Geisha are traditional, female Japanese entertainers, whose skills include performing various Japanese arts, such as classical music and dance. Contrary to popular western belief, geisha are not prostitutes.
“Geisha,” pronounced , is a proper noun. Like all Japanese nouns, there are no distinct singular or plural variants of the term. The word consists of two kanji, ? (gei) meaning “art” and ? (sha) meaning “person” or “doer”. The most direct translation of geisha into English would be “artist” or “performing artist”.
Another term used in Japan is geiko, a word from the kyoto dialect. Full-fledged geisha in Kyoto are called geiko. This term is also commonly used in the region to distinguish geisha practiced in traditional arts from prostitutes who have co-opted the name and attire of geisha (see below). Prostitutes wear the bow of their sash, or obi, in front of their kimono, but geisha wear their obi at the back. True geisha, who do not engage in paid sexual activity, usually had the luxury of a professional aide to help them in the difficult process of dressing; their clothing is made up of several layers of kimono and undergarments, and an obi is more than a simple band of cloth. Dressing could take over an hour, even with professional help. Prostitutes, however, had to take off their obi several times a day, so theirs were far less complex, and tied at the front for ease of removal and replacement.
Apprentice geisha are called maiko. This word is made of the kanji ? (mai) meaning “dancing” and ? (ko) meaning “child”. It is the maiko, with her white make-up and elaborate kimono and hairstyle, that has become the stereotype of a “geisha” to westerners, rather than the true geisha.
Tokyo geisha generally do not follow the ritualized Kyoto maiko apprentice process. The training period can be six months to a year – notably shorter than a Kyoto maiko – before she debuts as a full geisha. The trainee is referred to as a han’gyoku (??) or “half-jewel”, or by the more generic term o-shaku (??), lit. “one who pours (alcohol)”. On average, Tokyo geisha tend to be older than their Kyoto counterparts, many holding formal degrees from university.
Stages of training
Traditionally, they began their training at a very young age. Although some girls were sold to geisha houses (“okiya”) as children, this was not common practice in reputable districts. Daughters of geisha were often brought up as geisha themselves, usually as the successor (“atotori” meaning heir) or daughter-role (“musume-bun”) to the okiya.
The first stage of training was called shikomi. When girls first arrived at the okiya, they would be put to work as maids, or do everything they are told. The work was difficult with the intent to “make” and “break” the new girls. The most junior shikomi of the house would have to wait late into the night for the senior geisha to return from engagements, sometimes as late as two or three in the morning. During this stage of training, the shikomi would go to classes at the hanamachi’s geisha school. In modern times, this stage still exists, mostly to accustom the girls to the traditional dialect, traditions and dress of the “kary?kai.”
Once the recruit became proficient with the geisha arts, and passed a final, difficult dance exam, she would be promoted to the second stage of training: minarai. Minarai are relieved from their housekeeping duties. The minarai stage focuses on training in the field. Although minarai attend ozashiki (banquets in which guests are attended by geisha), they do not participate at an advanced level. Their kimono, more elaborate than even a maiko’s, are intended to do the talking for them. Minarai can be hired for parties, but are usually uninvited (yet welcomed) guests at parties that their onee-san (“onee-san” meaning “older sister”, and is the Minarai’s senior) attends. They charge 1/3 hanadai. Minarai generally work closely with a particular tea house (called “minarai-jaya”) learning from the “okaa-san” (proprietor of the house). These techniques are not taught in school, as skills such as conversation and gaming can only be absorbed through practice. This stage lasts only about a month or so.
After a short period of time, the third (and most famous) stage of training began, called maiko. Maiko are apprentice geisha, and this stage can last for years. Maiko learn from their senior geisha mentor and follow them around to all their engagements. The onee-san/imouto-san (junior) relationship is extremely important. Since the onee-san teaches her maiko everything about working in the hanamachi, her teaching is vital. She will teach her proper ways of serving tea, playing shamisen, and dancing, the casual talk of conversation, which is also important for a maiko to learn for future invitations to more teahouses and gatherings. The onee-san will even help pick the maiko’s new professional name with kanji or symbols related to her own name. One would suggest that geisha are prone to “flirt,” but it is only their nature to seem demure and innocent. Regional variations exist, as the han’gyoku of Tokyo are known for being sassy and the Kyoto maiko are known for being demure.
After a period as short as six months (in Tokyo) or as long as five years (in Kyoto), the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha, and charges full price for her time. Geisha remain as such until they retire.
Modern geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya in areas called hanamachi (?? “flower towns”), particularly during their apprenticeship. Many experienced geisha who are successful enough choose to live independently. The elegant, high-culture world that geisha are a part of is called kary?kai (??? “the flower and willow world”).
Young women who wish to become geisha now most often begin their training after completing junior high school or even high school or college, with many women beginning their careers in adulthood. Geisha still study traditional instruments like the shamisen, shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and drums, as well as traditional songs, Japanese traditional dance, tea ceremony, literature and poetry. By watching other geisha, and with the assistance of the owner of the geisha house, apprentices also become skilled in the complex traditions surrounding selecting and wearing kimono, and in dealing with clients.
