisha could perform their traditional dances
    • The Kenban where transactions were carried out in order to pay for a Geisha's services
    • The Okiya (置屋) the Geisha's living places

    Okiya, the Geisha Houses

    An Okiya (置屋, lit. "Geisha House") is the home where Geishas and their apprentices (Maiko) lived and were educated. Each Okiya is headed by a former Geisha whom is affectionately call Okāsan (お母さん, lit. "mother"). Each Geisha apprentice respects the Okāsan as a biological mother and is treated in return as a daughter by her.

    The vast majority of Geisha in the 17-18th centuries were bought from poor families at the age of 9-10 years in order to be educated from an early age, but it was also possible for women to join a Geisha house by will as long as they were accepted by the Okāsan.

    Upon arrival in the Okiya, the Okāsan holds a ceremony where the mother and daughter will bind themselves through a contract called Nenki (年季, traditional word to describe a Geisha contract with a Okiya owner).

    Through the Nenki, the Okāsan commits herself to take care of all the training expenses of her apprentice (kimonos, accessories, food, medical care, etc...). On her side, the girl commits herself to dedicate her life to become a real Geisha by following the teachings of her older sisters until she pays back her debt later on when she gets her first incomes.

    Finally, the Okiya also served as a booking place where different clients came to reserve the services of Geisha for a certain day.


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