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Two apprentice geisha (maiko)
Japanese name

Geisha (芸者) (or geigi (芸妓) or geiko (芸子)) are traditional female Japanese entertainers. They are skilled at different Japanese arts, like playing classical Japanese music, dancing and poetry. Geisha are not prostitutes, despite what some people think.[1]

The term geisha is made of two Japanese words, (gei) meaning "art," and (sha), meaning "person who does" or "to be employed in." The most literal translation in English is "artist." Geisha are respected as artists and performers, and it is difficult to become one.[2]

Kyoto is the city with the strictest geisha traditions. Geisha have worked there for the longest time. Becoming a professional geisha can take up to five years of training in Kyoto.

Apprentice geisha are called maiko (舞子). The name comes from (mai), meaning "dancing," and (ko), meaning "child." Maiko wear white make-up called oshiroi and long-sleeved kimono with many bright colors. Maiko in some places wear a belt, called an obi, that is up to 6 metres (20 ft) long. Many maiko wear fancy hairstyles made with their own hair, but in some places, they wear wigs instead. Full geisha wear simpler kimono and wear white makeup only for special occasions. Geisha also wear wigs and have a much shorter kimono belt.

There are also geisha in other cities, but there are differences. In Tokyo, becoming a full geisha takes from six months to a year. Geisha apprentices in Tokyo are called han'gyoku (半玉), which means "half jewel" or "half pay." Apprentice geisha in Tokyo are also called o-shaku (御酌), which means "one who serves (alcohol)." Geisha in Tokyo are normally older than those in Kyoto.[3][not in the source given]

Many geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya (置屋) in neighborhoods called hanamachi (花街), which means "flower town." Older geisha who are successful may have their own home. A geisha always needs to be registered to a geisha house to be allowed to work.

The world that geisha are a part of is called karyūkai (花柳界), which means "the flower and willow world."[4] One very famous geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, said that is because a "geisha like a flower, beautiful in her own way, and like a willow tree, gracious, flexible, and strong."[5]

Geisha are considered to be cultural icons of Japan.

History[change | change source]

A geisha playing the shamisen. Ukiyo-e painting by artist Kitagawa Utamaro, 1803.

Before geisha appeared, some women worked as artists and entertainers. In the Heian period (794-1185), women entertained people at the Imperial Court by singing and dancing and were known as shirabyōshi (白拍子).

Later, women who worked as prostitutes and courtesans entertained men in the red-light districts of Japan. In 1589, Toyotomi Hideyoshi authorized the building of a neighborhood in Kyoto that was closed from the outside with walls. Called Shimabara, it was dedicated to pleasure.[6] Shimabara was established as an official red-light district in 1640,[7] and became one of three areas in Japan in which prostitution could be practiced legally. The other two were Yoshiwara in Tokyo, which had been established in 1617, and Shinmachi, in Osaka.[7]

Those areas were known as yūkaku and were the only places that women were allowed to be prostitutes. Courtesans were collectively called oiran (花魁) and were very expensive. Oiran also entertained men with singing, dancing, poetry, music and conversation. The highest-ranking oiran were the tayū, who did not engage in prostitution, unlike the other oiran. Instead, they would have one or two rich clients act as their patron; those men would pay a lot of money to be entertained by their tayū.

Tayū could turn men away and could decide who they would entertain. Tayū were raised from a young age to be very skilled in different types of art and entertainment, and many of them became celebrities. Many woodblock prints and paintings exist of famous tayū, and other oiran.

Geisha appeared only much later, during the Tokugawa period. Originally, geisha were men, who travelled throughout the red-light districts to entertain clients with music, dancing, and poetry. Such men were known as geisha but were also called otoko geisha (男芸者, 'male geisha'), hōkan (幇間, 'jesters') and taikomochi (太鼓持ち, 'drummers') because they played the taiko, a Japanese drum.[8]

Male geisha were very low-class entertainers, but oiran were considered to be upper class. Every man who wished to be with an oiran had to follow difficult rituals and etiquette and to have enough money to pay for her time. That meant that only the richest nobility got to be entertained by oiran.[8] Many tea houses (ochaya (お茶屋)) appeared outside Shimabara and offered entertainment that was not offered inside Shimabara. At some of the tea houses, some women practiced cheaper prostitution and were called sancha-jorō. However other women, who were called 'odoriko' ('dancing girls'), acted as dancers and musicians and soon became very popular. They started calling themselves 'geisha', like the male artists who worked in Shimabara.

