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Tags: Geisha Submitted by craska 31.08.2010. Public material.

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Submitted for translation by craska 31.08.2010


Geisha (芸者, Geisha?) or Geigi (芸妓, Geigi?) are traditional female Japanese entertainers. They are skilled at different Japanese arts, like playing classical Japanese music, dancing and poetry. Some people believe that geishas are prostitutes, but this is not true.[1] The term "geisha" is made of two Japanese words, 芸 (gei) meaning "art" and 者 (sha) meaning "person who does" or "to be employed in". The most literal translation of geisha to English is "artist". Geishas are very respected and it is hard to become one.

Another common word to call geishas is Geiko (芸子). This word was made in Kyoto, and it is what they are called there. Kyoto is the city where the geisha tradition is older and stronger. Becoming a professional geisha (geiko) in Kyoto usually takes five years of training.

Apprentice geisha are called "maiko" (舞妓). This name is made of the Japanese words 舞 (mai) meaning "dancing" and 妓 (ko) meaning "child". The traditional image of the geisha in white make-up and kimono of many bright colors is really the maiko. Full geishas wear simpler kimonos, and only use white make-up at special times.

There are also geishas in other cities, but they are different. In Tokyo, becoming a full geisha takes from six months to a year. The Tokyo geisha apprentice is called "han'gyoku" (半玉) "half-jewel", or "o-shaku" (御酌), "one who serves (alcohol)". Tokyo geishas are normally older than Kyoto geikos.[2]

Modern geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called "okiya" ("geisha house") in neighborhoods named "hanamachi" (花街 "flower towns"). However, most older geisha who are successful have their own home. The elegant world that geisha are a part of is called "karyūkai" (花柳界 "the flower and willow world").[3] A famous geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, said this is because "geisha is like a flower, beautiful in her own way, and like a willow tree, gracious, flexible, and strong."[4]


Geisha are more modern than many people think. There were some women who worked as artists before geisha appeared, since the Heian Period (794-1185); but the true geishas appeared much later. In 1589, Toyotomi Hideyoshi authorized the building of a neighborhood in Kyoto, closed from the outside with walls. It was called Shimabara, and it was dedicated to pleasure.[5] This included enjoying arts, drinking, and luxury prostitution. Courtesans (called oiran 花魁) worked as expensive prostitutes, and attracted rich clients. Many artists also worked at the same houses, to entertain the clients with music, dancing and poetry. For a long time, these artists were men, and they called themselves "geisha" (artists), "hōkan" (jesters) or "taikomochi" (drummers, because they played the taiko, a Japanese drum).[6]

Like many things in Japanese culture, the world of courtesans became very complicated. Every man who wished to be with an oiran had to follow difficult rituals and etiquette, and only the very rich and noble could.[7] For this reason, many tea houses (ochaya) appeared outside Shimabara. At some of them, some women practiced cheaper prostitution, the "sancha-joro". However other women, who were called "odoroki" (dancing girls), acted as dancers and musicians. These women soon became very popular. They started calling themselves "geishas", like the male artists who worked at Shimabara. More or less by the year 1700, the female geishas became much more popular than the male ones. A few years later, almost all geishas were women.[8]

The government made laws that prohibited geishas to work as prostitutes, and only gave them permission to act as entertainers.[9] One of these laws said that they had to tie their obi (帯 sash) in the back, to make it harder for them to take their kimono off. Their hairstyle, make-up and kimono also had to be simpler than the oirans', because their beauty had to be in their art, not their bodies.[10] Soon, geishas became so much more popular than oirans, that by the year 1750 all oirans had disappeared. Other new geisha neighborhoods (hanamachi) were created in Kyoto and other cities.

In the 19th century, geishas were in better position than common women, but they also had problems in Japanese society. Sometimes, poor people sold their daughters to the hanamachi tea houses. Some rich men, called danna (patrons) paid a lot of money to get personal attention from a geisha. Geishas couldn't marry anymore, so they could have a danna to pay for her expenses. Other men paid a lot of money to take the new girls' virginity (mizuage).[11] But the reputation and respect for the geishas grew again in the Meiji Restoration, and even more after World War II. Important laws that protect them were created. Young girls couldn't be sold to the tea houses anymore, and the virginity of young geishas couldn't be bought. Since then, women only become geisha by their free will.[12]

Modern geisha

Most of the activity of geishas today is located at the hanamachis of Kyoto (especially the Gion hanamachi) and Tokyo. In modern Japan, they are almost never seen outside of them. In the 1920s there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today there are far fewer. The main reason is the introduction of Western culture. The exact number of geishas today is not known, but is estimated to be from 1,000 to 2,000.[13] Most women who appear as geisha for tourists are in fact actresses dressed as maikos.

Young women who wish to become geisha now usually begin their training after finishing 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, 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, make-up, and in dealing with clients.

