I don’t remember when or from where I first heard of geisha but I know that I became obsessed with learning everything I could about them fairly early on in my love of all things Japanese. I’m not sure how much I knew before Memoirs of a Geisha was published, but I do know that information availability exploded after the book’s release. Instead of falling in love with geisha because of the novel, it’s popularity simply made it a lot easier for me to find information about them.
I guess you could say, for a long time, geisha became my “special interest” area. I won’t say I’m an expert, because there is a ton of information I don’t know (or have forgotten) but I definitely know a lot more than the average person.
My old Geocities website had a page about what I knew at the time about geisha but that has been lost over the years. In college, I took a Japanese culture class as an elective (2012). Easiest class I ever took since about 85% of the material was a refresher of information I already knew. Coincidentally, the teacher of that class and I met again this past year when I joined a Japanese language learning club with some girls I worked with at my current job. (Sensei is also a tea master and I’m hoping to convince her to teach me at some point. 🙂 )
Anyway~ for that class, everybody had to pick a topic to independently research and present as our final project. Two of my friends were in the class with me. Chris picked Noh theatre and Abbygail chose street fashion (both on my recommendation). I, of course, presented my research on geisha. In my opinion, my PowerPoint was beautiful. Haha. I’m biased of course but I think it was the best in the class. (Humble too, ね? 😉 ) I thought, since I lost my old web page but am still as interested in geisha as ever, and I am continually adding in old journal entries and school work to my blog, I’d share that project here too. Why not?
A geisha is woman who has been highly trained in the art of conversation and hospitality and a purveyor of tradition Japanese culture and arts. She embodies the idea of female perfection – this sums up what a geisha is and what she is not. She attends to a man’s every whim… almost. Within this illusion of perfection comes an air of being unattainable. Geisha seem to exist within another realm. They actually have a name for this – known as the flower and willow world.
Geisha are not prostitutes. Relationships of course do happen but it is frowned upon for a geisha to become involved with her clients or to have a boyfriend as this takes away time from her clients.
A real geisha dedicates all of her time to perfecting her craft and upholds the traditions. An imitation would try to cut corners and look for shortcuts. Geisha hold themselves to a strict code of confidentiality. Anyone who repeats what they have been told in confidence cannot consider herself a true geisha.
Today, there are only around 1000 working geisha. There are a few spread out across Japan but the majority are mainly in Tokyo and Kyoto. When one thinks of geisha, they think of Kyoto. In Kyoto, geisha are called geiko and the trainees or those who are apprenticing and have not yet become full-fledged geiko are called maiko. Maiko are exclusive to Kyoto.
There are four geisha districts (called hanamachi or ‘flower town’) in Kyoto: Gion – separated into 2: Gion Koubu (the most famous – where Memoirs of a Geisha takes place) and Gion Higashi, Miyagawacho, Pontocho, and Kamishichiken. This is where the geisha live, take their lessons and shop, as well as where they entertain their guests.
Geisha parties (called ozashiki), where a few geisha will entertain a group of men, are held at tea houses (ochaya) or traditional Japanese inns (ryokan). This is the main way geisha entertain their clients but they may also accompany men to events such as sumo tournaments, cherry blossom viewing parties (hanami), or large scale banquets.
Men who hire geisha usually do as a business tactic to impress potential partners. It is considered a highly sophisticated way to spend an evening. Within the walls of a geisha gathering, the men can feel free to discuss their business but also simply spend time strengthening a bond between business associates by drinking and having fun. Alcohol flows freely at these parties and the geisha are known for their discretion.
Girls from all over Japan who have a desire to become geisha will move to Kyoto to undergo their training. They usually begin around the age of fifteen. It takes roughly five or six years to complete their training.
In order to begin training as a geisha, a girl must find a geisha house (okiya) willing to take her in and be responsible for her training and expenses until she is fully trained and able to make money.
It is very expensive to train and style a geisha. It can be around $500 thousand. They take lessons all day long, such as tea ceremony, shamisen, singing, dancing, flute, and drums. They wear kimono which cost several thousand dollars. One geisha will need around 30 kimono throughout the year – different colours for various seasons, black for new year and formal occasions. They get their hair done by experts.
During their maiko training, all the money they earn is turned over to their okiya. The okasan (‘mama’ – person who runs the house) gives the maiko an allowance.
Each maiko is paired with an older, more experienced geiko who she will call onesan (elder sister). This bond lasts a lifetime, even if the maiko does not complete her training. It is the responsibility of the onesan to guide her younger sister and teach her the tricks of the trade. If a maiko makes a mistake, it reflects poorly on her onesan.
The young women who choose to become geisha are generally those who are interested in traditional arts such as dance. It can be a difficult profession. The dedication needed is often likened to that of a prima ballerina.
