Geisha 芸者 or Geiko 芸子(in Kyoto dialect) are professional female artist aiming to entertain their guests during dinners, banquets and other occasions. They are extremely well trained in a variety of Japanese arts like traditional dancing, preforming music, games and other skills.
The word Geisha consists of two Kanji; Gei and Sha, Gei 芸 means ‘art’ and Sha 者 means ‘doer’. Like all Japanese nouns there is no plural version. Apprentice Geisha are called Maiko which literally means dancing child. The word consists of two characters also. ‘Dancing’ 舞 and ‘child’子.
The Geisha originated from serving girls called ‘saburuko’. These girls where most of the time without a family. Some of them offered sexual services while the other girls which had better education, preformed at social gatherings to entertain guests. In the traditional Japan, sexual delights where not a taboo and it was very common for Japanese men to search a courtesan for some pleasure. They even build the so called pleasure quarters in the 16th century. Outside the pleasure quarters prostitution was illegal. Inside the quarters they had yuujo 遊女 ‘play women’ which were legal. The highest rank of yuujo preformed erotic dances and skits. This art was called kabuku which means ‘to be wild and outrageous’. This was the beginning of Kabuki theater.
As these quarters quickly began to grow to large entertainment centers, the yuujo offered a lot more than sexual services. Each of them began to develop a special skill and some of them were even renowned artists, poets or calligraphers. Before Geisha the odoriko (dancing children) appeared. When they grew out of their teenage years they adopted different names which depended on their skill. The first woman who ever called herself a Geisha was a Fukagawa prostitute. She was a skilled singer and samisen-player and a huge success making female Geisha extremely popular in Fukagawa. After that the Geisha became more spread over the country and often worked solely as entertainers and no more as prostitutes.
Still many Geisha worked as prostitutes imprisoned in the pleasure quarters, in order to protect the business of the Oiran 花魁.
Eventually the Geisha evolved and many of them became professional entertainers, while others still offered sexual services which was still legal up until the 1900s.
Influence of the second world war
In the period of the WWII many Geisha were forced to stop because they had to work in factories or had to move. With the Americans coming to Japan, prostitutes started to call themselves ‘Geisha girls’ to attract the attention of the American soldiers and the original Geisha lost their status. In 1940 all the teahouses ‘ ochaya’ and bars were forced to close, so that all employees could work in factories. A year later, they were allowed to reopen. The few Geisha that continued rejected all western influences and hoped to rebuild the Geisha image with the traditional ways of Japan. It was up to these few Geisha to bring back the traditional standards and keep their image clean.
Becoming a Geisha
The training of the Geisha starts around the early age of 9. Some of them were raised in an ‘Okiya’ 置屋which is a Geisha house. They were given food, kimono’s, very expensive training and board. These debts must be repaid to the Okiya with the earning she makes. The repayment continues until she has paid for all her debts. After that she is permitted to move out and work independently. In the 1950s the Okiyas disappeared with the outlawing of child labor.
The apprentice Geisha, so called Maiko will start their training by observing a full-fledged Geisha at work. She must find an older Geisha which will act as her mentor. They call their mentor ‘onee-san’お姉さん which means older sister. They have to follow their onee-san everywhere and they must obey her as well. The mentor trains her Maiko in all the required skills such as conversing, playing shamisen, dancing and other requirements. The onee-san will even help her pick a name to use in her career.
Maiko’s are very beautiful to look at, they were colorful kimonos with a very low, loose hanging collar in the back which accentuates the back of the neck. Also there are 5 different hairstyles a Maiko can wear which show the different stages of her apprenticeship. The hairstyles are decorated with ‘Kanzashi’簪 traditional Japanese hair ornaments.
Although there are not many Geisha left today, you will have the highest possibility to see one in Kyoto. Kyoto's most famous district is Gion 祇園 which is known as one of the 5 Geisha districts (hanamachi). Nowadays it's not impossible for tourists and outsiders to see Geisha and Maiko. They are still very exclusive and expensive and often require an introduction from someone who is already a customer. However with the tourism growing in Kyoto there are some hotels and travel agencies which offer lunch or dinner with the entertainment of Geisha and Maiko for any tourist with a sufficient budget.
Every day at Gion Corner at the end of Hanami-Koji, the Geisha and Maiko give a show which is aimed at tourists. The show gives an introduction to several Japanese arts. In April you can watch the Miyako Odori which are daily dance performances by Maiko. There are four one-hour performances every day which costs around 2000 – 4000 yen per person.
Shijio Avenue also located in Gion district, is a popular shopping are with many stores selling local products like sweets and crafts.
There are also several Maiko studios in Kyoto where you can dress up as a Maiko or Geisha, some of them are especially aimed at tourists.
Outside Kyoto in the Higashi Chaya district in Kanazawa you can find a former ochaya which is open to the public as a museum. You can see a traditional tatami room here and exhibits of various items such as utensils, accessories and instruments.
Whenever you see a Geisha or Maiko don’t start making pictures out of the blue. Act respectfully.
I hope you enjoyed a little history again~
~ Mei mei