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:
- Kobu and Gion Higashi
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.
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?
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
- Playing instruments (like the shamisen)
- 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.
To become a Geisha is a long and painful process that took 4 to 5 years in the past. As often in Japan, the training is done in successive stages, the little girl graduating from the rank of Shikomi, to that of Minarai, Maiko to finally become a Geisha. These stages still exist today.
Shikomi (仕込み, “servant in formation”) is the first rank in the way of becoming a Geisha. At this step, young girls are only in charge of heavy domestic tasks and are at the service of the other Geisha of the Okiya. They also start learning different artistic disciplines. This phase is supposed to break their character and forge them into becoming a Geisha apprentice.
When they show certain talents (especially in dance), a Shikomi becomes a Minarai (見習い, lit. “apprentice”). She no longer has to do household chores and receives a more artistic education. Minarai often work in a tea house where they learn the tea ceremony.
Upon completion of her Minarai training, she becomes an apprentice Geisha called Maiko (舞子, lit “dancing child). The apprentice is then assigned to an experienced Geisha of a higher rank whom she will call Onē-san (お姉さん, honorific term for “big sister”) whom she will follow on her appointments in order to benefit from her knowledge and skills.
By following the teachings of her Onē-san, the apprentice Maiko will gradually perfect the art of conversation and various artistic disciplines. She will then be able to start to get noticed by potential client in order to build her future clientele.
To become a Geisha, a Maiko needs to pass an examination that will validate her mastery of a set of artistic disciplines as well as the Erikae and Mizu-age ceremonies.
Erikae (襟替え, “change of collar”) is the ceremony of changing the collar of the Geisha’s Kimono. The red collar of the apprentice is changed to white, marking her as confirmed Geisha.
Mizu-age (水揚げ, lit. “deflowering”) is a very controversial tradition among Geisha that marks the transition from a Maiko to Geisha and was held when the Onē-san in charge of the Maiko’s felt that her student was ready. Some rumors say that this ceremony putted a price on the virginity of the apprentice Geisha that went to the highest bidder. Other rumors say that this ceremony marked an important change in the life of a Geisha who had to cut her hair and wear a special type of wig called “katsura“.
At the end of these two ceremonies, the Maiko can now access the rank of Geisha and animate her own events where she would start to be paid for her services.
As you can see, becoming a Geisha is a long term work and the consecration of years of intensive work. Today, the training of Geisha has remained largely the same, although it is probably shorter. Moreover, apprentices have to embrace this career of their own free will; the average age of an apprentice is 17 or 18 years old.
Reimbursement of the training
Once their Geisha training completed, the Geiko had to pay back their debt accumulated over the years by working for the Okiya. This sum, often very important, was taken directly from the income of their activity.
An important thing that you need to know is that Geisha who still work for their original establishment do not make any personal income, the entire amount earned goes directly to the Okiya until her debt is reimbursed (this is still the case today).
Once this debt was paid, they could continue to work for the Okiya or set up their own business. However, the second option involved taking on the costs of clothing, hair and make-up alone, but also paying a commission to the Okiya, which acted as an intermediary.
Fortunately, there was a tradition at the time where some Geisha could count on a rich businessman who brought them a certain financial stability, the Danna.
Geisha and Danna relationship
At the time, the Danna (旦那) was a financial guarantor, often a high class and very wealthy man, who would commit himself to pay for all Geisha’s expenses (through business expenses) and who wished to have a special relationship with her. Thanks to this financial support, the Geisha could continue her activities without fear of not being able to support herself.
As for the relationship between a Geisha and her Danna, it is independent of the situation itself. Very often, it was the Okiya who chose the Danna for his Geisha according to his wealth and prestige.
Some men also paid the expenses of some Geishas in order to benefit from sexual favors, a service that is never practiced by Geishas in normal times (although this information has never been officially declared).
Finally, it is much less frequent nowadays to see Geisha taking Danna and this because very few Japanese men are able to support the important financial expenses of such a profession.