Geisha are often hired to go to parties and gatherings, normally at tea houses or at traditional Japanese restaurants (ryōtei). Their time is measured by the time it takes an incense stick to burn, and is 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. The clients hire the service of geishas through the Geisha Union Office (検番 kenban), which takes care of the geisha's schedule and makes her appointments both for entertaining and for training.[14]


Traditionally, geisha began their training at a very young age. Although some girls were sold to become geishas as children, this was not normal practice in hanamachis with good reputation.[15] Daughters of geisha were often educated as geisha themselves.

The first stage of training is called "shikomi". In the past, when girls first arrived at the okiya (tea house), they were 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 as late as two or three in the morning. During this stage of training, the shikomi went to classes at the hanamachi's geisha school. In modern times, this stage still exists, but it is not as hard as it was in the past. Now, shikomis become used to the traditions and dress of the "karyūkai" ("flower and willow world").

When the apprentice became skilled in the geisha arts, and passed a final and difficult dance test, she was promoted to the second stage of training: "minarai". Minarai didn't do the housework anymore. This stage also exists today, but is much shorter than in the past (only a month). The minarai learn in the field. They go to banquets and dance with the geishas, but they do not participate: they just sit, watch and learn from their onee-san (older sisters). Their kimono are more elaborate than even a maiko's, to do the talking for them.

After a short time, the third (and most famous) stage of training begins, called "maiko". Maiko are apprentice geisha, and this stage can last for years. Maiko learn from their senior geisha and follow them around to every presentation 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 will teach her the right ways of serving tea, playing the shamisen, and dancing, and everything about the art of Iki (see below). Maikos have to wear heavy white make-up, elaborate hairstyle, and have her lips painted almost all the time. Their kimonos and obi have much more colors and richer embroidery than those of full geisha. Like the minarai, maikos don't charge as much money to go to parties or gatherings as a 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 their time. Geisha use kimono of less colors and only use make-up for work or dance, because she is more mature than a maiko, and the simpler style shows her own natural beauty. Geishas remain as such until they retire.[16]

The art of geisha and Iki

Geishas must be very skilled at traditional Japanese music, dance, and poetry, because they use all these arts when they work. The art of make-up, hairstyles, and clothing are very important too.

However, the most important principle of a geisha is called Iki.[17] Iki started in the 18th century as a reply to the extravagant ways of the courtesans (oirans) and those who liked their style. Oirans wore very elaborate clothes, make-up, and jewelry. Geishas 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, like oirans did and simple prostitutes do today, geishas 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. Geishas do not have sex with clients for money.[18] Geishas give much importance to their reputation, and they almost never enter a relationship with a client. Those that do generally act with care, and usually to 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.[19]

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


1. ↑ Henshall, K. G. (1999). A History of Japan. Macmillan Press LTD, London. ISBN 0-333-74940-5. pp. p. 61.

2. ↑ Tokyo Asakusa (Japanese). Taito-ku Association of Tokyo. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

3. ↑ "Geisha, A Life", by Mineko Iwasaki. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

4. ↑ Iwasaki, Mineko (2003). Geisha: A Life. Washington Square Press. ISBN 0-7434-4429-9. pp. p. 7.

5. ↑ Geisha and Maiko. Amaya Booker. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

6. ↑ Inside Japan. Hanami Web. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

7. ↑ Inside Japan. Hanami Web. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

8. ↑ Geigi Gakko. Cristina Dorda. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

9. ↑ Women of the Arts. Rutgers Business School, New Brunswick. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

10. ↑ Varley, Paul (2000). Japanese Culture (4th ed.). University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-2152-4. pp. p. 140.

11. ↑ Geigi Gakko. Cristina Dorda. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

12. ↑ Geisha and Maiko. Amaya Booker. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

13. ↑ Inside Japan. Hanami Web. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

14. ↑ El mundo de la flor y el sauce (Spanish). Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

15. ↑ Varley, Paul (2000). Japanese Culture (4th ed.). University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-2152-4. pp. p. 142.

16. ↑ El mundo de la flor y el sauce (Spanish). Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

17. ↑ Varley, Paul (2000). Japanese Culture (4th ed.). University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-2152-4. pp. pp. 144-145.

18. ↑ Henshall, K. G. (1999). A History of Japan. Macmillan Press LTD, London. ISBN 0-333-74940-5. pp. p. 61.

19. ↑ Shizuka Online. Midori Nihihara. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

20. ↑ Varley, Paul (2000). Japanese Culture (4th ed.). University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-2152-4. pp. p. 151.

21. ↑ Shizuka Online. Midori Nihihara. Retrieved on 20 August 2007.

Other websites

* Documentary Art Photography of Real Geisha, by Naoyuki Ogino.

* Geiko and Maiko Photo Gallery, by Lubomir Cernota.

* Japanese Geisha. Information on Geisha, Maiko, and media clips of their life.

* Geisha History, by Kathleen Cohen, School of Art and Design. San José State University.

* Karyukai, by Sofia Patterson.

* Geisha in Hanami Web, by Jaakko Saari.

* Geisha and Maiko, Haruyo Morita's artwoks.

* Coming of Age - Yukina: Japan. Documentary about a modern young woman who wishes to train to be a geisha.