A geisha’s greatest asset is to be skilled at conversation. They not only have their classes in the arts but also study up on current events, politics, literature – anything that the men might want to talk about. They need to be well-versed in a variety of topics. It is part of a geisha’s job – perhaps the biggest part – to cater to their clients, pamper their egos, and anticipate their needs. If a girl is having a bad day – if she’s tired, hungover, feeling ill – she must never let that show. She smiles at her customer and engages him in conversation. The idea is that the men lead very stressful lives and spending time with geisha is a chance for them to relax.
When fully trained, a geisha will have mastered this skill as well as many traditional arts. All geisha are trained in the same instruments, dance, and singing but generally choose to specialize in one area such as playing the shamisen. Geisha also become masters at tea ceremony. Even the way they speak and walk has been transformed.
Since the girls who want to become geisha come from all over Japan and generally end up in Kyoto, they must learn the Kyoto dialect and specific terminology and phrases used by the geiko there. Walking in a kimono is also very different than walking in western clothes. The legs are tightly bound and the way the legs move has to change. Even the way they sleep changes. During her years as a maiko, a girl gets her hair done about once a week in an elaborate hair style. In order to keep it looking perfect between appointments, she sleeps on a special pillow called a takamakura which is essentially a padded wooden block. It keeps her hair from being flattened or crushed.
On top of lessons and entertaining clients, geisha also give performances, musical or dance, at the twice yearly festival performances and at various events throughout the year.
The first geisha were men. In a time where the shogun took all the prostitutes and confined them in a certain area known as the pleasure quarters, men who called themselves geisha would attend the courtesan’s parties to provide entertainment by playing instruments, dancing, singing, and telling jokes – sort of like a court jester. When one courtesan’s clientèle was dwindling, she decided she would market herself as a geisha. Soon female geisha outnumbered the men and started stealing the courtesans’ customers.
In 1779, the geisha profession was recognized and a registry office (kenban) was established. Right from the beginning, the kenban monitored the geisha’s behaviour so that they were not in competition with the courtesans. They restricted what they could wear, and how and when they entertained party goers. Once registered as a geisha, they were strictly not allowed to dabble in prostitution.
It has always been in people’s minds that geisha and prostitutes were synonymous. In fact, they have always been distinct. A prostitute’s business was sex. A geisha’s business was entertainment and hospitality. The similarity is that neither could choose who they were spending their time with and that they were paid by the hour to spend time with men.
To the untrained eye, they iconic courtesans do look very similar to geisha but there are many subtle differences in their appearance. The most obvious is the tying of the obi. Geisha and maiko always tie their obi in the back. Courtesans had their obi tied in the front because they were constantly needing to take them on and off. (A dresser is needed to tie an obi in the back and that wasn’t convenient for the courtesans).
Another situation that added to the idea of geisha as prostitutes happened after the ending of WW2. Many American soldiers came to Japan. The general public was poor, hungry, and desperate. Many women would sleep with the service men for food. They told the men they were geisha but they were only common girls. When the soldiers returned home, they told stories of “geesha girls” which perpetuated the false ideas and spread them to the west.
In the 1920’s jazz era, many bars and cafés opened and hired female bar hostesses to attend to their male customers. The hostesses offered companionship at a cheap price and in a modern setting. They were extremely popular and for the first time, the geisha profession was threatened. Instead of adapting their style of entertainment, the geisha became even more defined as the purveyors of traditional arts and refined conversation. Tradition won out and the jazz boom died out. (It’s interesting to me to note that if you look at a picture of a maiko from 100 years ago and one from now, they look almost exactly the same.)
In the 1930’s the geisha numbers swelled to over 80,000. It was their golden age. The demand for geisha was so high that poor families would sell their young girls to okiya. (It seems cruel but it was better than selling them to brothels which is what happened to those girls who didn’t seem to have potential.) In this way, the okasan literally owned her girls.
These days, it is the okasan’s best interest to treat the girls in her okiya well. There is nothing to stop them from quitting. This doesn’t give the okasan a chance to recoup her investments. It takes the apprentice years to pay off this debt.
Geisha wear kimono and have traditional hairstyles. The iconic image of the painted white face is of the maiko. Full-fledged geiko generally only paint their faces for special occasions.
Maiko have their hair done usually once a week in various styles depending on their stage of training. Geiko no longer have their own hair done but wear wigs. A maiko will wear a vibrantly coloured kimono with long sleeves (furisode) and a long dangling obi. Geiko wear more subdued colours and have a short obi.
Although geisha do not deal in sex, they do use erotic symbolism in their makeup and attire. The kimono are worn lower in the back and expose a patch of neck. The white makeup is left bare in a pronged pattern (2 points for regular wear, 3 for special ceremonies). It hints at what is underneath the mask. The red lips and patches of red in the maiko’s hair and around the collar of her kimono are also symbolic.