Geisha Outfit and Appearance
As you can see, the Geisha world is governed by dedication to the arts and their appearance is also extremely codified. Here is list of the most important Geisha attire:
The dress code of the Geisha must respect a certain number of rules. It is also accompanied by an array of details that are meant to subtly indicate age and level of training of the Geisha. Moreover, if many rituals and traditions surrounding the profession of Geisha have evolved over the centuries, the dress code of a true Geisha is a work of art that is perpetuated from generation to generation.
In short, the outfit of a Geisha consists of:
A Hikizuri, the Geisha Kimono
The special Kimono worn by Geisha is called Hikizuri or Susohiki (裾引き, lit. “trailing skirt”). The Susohiki kimono is a type of Kimono made of heavy silk that can weigh nearly 20 kg (44 pounds). Entirely handmade, this kimono has a long train that slides gracefully to the ground when the Geisha walks and has bright colors and very original patterns that distinguish it from classic kimonos.
Geisha Kimonos are traditionally handmade and are very valuable. They often cost several thousand dollars. Moreover, dressing a kimono is a complex task and the fabrics are heavy. For this reason a professional dresser often assists the Geisha when they dress. He is also the only man allowed to enter the Okiya, the house where the Geisha live.
Maiko vs Geisha Kimono
As seen previously, the clothing of a Geisha is a garment that evolves and adapts to the rank which explains why a Geisha do not wear the same Kimono as their apprentices.
Indeed, Maiko wear commonly more colorful kimono with more showy ornaments and longer sleeves while those of older Geisha tend to wear a more sober Tomesode and with shorter sleeves.
Finally, experienced Geishas also like to wear a Kurotomesode kimono with the coat of arms of their Okiya on each sleeve, shoulder and in the middle of the back during prestigious events.
An Obi Belt
Regarding the adjustment of the kimono, the Geisha close their outfit with the help of an Obi (帯 lit. “band”), a band of fabric made of a ribbon-like sash and whose length and type of knotting differ depending on the age and experience of the wearer.
- Maiko wear an obi darari that can be up to 10 meters long that is tied in a wide knot that goes up to the shoulder blades and falls to the ground in a long train.
- Experienced Geishas wear an obi nagoya of about 3 to 4 meters. It is worn in a drum knot and without a train. Note that the knotting of the belt of Geishas can vary slightly depending on the region.
Tabis and wooden wedge sandals complete the Geisha outfit. As for the sandals, here again, a difference is to be noted.
- Maiko wear okobo which are very thick sandals. The color of the strap of the okobo will be different according to the status. Red straps are reserved for beginners while those at the end of their training will wear okobo with blue, pink or yellow straps.
- Experienced Geisha can combine their kimono with zori or geta sandals.
In the same way, bright colors and patterns are usually worn by younger people. The outfit is completed with white socks, tabi, and wooden wedge sandals.
In addition to the traditional clothes of the Geisha, their face is also an emblematic figure of their identity; A white face made up with white powder called Oshiroi (白粉), lips painted in bright red with lipstick, very black eyes and eyebrows colored with bamboo charcoal.
However, this very characteristic way of putting on make-up that we often associate with the image of the Geisha is in fact reserved for the apprentice Geishas, the Maiko.
Indeed, the older and more advanced Geishas wear less or no make-up at all to let their natural beauty progress. Therefore, the only times you will see a Geisha over 30 years old wearing makeup will be for stage performances and on special occasions.
During the first three years of her training, the Maiko must train to wear this very complex makeup without the help of their older sister. Concretely, the make-up of the Maiko requires to follow a certain number of steps.
- First of all, the skin of the face, neck and chest are coated with camellia oil, which is reputed to be more adherent than bare skin. Today, this oil is replaced by a mixture of wax and vegetable oil.
- Then, the face, neck and neckline are covered with the famous white powder generously applied with a bamboo brush. For the history, the white powder was chosen for the simple and unique reason that white was synonymous with beauty in the land of the rising sun. Also, it allowed to better see the face in the candlelight.
- Once the complexion is finished, the Maiko makes up her eyes with a red eye shadow and her cheeks with pink powder. The eye contours are highlighted with black eyeliner as well as the eyebrows.
- Finally, the mouth is painted in bright red. As a rule, the Maiko only paints her lower lip red during their first year of training.