By about 1700, female geisha had become much more popular than male geisha. A few years later, almost all geisha were women.[9]

The government prohibited geisha from working as prostitutes and allowed them only to act as entertainers.[10] One of the laws made them tie their obi () (sash) in the back, as oiran wore theirs at the front as a sign that they were available for sex. Geisha had to wear simpler hairstyles, less hair accessories, less makeup, and simpler kimono. If an oiran accused a geisha of stealing her customers, the geisha would be investigated.[11][12]

Soon, the geisha became so much more popular than the oiran that in 1761, the last tayū of Yoshiwara retired.[13] Though tayū continued to work in Kyoto and Osaka, oiran as a whole were seen as outdated, too traditional, and too expensive. Oiran could not leave the red-light districts because they had a lot of debt to the owner of the brothel they worked in[11]: 59  and were not thought of as celebrities or fashionable anymore.[14] Most people could not afford to hire them.[15][15]: 18 In contrast, geisha were cheaper and more fashionable, and could leave the red-light districts whenever they wanted. They sang popular songs and did not need several expensive meetings before they would entertain a client. New geisha neighborhoods (hanamachi) were created in Kyoto and other cities.

In the 19th century, geisha were in better position than common women,but they also had problems in Japanese society. Some poor people sold their daughters to a geisha house, but that was less common than some people think since many geisha came from families in which the mother or another female relative had once been a geisha. Geisha could not marry but could have a patron to pay for their expenses, and some retired when they gained a rich patron. Other men paid a lot of money to take the new girls' virginity (mizuage),[9] and if the owner of a geisha house was dishonest and greedy, a young geisha could have her virginity sold a number of times to different men.

However, the reputation and the respect for the geisha grew in the Meiji Restoration and even more after World War II. Important laws to protect them were created. Young girls could no longer be sold to the geisha houses, and the virginity of young geisha could no longer be bought. Since then, women become geisha only by their free will.[6]

Today[change | change source]

Kyoto geiko Fumikazu (left) with her minarai imōto Momokazu (right), and a shikomi (centre) from the Odamoto okiya in Kyoto

Number[change | change source]

Though people often talk about how there are not many geisha left in Japan and that they might be about to die out, the geisha profession is very resilient. In history, the numbers of geisha sometimes fell because of changes in the economy or because of war. However, the number of working geisha usually rose again not long afterward.

In the 1920s there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan. In 1944, all geisha districts were shut because of World War II, and geisha, like everyone else, had to help out with the war. In Tokyo alone, almost 9,000 geisha were still entertaining guests before they were told they could not work as geisha anymore.[11]: 98  After the war, geisha districts opened up again on 25 October 1945. By 1967, there were nearly 5,000 geisha in Tokyo again.[11]: 187 

Today, there are far fewer geisha. The exact number of geisha working today is not known but is estimated to be around 1,000 to 2,000.[8]

21st century[change | change source]

Geisha today live and work now Japan in different geisha districts (hanamachi), which have their own traditions of arts, training, and clothing. The best-known geisha live in Kyoto, which has five geisha districts. The most famous one is Gion Kobu, which is sometimes just called Gion. There are also Manu geisha in Tokyo and in towns with hot springs like Atami. In some places in Japan, people have decided to bring back geisha districts that had no geisha in them for decades.

Many geisha houses and districts now use social media to advertise their work, and geisha do not need to be born into a geisha district to work there. Some geisha districts put on events to attract tourists. In Kyoto, places like Gion Corner put on dances performed by maiko that anyone can go and watch.