Kyoto is considered by many to be where the geisha tradition is the strongest today, including Gion Kobu. The geisha in these districts are known as geiko. The Tokyo hanamachi of Shimbashi, Asakusa and Kagurazaka are also well known.
In modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight outside hanamachi. In the 1920s there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today there are far fewer. The exact number is unknown to outsiders, and is estimated to be from 1,000 to 2,000, mostly in the resort town of Atami. Most common are sightings of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed up as a maiko.
A sluggish economy, declining interest in the traditional arts, the exclusive nature of the flower and willow world, and the expense of being entertained by geisha have all contributed to the tradition’s decline.
Geisha are often hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at tea houses (??, ochaya) or at traditional Japanese restaurants (ry?tei). Their time is measured by the time it takes an incense stick to burn, and is called senk?dai (???, “incense stick fee”) or gyokudai (?? “jewel fee”). In Kyoto the terms “ohana” (???and “hanadai” (??), meaning “flower fees”, are preferred. The customer makes arrangements through the geisha union office (?? kenban), which keeps each geisha’s schedule and makes her appointments both for entertaining and for training.
Geisha and prostitution
There remains some confusion, even within Japan, about the nature of the geisha profession. Geisha are frequently depicted as expensive prostitutes in Western popular culture. Geisha are entertainers, their purpose being to entertain their customer, be it by reciting verse, playing musical instruments, or engaging in light conversation. Geisha engagements may include flirting with men and playful innuendos; however, clients know that nothing more can be expected. In a social style that is uniquely Japanese, men are amused by the illusion of that which is never to be. Geisha do not engage in paid sex with clients.
Geisha have sometimes been confused with the traditional high-class courtesans called oiran. Like geisha, oiran wear elaborate hairstyles and white makeup. A simple way to distinguish between the two is that oiran, as prostitutes, tie their obi in the front. Geisha tie their obi in the back in the usual manner. During the Edo period, prostitution was legal and prostitutes such as the oiran were licensed by the government. By contrast, geisha were strictly forbidden from holding a prostitution license, and were officially forbidden to ever have sex with their customers. The licensing arrangement led to the derogatory term ‘double registration’, referring to promiscuous geisha.
During occupied Japan, many Japanese prostitutes marketed themselves as geisha to American GIs. These prostitutes became known as ‘geesha girls’, due to a mis-pronunciation of the word geisha, and carried the image of geisha as prostitutes back to the United States.
Also, geisha working in onsen towns such as Atami are dubbed onsen geisha. Onsen geisha have been given a bad reputation due to the prevalence of prostitutes in such towns who market themselves as ‘geisha’, as well as sordid rumors of dance routines like ‘Shallow River’ (which involves the ‘dancers’ lifting the skirts of their kimono higher and higher). In contrast to these ‘one-night geisha’, the true onsen geisha are in fact competent dancers and musicians.
Personal relationships and danna
Geisha are expected to be single women; those who choose to marry must retire from the profession.
It was traditional in the past for established geisha to take a danna, or patron. A danna was typically a wealthy man, sometimes married, who had the means to support the very large expenses related to a geisha’s traditional training and other costs. This sometimes occurs today as well, but very rarely.
A geisha and her danna may or may not be in love, but intimacy is never viewed as a reward for the danna’s financial support. The traditional conventions and values within such a relationship are very intricate and not well understood, even by many Japanese.
While it is true that a geisha is free to pursue personal relationships with men she meets through her work, such relationships are carefully chosen and unlikely to be casual. A hanamachi tends to be a very tight-knit community and a geisha’s good reputation is not taken lightly.
Geesha girls are a type of prostitute, mainly active during the period of occupied Japan who almost exclusively serviced American GIs stationed in Japan. The term comes from a mispronunciation of the word geisha. They were also sometimes called panpan girls.
Originally, geesha girls dressed in kimono and imitated the look of actual geisha. Americans were unfamiliar with the culture of Japan, and did not know the difference between prostitutes in costume and actual geisha. The occupying American GIs who, shortly after their arrival in 1945, are said to have congregated on the Ginza and shouted in unison “We want geesha girls!”
Eventually, the term became a general word for any Japanese prostitutes or workers in the mizu shobai, and included bar hostesses and streetwalkers.
Geesha girls are speculated by researchers to be largely responsible for the continuing misconception in the West that geisha are prostitutes.
A geisha’s appearance changes throughout her career, from the girlish, heavily made up maiko, to the more sombre appearance of an older established geisha.
Today, the traditional make-up of the apprentice geisha is one of their most recognizable characteristics, though established geisha generally only wear full white face makeup characteristic of maiko during special performances.
The traditional makeup of an apprentice geisha features a thick white base with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows. Originally the white base mask was made with lead, but after the discovery that it poisoned the skin and caused terrible skin and back problems for the older geisha towards the end of the Meiji Era, it was replaced with rice powder.