It should also be noted that the Oshiroi powder so popular with Geishas contained lead. Geishas often suffered from diseases and skin alterations. Fortunately, this material is now replaced by natural and skin-friendly products.
Finally, the make-up of Geishas did not stop at the face. Indeed, during the Heian era from 794 to 1185, Geishas used to color their teeth in black. This custom was called Ohaguro.
Ohaguro (お歯黒, lit. “black teeth) refers to a traditional practice that is associated mainly with married women. Indeed, after the ceremony, the brides used to stain their teeth with charcoal in order to clearly announce to their entourage and to strangers that they are promised to a man and that it is thus useless to try to court them.
While in Europe the sight of black teeth often evokes dirtiness, in Japan one can find pictures of Geisha with black teeth, a very popular dyeing technique dating back more than a millennium
If we can find traces of it elsewhere in the world, in the Japanese archipelago, this tradition was banned by the government on February 5th 1870.
In addition to the dress and the make-up, Geishas are also recognizable by their very elaborate and particularly complex hairstyle which consists of very sophisticated traditional buns held together with hairpins and combs. The buns are then decorated with hair accessories called kanzashi (簪, lit. “ornamental hairpin”).
Like for the previous elements, kanzashi styles evolve and change according to the seasons, the age, the status and the level of training of the Geisha. En autres:
- Maiko wear hana-kanzashi which are kanzashi often very colorful with floral ornaments or animal shapes
- Experienced Geishas wear less conspicuous accessories and never wear hana-kanzashi
Finally, the more sophisticated the hairstyle of a Geisha was, the more expensive they were to make. This is why to kept them intact for several days, Geisha had to sleep with their neck resting on a dedicated object so that their head does not touch the ground. This painful object is called takamakura (高枕, lit High Pillow).
If you have followed the previous chapter, you already know that Geisha tend to use fake hair to complete their hairstyle like the Shimada which is a kind of artificial bun that Geisha put on top of the coiffed hair.
There are four main types of Shimada:
- the Taka Shimada, a high bun usually worn by young, single women;
- the Tsubushi Shimada, a flatter bun usually worn by older women;
- the Uiwata, a bun usually tied with a piece of colored cotton;
- the Monoware worn only by young Maikos
However, it was traditionally forbidden for most Maiko to wear wigs while they are apprentices.
Finally, in order to complete their outfits, the Geisha had a catalog of accessories: We can for example quote:
- The Hand Fan which in addition to being used outside is an essential accessory in certain refined dances like the Jinta mai
- The Japanese umbrella
Geisha are distinguished by their manners. Their obligation to be refined at all times makes it impossible for them to do certain daily tasks like:
- Having lunch in fast food restaurants
- Shopping in some clothing stores or supermarkets
- Carrying plastic bags
Moreover, during meetings with clients, they must entertain them while keeping a certain restraint and without never becoming vulgar.
Geisha in Japanese Society
A very symbolic element to know is that the first goal of the Geisha system was founded in order to promote the independence and economic self-sufficiency of women in pre-war Japan.
Indeed, at the time, the vast majority of women did not work and had no choice but to become wives to survive in Japanese society. However, the Geisha were independent and could practice their services and be paid without having to rely on a husband, which made them the first independent women to have a profession recognized by the Japanese government.
Moreover, Geisha were considered in the 19th and 20th centuries as very efficient businesswomen due to the fact that almost all Karyūkai (花柳界, lit. the “flower and willow world”), where both Geisha and courtesans worked before the arrival of Hanamachi, were controlled by women.
Types of Geisha (Chart)
|Name||Meaning||First appearance||Decline period|
|Taikomochi||Male Geisha||late 700s||18th century|
|Maiko||Geisha Apprentice||late 1700s||
|Geisha, Geiko, Geigi||
|late 1700s||late 1900s|
|Onsen Geisha||Prostitute using the name Geisha post WW2||mid-1900s||1957|
Relation between Geisha and their Clients
Although the time spent with them can be very intimate, the relationship between a Geisha and her client remains mainly professional. Only a Danna had the opportunity to have a more sincere and authentic relationship with his Geisha, but it wasn’t always the case.
Moreover, it was also very common for a Geisha affiliated with a Danna to end up marrying him after a few years. However, a Geisha is not the wife of anyone, so in order to get married, a Geisha had to give up her title first.