To begin her training, a maiko’s upper lip is barely painted. This leaves her looking child-like. It is a symbol of her status. She is not yet a woman. You can tell how far along a maiko is in her training by how full her upper lip is.
As a maiko progresses, her collar becomes more and more white. The actual process of changing from a maiko to a geiko is known as ‘turning the collar’. Geiko wear completely white collars.
Maiko wear very high wooded sandals called okobo. Geiko wear regular lacquered zori.
Shikomi – Prior to becoming an apprentice geisha, a young woman helps the maiko and geisha in her okiya and does chores around the house to earn her keep.
Misedashi: Around the age of 15, a shikomi finds a mentor and undergoes the misedashi ceremony. This ceremony binds them together as sisters, and the new maiko begins her training to become a geisha. She now has a new name that is derived from the name of her mentor.
Maiko: As an apprentice geisha, a maiko spends about five years learning the arts of music, dance and hostessing. She attends parties to observe and be seen.
Erikae: The erikae (“turning of the collar”) ceremony marks the transition from maiko to geisha.
Geisha: Throughout her career, a geisha lives in the district in which she works. She spends her time entertaining, studying arts and performing. If she binds herself to a danna (patron), she may move out of the okiya and into her own apartment.
Hiki-iwai: The hiki-iwai ceremony marks a geisha’s retirement. She no longer entertains at parties, and she may discontinue her studies. At this point, a former geisha might become the head of an okiya or teahouse, or she may leave the geisha life entirely.
Ware-shinobu: The first hair style, this is designed to be complex and emphasize the prettiness of the maiko.
Ofuku: The ‘split peach’ style worn after mizuage or a level of maturity is attained. The splash of red (no longer red and white) is meant to be suggestive and the types of hair decorations must change to match the hair style.
Yakko-shimada: A formal hairstyle worn for dance recitals, this used to be a common hair style for married women.
Katsuyama: A special hair style worn for the dance recital season (during hanami).
Sakko: The hair style worn for the final two month’s of a maiko‘s apprenticeship. Her hair ornaments must now be more subtle, though still more daring than those of the geisha.
People often worry that the geisha profession will die out. Most of the customers these days are older men. The younger generation doesn’t seem to be interested in the tradition. They don’t understand the songs and dances. It is also very expensive to spend an evening with geisha. Many young people prefer to go to karaoke or night clubs.
On the other hand, geisha have been around for centuries and are considered living works of art. They have survived wars and extinction from other passing fads yet always seem to remain.
There is a fine line between holding too rigidly to their traditions and “selling out”. Geisha need to remain what they are at the core but perhaps there are some modifications that can be made to ensure their survival. For instance, many okiya have websites where people from far away can inquire about hiring geisha. They also make foreign appearances to spark interest from non-Japanese people. Whatever they can do to bring in more customers while still retaining what makes them geisha is probably the wisest choice at this point.
The future is unclear but in a nation known for resilience and adaptation, there is a hope that such a strong tradition will remain.
If you are interested in geisha, there are a few people I recommend either reading their books or watching them in documentaries. Probably the most well-known are Liza Dalby, who was actually the first westerner to become a geisha which she did for her anthropology dissertation and has written several books, or Lesley Downer – also an author and expert on geisha. The famous novel Memoirs of a Geisha was written by Arthur Golden who spent 10 years researching the profession and based it loosely on the life of Mineko Iwasaki.
I’ve read all of these:
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki
Geisha by Liza Dalby
Kimono by Liza Dalby
Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World by Lesley Downer
Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda
A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice by Komomo
Geisha by Kyoko Aihara
Geisha: The Life, the Voices, the Art by Jodi Cobb
I also recommend these documentaries:
The Secret Life of Geisha
Real Geisha, Real Women
A Tale of Love and Honor: Life in Gion
Hidden Love: Geisha
Beautiful Kyoto: Being a Maiko
Core Kyoto – Geisha episode
Begin Japanology – Geisha episode
Japanology Plus – Geisha episode
Only in Japan – Geisha vs. Oiran episode
Geisha: Flowers of Japan (no words but very pretty)
Japan’s Geisha Erasure
The Incredible Truth About Japan’s Geisha
I commend the humongous effort that goes in explaining the relevance of the Geisha historically and a post laden with rich learning. You have put so much hard work in tracing the cultural, historical and economic aspects. It’s very informative particularly in reference to the Obi. Now, I am tempted to buy Memoirs of a Geisha and the fact you explored the subject with depth guides my decision. While I was in Mumbai, remember seeing the book at the roadside stall but never bought.
Thanks so much for the comment! I’m glad someone appreciated me spouting off a lot of info most people find boring. Haha.
I really like Memoirs of a Geisha, both the book and the movie, strictly for entertainment – but if you’re looking for the most culturally accurate materials, maybe look into some of the other titles I mention toward the end instead. Some of those are written by former geisha or anthropologists who made studying geisha and Japanese culture their life’s work.
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