Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


***All photos accompanying posts are either owned by the author of said post or are in the public domain -- NOT the property of History Undressed. If you'd like to obtain permission to use a picture from a post, please contact the author of the post.***

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The History and Culture of Japanese Geisha

A long standing stigma has been placed on Japanese Geisha girls. When someone thinks of a Geisha, they think of a glorified prostitute or call girl. This is far from the truth. Geisha’s are entertainers, and they are trained vigorously in art, music and dancing. If you translate Geisha into English, you get artist.

Being a true Geisha is an honor to the girls, who when they become full-fledged Geisha’s are then called geiko. If a girl begins her training to be a geisha before she is 21, she is called a maiko, meaning child dancer. A girl or woman can become a geisha even if she wasn’t a maiko, but if she had been a maiko she would enjoy much more prestige.

Because the geisha is much coveted, prostitutes have called themselves geisha’s to bring in more customers, but you will notice a distinct difference, and that is their attire. Both girls where a kimono, and over their kimono is an obi (or sash). Geisha’s tie their obi in the back, and prostitutes tie it in the front. One simple reason for this, you can’t tie it yourself if its in the back, and if you’re a prostitute, your going to need to tie it and untie it throughout the day. The prostitutes often went by the name ‘Geisha girls,’ or ‘panpan girls,’ and they often serviced American military. Geisha DO NOT engage in paid sex with clients.

Aren’t they courtesans? No they aren’t. While some girls may have a danna, a patron, take interest in them it doesn’t mean they will become intimate, although they most likely will. The danna pays for all of their expenses, sort of like a mistress, but relationship is a very intricate one that is not well understood. A geisha, even after completing her training, will continue to take classes.

So how does one become a geisha? Some girls were sold to the okiya, or geisha house, however this wasn’t too common in more reputable districts (a geisha district was called a hanamachi). Daughters of geisha usually became geisha themselves, and would most likely be the successor, atori, to the geisha house.

During the first stage of training, the girls would be put to work as maids and have to do everything they were told. This stage of training was called shikomi. The youngest of all the girls, or the newest to the house, would have to wait up until the most senior geisha returned home and assist her in getting ready for bed. This could be as late as two or three in the morning.

Also during this time the girls would be attending the hanamachi geisha school. Today’s girls still follow this custom to learn the traditions, dialect and the dress.
Once the girl has finished her shikomi training by becoming proficient in all of her classes and passing a dance exam, she was relieved of her “maid” duties and moved to the second stage of training, minarai. Minarai’s training would be done in the field, however they would not take part in the more advanced levels. They were they mostly to be seen and not heard so to speak. It is the minarai’s form of dress that we have adopted as what a geisha looks like. They are the most expressive and impressive designs, because their dress is supposed to speak for them.

A minarai teams up with an onee-san, or older sister. She follows her to her events and mainly observes or pours tea. A minarai could also work closely with a okaa-san, who is the proprietor of her geisha house. She’ll learn the art of conversation and how to play games. After she completes this stage she is promoted to maiko, an apprentice geisha. While the first two stages last only several months, maybe up to one year, the maiko stage could last years…

The maiko will go with her onee-san everywhere, but now she may participate, once her older sister feels comfortable. The onee-san teaches the maiko how to be a true geisha, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, playing the shamisan (a three string instrument), dancing, conversation. She will help her pick a new professional name. She will perfect her way of doing her hair and makeup. Hair is washed about once a week, and the design of the sytle so intricate it has to be done by a professional. A thick white foundation is applied to the face, neck and chest. A line is left around the hairline to create a ‘mask’ look. And a 'W' like shape is left at the back of the neck. Black is then traced around the eyes and eyebrows, a maiko also traditionally wears red around the eyes too. The lips are then colored, red, but not the entire lip, only parts of them. After three years of wearing her makeup, the maiko will wear a more subdued style. A lot of established geisha only wear their makeup when doing a special performance. Depending on if you’re in Kyoto or Tokyo, a geisha’s disposition is different. Tokyo geisha are more apt to be sassy, while geisha from Kyoto are more demure.

After her onee-san feels she is ready, the maiko will become a full-fledged geisha and charge full price. There are two types of geisha, a tachikata, who mainly dances and a jikata who mainly sings and plays instruments. The former are usually the younger girls and the latter older more established geisha.

But what are they charging what? You may have gotten some sort of idea, but let me explain further.

They attend parties and tea houses, where they are the entertainment and hostesses. They pour tea, sing, dance, play instruments, and chat with the guests. In other words they are the life of the party and companions.

The training to become a geisha is extremely rigorous, and because of this the number of women today who are becoming geisha is diminishing.

Here is a news clip from NBC on The Secret Life of Geisha:

Here is a video of a geisha applying her makeup:

Here is a video of a geisha dance:

If you are interested in reading some books about geisha, here is a list:

Geisha, A Life, by Mineko Iwasaki
Autobiography of a Geisha, by Sayo Masuda
The Asian Mystique, by Sheridan Prasso
Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden


Shannon Robinson said...

Great post Eliza! I had been curious about the lives of a Geisha before and this was a wonderful learning post. Thanks for sharing!

Nicole North said...

Fantastic info!! Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed the recent Geisha movie. I found it both heartbreaking and beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Nice overview, but the picture that you posted at the beginning of the article is not of two real maiko- From their dress it can be discerned that they are tourists dressed up to look like geisha. There are a couple signs to look for- their kanzashi are very long, yet their upper lips are painted. Real Maiko with such long kanzashi would be first year maiko and have only their bottom lip painted. Also, the collar under the main kimono would be red. As a maiko progresses, her collar goes from red to white. The kimono are a bit bright to ne maiko kimono- genuine maiko kimono generally reflect a season- so the pattern is not quite as busy as the kimono that the two women are wearing.
Just thought you might like to know :)

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Fascinating post Eliza. I've always been curious about Geishas. I remember seeing an A&E program on them when Memoirs of a Geisha (the book) came out. Jina Bacarr, who writes erotica for Harlequin, wrote a book called The Blonde Geisha.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Shannon!

I liked it too Nicole :)

Thank you for sharing that Sara! It's always hard when finding pictures online. Great eye!

Thanks Elizabeth! I will have to check that book out, fascinating!

Lidian said...

Great post Eliza!

There is a wonderful book called Geisha by Liza Dalby that you might be interested in - she was the only non-Japanese ever to be a practising geisha, in the mid-1970s.

Holly Greenfield said...

What a cool post, Liza. And I found it so much more interesting than the movie Memoirs of a Geisha! LOL!
I did however, think that Geisha met prostitute (probably because of the movie)so thanks for clearing that up. :0)
I am off to read the rest of the posts I've missed. I'm so far behind and I love your blog!

Helen Hardt said...

Awesome post! There is such a richness to be explored here. I wonder why we don't see more historical romances centering on the geisha?


viagra online said...

These geisha work in the spa resorts and are viewed by most Japanese as no better than a common prostitute. They normally cater to far less exclusive patrons, usually office workers or others of the sort, and are much less expensive.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

thanks! you help me do my whole project for school this article was really good!