Do Geishas sleep with their clients?
In Japan, Geisha are above all artists, masters in the art of seduction, they know how disturb men with a single blink of eyes. However, despite many rumors, Geisha do not sleep with their clients.
Personal Relationships and Love Life
Traditionally, Geisha were allowed to have a love life outside of their profession and it was very common for them to have several lovers and boyfriends at the same time.
However, as explained earlier, a Geisha was not allowed to marry a man while still working for an Okiya.
“You cannot say to the sun: “More sun.” Or to the rain: “Less rain.” To a man, Geisha can only be half a wife. We are the wives of nightfall. And yet to learn of kindness, after so much unkindness… To understand that a little girl with more courage than she knew, would find that her prayers were answered…can that not be called happiness? After all, these are not the memoirs of an empress, nor of a queen. These are memoirs of another kind.”
Memoirs of a Geisha
Today, in modern Japan, there are modern Japanese wives who continue to work as Geisha, but this remains very rare and controversial.
Why do people think that Geishas are Prostitutes?
Even today, the profession of Geisha suffers utterly from an association with prostitution, especially in the Western countries. However, real Geisha as we know them did not and still do not sell their sexual favors to their rich clients during their meetings.
Geisha are the guarantors of the reputation of the Okiya they work for and must distinguish themselves only by their excellence in entertainment. Therefore, if a Geisha provides a bad service or is associated with a controverse, it’s the entire reputation of the Okiya and the other Geisha who live there that is penalized.
But why are Geisha associated with prostitution? Here are some explanations:
1. Geisha were for a time confused with Oiran during the Edo period
During the Edo period, there were two types of women artists, the Geisha who only offered accompaniment and artistic performance services and the Oiran who offered both artistic performance and sexual services.
Moreover, there were some similarities in their way of dressing and make-up, which did not help this amalgam. It should be noted that the activity of Geisha was regulated from 1779 and that they were not allowed to engage in prostitution
2. In the 17th century, Geisha were active in the same areas as prostitutes
As seen earlier, the 1st Geisha lived in the same hot districts called Yūkaku where the sex workers of Japan and the Oiran offered their services. It was also usual to see these two professions at the same time at banquets.
3. During WW2, prostitutes dressed like Geisha to get more customers
During the WW2 period, the demand for Geisha girls was at its lowest, so prostitutes, whose demand was growing at the time, took inspiration from their appearance and refined manners to win the favor of American soldiers.
The latter, very fond of those they called Geisha girls, helped to propagate this idea. Some Geisha girls who turned to prostitution during the war also contributed to this confusion.
4. Movies and clichés
Cinema and literature have played an important role in the reproduction of a certain number of clichés. The film Memoirs of a Geisha is often cited as a (bad) example.
5. Rumors say that Maiko’s virginity was sometimes put up for auction
In the past, the Mizu-age ceremony forced the Maiko to put her virginity up for auction in order to become a Geisha. The highest bidder could also, after deflowering the girl, buy more nights.
In fact, this act was mainly to create buzz and the subsequent dates did not always include sex.
Where to see Geisha today in Japan?
It is a dream for most travelers who come to Japan for the first time: at the corner of a small typical Japanese street, to cross a Geisha dressed in her kimono and protected from the sun by her parasol.
These professionals of entertainment and traditional arts usually perform only for regulars in establishments reputed to be very expensive and often reluctant to let foreigners in. But all hope is not lost! Here is a selection of places where you can attend Geisha performances, depending on your budget.
1. Omotenashi Nihonbashi
At the Nihonbashi Information Center, you can watch a one-hour performance of shamisen playing and traditional dances by Geisha. As per tradition, you can participate in various games with the Geisha to enjoy a unique experience. Omotenashi Nihonbashi also offers other activities such as kimono rental for total immersion!
If you want to meet real Geisha in the street, you are most likely to meet Geisha in the hanamachi districts, since these are the areas where they are trained and where the restaurants and teahouses where they perform are based.
There are 6 of them in Tokyo:
In these areas, you can feel a more traditional atmosphere than in other parts of the capital. Try to book a dinner in one of the establishments through your hotel or Japanese acquaintances, since the service is rarely available in English.