The application of makeup is hard to perfect and is a time-consuming process. Makeup is applied before dressing to avoid dirtying the kimono. First, a wax or oil substance, called bintsuke-abura, is applied to the skin. Next, white powder is mixed with water into a paste and applied with a bamboo brush starting from the neck, up. The white makeup covers the face, neck, and chest, with two or three unwhitened areas (forming a “W” or “V” shape, usually a traditional “W” shape) left on the nape, to accentuate this traditionally erotic area, and a line of bare skin around the hairline, which creates the illusion of a mask.
After the foundation layer is applied, a sponge is patted all over the face, throat, chest, the nape and neck to remove excess moisture and to blend the foundation. Next the eyes and eyebrows are drawn in. Traditionally charcoal was used, but today modern cosmetics are used. The eyebrows and edges of the eyes are colored black with a thin charcoal; a maiko also applies red around her eyes.
The lips are filled in using a small brush. The color comes in a small stick, which is melted in water. Crystallized sugar is then added to give the lips lustre. Rarely will a geisha color in both lips fully in the Western style, as white creates optical illusions. The lower lip is colored in partially and the upper lip left white for maiko, and newly full-fledged geisha will color in only the top lip fully. Most geisha wear the top lip colored in fully or stylized, and the bottom lip in a curved stripe that does not follow the shape of the lip.
Maiko who are in their first stage of training will sometimes color their teeth black for a short period of time. This practice used to be common among many different classes of women in Japan, but survives only in some districts, or even families.
For the first three years, a maiko wears this heavy makeup almost constantly. During her initiation the maiko is helped with her makeup by either her onee-san or “older sister” (an experienced geisha who is her mentor) or by the okaa-san or “mother” of her geisha house. After this she applies the makeup herself.
After a maiko has been working for three years, she changes her make-up to a more subdued style. The reason for this is that she has now become mature, and the simpler style shows her own natural beauty. For formal occasions, the mature geisha will still apply white make-up. For geisha over thirty, the heavy white make-up is only worn during special dances which require her to wear make up for her part.
Geisha always wear kimono. Apprentice geisha wear highly colorful kimono with extravagant obi. Always, the obi is brighter than the kimono she is wearing to give a certain exotic balance. Maiko wear the obi tied in a style called “darari”. Older geisha wear more subdued patterns and styles. The sign of a prosperous okiya is having geisha not wearing a kimono more than once, meaning that those okiyas with higher economic status will have “storehouses” of sorts where kimono are stored and interchanged between geisha.
The color, pattern, and style of kimono is also dependent on the season and the event the geisha is attending. In winter, geisha can be seen wearing a three-quarter length haori lined with hand painted silk over their kimono. Lined kimono are worn during colder seasons, and unlined kimono during the summer. A kimono can take from 2–3 years to complete, due to painting and embroidering.
Geiko wear red or pink nagajuban, or under-kimono. A maiko wears red with white printed patterns. The junior maiko’s collar is predominantly red with white, silver, or gold embroidery. Two to three years into her apprenticeship, the red collar will be entirely embroidered in white (when viewed from the front) to show her seniority. Around age 20, her collar will turn from red to white.
Geisha wear a flat-soled sandal, zori, outdoors, and wear only tabi (white split-toed socks) indoors. In inclement weather geisha wear raised wooden clogs, called geta. Maiko wear a special wooden clog known as okobo.
The hairstyles of geisha have varied through history. In the past, it has been common for women to wear their hair down in some periods, but up in others. During the 17th century, women began putting all their hair up again, and it is during this time that the traditional shimada hairstyle, a type of traditional chignon worn by most established geisha, developed.
There are four major types of the shimada: the taka shimada, a high chignon usually worn by young, single women; the tsubushi shimada, a more flattened chignon generally worn by older women; the uiwata, a chignon that is usually bound up with a piece of colored cotton crepe; and a style that resembles a divided peach, which is worn only by maiko. This is sometimes called “Momoware,” or “Split Peach.” Additional hairstyles: Ofuku, Katsuyama, Yakko-shimada, and sakko. Maiko of Miyagawa-cho and Pontocho will wear an additional 6 hairstyle leading up to the sakko. Some include: Umemodoki, Osidori no Hina, Kikugasane, and Osafune.
These hairstyles are decorated with elaborate haircombs and hairpins (kanzashi). In the seventeenth century and after the Meiji Restoration period, hair-combs were large and conspicuous, generally more ornate for higher-class women. Following the Meiji Restoration and into the modern era, smaller and less conspicuous hair-combs became more popular.
Geisha were trained to sleep with their necks on small supports (takamakura), instead of pillows, so they could keep their hairstyle perfect. To reinforce this habit, their mentors would pour rice around the base of the support. If the geisha’s head rolled off the support while she slept, rice would stick to the pomade in her hair. The geisha would thus have to repeat the tiresome process of having her hair elaborately styled. Without this happening, a geisha will have her hair styled every week or so.
Many modern geisha use wigs in their professional lives, while maiko use their natural hair. However, either one must be regularly tended by highly skilled artisans. Traditional hairstyling is a slowly dying art. One reason for this is that the hairstyle over time, can cause balding on the top of the head.