People can also pay to dress up like geisha or maiko for the day. Being dressed up as a geisha or maiko is known as henshin. Some dress-up services, like those in Kyoto, allow someone to walk around the city for the day in dress-up. However, they will not dress someone completely accurately so that real geisha and maiko cannot be confused with people in costumes. If someone wearing henshin wants to be dressed the exact same as a geisha or maiko, they cannot walk around outside. Most, if not all, henshin services will take photographs of someone in dress-up for them to keep. Real geisha do not have the time to take pictures with tourists and so most women dressed as geisha or maiko who appear on the photos of tourists are in fact people in henshin.

Young women who wish to become geisha now usually begin their training after they finish junior high school or even high school or college. Many women begin their careers as adults. Geisha still study traditional musical instruments like the shamisen, the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and drums, as well as traditional songs, Japanese traditional dance, tea ceremony, literature and poetry. By watching other geisha, apprentices also become skilled in the difficult traditions of dressing, makeup, and dealing with clients.

Geisha are often hired to go to parties and gatherings at tea houses or traditional Japanese restaurants (ryōtei). Their time is measured by the time it takes an incense stick to burn, which called senkōdai (線香代) ("incense stick fee") or gyokudai (玉代) ("jewel fee"). In Kyoto, the terms ohana (お花) and hanadai (花代), meaning "flower fees," are used instead. Clients hire the services of geisha through the geisha district's union or registery office, known as the kenban (検番), which takes care of the geisha's schedule and makes appointments for her to entertain customers and train in the traditional arts.[16]

Training[change | change source]

Three maiko showing their embroidered kimono and obi

Traditionally, geisha began their training at a very young age. Although some girls were sold to become geisha as children, that was not normal practice in hanamachi with good reputation.[17] Daughters of geisha were often educated as geisha themselves.

The first part of training is called "shikomi". When girls first arrived at the okiya, they used to be put to work as maids, or do everything they were told. The work was difficult to "make" and "break" the new girls. The most junior shikomi of the house had to wait late into the night for the senior geisha to return from work, sometimes at as late as two or three in the morning. During that stage of training, the shikomi went to classes at the hanamachi's geisha school. In modern times, that stage still exists, but it is less hard than before. Shikomi now become used to the traditions and dress of the karyūkai ("flower and willow world").

When an apprentice became skilled in the geisha arts and passed a final and difficult dance test, she was promoted to the second stage of training, the minarai, and not longer did housework. This stage still exists but is much shorter than before (only a month). The minarai learn in the field and go to banquets and dance with the geisha. However, they do not participate but just sit, watch, and learn from their onee-san (older sisters). Their kimono are more elaborate than even that of a maiko, and it does the talking for them.

After a short time, the third and most famous stage of training begins, the maiko. The apprentice geisha stayed in this stage for years. Maiko learn from their senior geisha and follow them around to every presentation that she does. The onee-san/imoto-san ("older sister/younger sister") relationship is very important. The onee-san teaches her maiko everything about working in the hanamachi. She teaches her the right ways of serving tea, playing the shamisen, and dancing and everything about the art of iki (see below). Maiko wear heavy white makeup and elaborate hairstyle and have their lips painted almost all the time. Their kimono and obi have more vibrant colors and richer embroidery than those of full geisha. Like the minarai, maiko charge less money to go to parties or gatherings than full geisha.

After a period of only six months (in Tokyo) or five years (in Kyoto), the maiko is promoted to a full geisha and charges full price for her time. Geisha use kimono of fewer colors and wear makeup only for work or dance because they are more mature than a maiko, and the simpler style shows her own natural beauty. Geisha remain as such until they retire.[16]

Art of geisha and iki[change | change source]

The law required geisha to tie their obi in the back.

Geisha must be very skilled at traditional Japanese music, dance, and poetry since they use all three skills at their work. The arts of makeup, hairstyles, and clothing are very important as well.