We advise you to walk around the Kagurazaka area at dusk, as this is when the few remaining Geishas go to their appointments. Even if you are not lucky, it is an opportunity to discover the history of Kagurazaka which is now considered as the French district of Tokyo!
Likewise, if you want to see real Geisha in the street in Kyoto, it is best to go to the Geisha districts in Kyoto which are:
2. Gion Corner
Gion corner is the Japan national school of Geisha which organizes all year long shows open to all which allow to have a quick and efficient overview (photos are allowed) of the different traditional Japanese arts: while a tea ceremony (chado) takes place on the right side of the stage, demonstrations of koto (Japanese zither), ikebana, gagaku (court music), kado (floral art), kyôgen (ancient comic show), kyomai (dance of the Maiko of Kyoto), and bunraku (puppet theater) follow on stage.
Here is a list with the dates and prices of the different shows:
- Onshu-kai: October 1-6 at Kyoto Art Theater Shunjuza (8,500 yen)
- Mizue-kai: October 12-15 at Miyagawacho-Kaburenjo Theater (4,000-8,000 yen)
- Suimei-kai: October 19-22 at Pontocho-Kaburenjo Theater (3,300-8,000 yen)
- Kotobuki-kai: October 8-12 at Kamishichiken-Kaburenjo Theater (8,000 yen)
3. Maiko Show at the Kyoto Tower
The Maiko Show at Kyoto Tower also offers Maiko shows for tourists all year round. However, the Geisha do not attend to most daily performances open to the general public.
Once a year, each Geisha district holds a big Geisha and Maiko dance festival open to the public. If you are in Kyoto on the right dates, do not hesitate to go and see one of these performances called “Odori“!
The performances are much more elaborate than in the “introduction” shows for tourists, here it is about traditional performances also attended by the locals. The prices remain very reasonable, but in these shows photos are generally forbidden.
Here are the dates and prices:
- Kitano Odori: March 25 to April 7 at Kamishichiken Kaburenjô (4,800 yen)
- Miyako Odori: April 1-27 at Minamiza Theater (4,000-5,000 yen)
- Kyo Odori: April 1-16 at Kaburenjo Theater (2,200-4,200 yen)
- Kamogawa Odori: May 1-24 at Kaburenjo Theater (2,300-4,800 yen)
- Gion Odori: November 1-10 at Gion Kaikan Theater (4,000-4,500 yen)
Geisha in Pop Culture
The growing interest in Geisha and their exotic appearance have propelled them to a worldwide idol and celebrity status since the release of the 1998 novel and 2005 film, Memoirs of a Geisha, and the autobiography of former Geisha Iwasaki Mineko, entitled Geisha of Gion.
Geisha in Movies
- Apart from You
- The Barbarian and the Geisha
- Cry for Happy
- Fireflies in the North
- The Geisha Boy
- Geisha Girl (1952)
- The Geisha House
- The Geisha (1914)
- The Geisha (1983)
- Late Chrysanthemums
- The Life of Oharu
- Memoirs of a Geisha
- My Geisha
- Ruten no umi
- Sisters of the Gion
- The Teahouse of the August Moon
- Violated Paradise
Geisha in Literature
- Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
- Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata
- Geisha: A Life – Mineko Iwasaki, Randee Brown, Rande Brown
- Geisha of Gion: The Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki – Mineko Iwasaki, Rande Brown
- Geisha – Liza Dalby
- Autobiography of a Geisha – Sayo Masuda
- Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha – Lesley Downer
- Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Seduced the West – Lesley Downer
- Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World – Lesley Downer
- A Geisha’s Journey: My Life As a Kyoto Apprentice – Komomo
- Eight Million Gods and Demons – Hiroko Sherwin
- The Blonde Geisha – Jina Bacarr
- The Demon in the Teahouse – Dorothy Hoobler, Thomas Hoobler
- 90-Day Geisha: My Time as a Tokyo Hostess – Chelsea Haywood
Geisha in Manga
- Seirô Opera (青楼オペラ)
- Utamaro (夢幻ウタマロ -)
- Sakuran (さくらん -)