The most important principle of a geisha is iki,[18] which started in the 18th century as a reply to the extravagant ways of the courtesans (oiran) and those who liked their style. Oiran wore very elaborate clothes, makeup, and jewelry. Geisha preferred to be discreet, and more intelligent. They created iki as a style that gave more importance to conversation and wit. Instead of working with sex, as oiran then did and simple prostitutes still do, geisha try to be sexy. A geisha will flirt, tease, and joke with men but always with art and elegance. Japanese clients know that nothing more can be expected. Men enjoy the illusion of that which is never to be. Geisha do not have sex with clients for money.[19] Geisha give more importance to their reputation than prostitutes do, and they almost never enter a relationship with a client. Those who do generally act with care and usually get married. Normally, when a geisha marries, she retires from the profession. The most important quality of a geisha is her trustworthiness, especially to Japanese clients. Anything that her clients do or tell her must remain a secret. Anything said or done at a tea house will remain anonymous.[20]

Becoming a geisha needs such discipline. A geisha believes she must be a work of art in herself. She works everyday to improve everything she does. A geisha's movements and her way of walking, sitting, and talking are very important. She is a geisha all the time, even when she is at home or not working. An example of the dedication is the old custom of kangeiko ("lessons in the cold"). Until the early 1920s, apprentice geisha would put their hands in icy water and then go outside in cold weather to practice playing the shamisen until their fingers bled.[20][21]

Picture gallery[change | change source]

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. Henshall, K. G. (1999). A History of Japan. Macmillan Press LTD, London. p. 61. ISBN 0-333-74940-5.
  2. Ito, Masami (2017-11-25). "Japan's geisha battle to protect their future". Japan Times. Retrieved 2020-10-15.
  3. "Tokyo Asakusa" (in Japanese). Taito-ku Association of Tokyo. Archived from the original on 13 September 2011. Retrieved 21 August 2007.
  4. ""Geisha, A Life", by Mineko Iwasaki". Archived from the original on 3 April 2016. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  5. Iwasaki, Mineko (2003). Geisha: A Life. Washington Square Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-7434-4429-9.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Geisha and Maiko". Amaya Booker. Archived from the original on 30 July 2013. Retrieved 19 August 2007.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Avery, Anne Louise. Flowers of the Floating World: Geisha and Courtesans in Japanese Prints and Photographs, 1772–1926 [Exhibition Catalogue] (Sanders of Oxford & Mayfield Press: Oxford, 2006)
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "Inside Japan". Hanami Web. Archived from the original on 24 February 2015. Retrieved 21 August 2007.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Dorda, Cristina. "Geigi Gakko" (in Spanish). Archived from the original on 11 August 2014. Retrieved 21 August 2007.
  10. "Women of the Arts". Rutgers Business School, New Brunswick. Archived from the original on 25 May 2007. Retrieved 21 August 2007.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Dalby, Liza (2000). Geisha (3rd ed.). London: Vintage Random House. ISBN 0099286386.
  12. Varley, H. Paul (2000). Japanese Culture (4th ed.). University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-2152-4.
  13. "About Japanese Courtesans' Names". Issendai. Archived from the original on 12 July 2020. Retrieved 14 July 2020.
  14. Eichman, Shawn. "Tongue in Cheek: Erotic Art of 19th Century Japan" (Online museum exhibition). Honolulu Museum of Art. Retrieved 30 May 2020. Though the precise reasons for [the decline] in the public's perception of the Yoshiwara [Edo brothel district] during the 19th century can only be speculated, the decline was as precipitous as it was undeniable. By the early 20th century, the aura of dignity and élan the courtesans had once exuded was all but lost, and these women, many of whom suffered from venereal disease, appeared more like sexual slaves than celebrities. (page 102)
  15. 15.0 15.1 Kimino, Rinko; Ichikawa, Somegoro (2016). Photographic Kabuki Kaleidoscope (1st ed.). Tokyo: Shogakukan. p. 18. ISBN 978-4-09-310843-0.
  16. 16.0 16.1 "El mundo de la flor y el sauce" (in Spanish). 4 April 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  17. Varley, p. 142.
  18. Varley, pp. 144-145.
  19. Henshall, K. G. (1999). A History of Japan. Macmillan Press LTD. p. 61. ISBN 0-333-74940-5.
  20. 20.0 20.1 "Shizuka Online". Midori Nihihara. Retrieved 31 May 2019.
  21. Varley, p. 151

Other websites[change | change source]