History & Mythology

Geisha in 8 Minutes: Myths & Facts

Who are the Geisha? Are they artists? Escorts? Do Geisha sleep with their clients? How are they viewed in Japan? How do you become one? Do they even still exist?

These are just some of the questions asked about Geisha, especially since the 1997 bestseller, ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, and its 2005 film adaptation, both of which were very well received... except, it seems, by the Geisha themselves! Though a historical fiction, the novel aimed to be a culturally accurate depiction of the Geisha. Yet it does not tell the whole story. 

The Japanese Geisha have been deliberately shrouded in myth and mystery for virtually their entire history. Let’s see how much we can uncover together...

When did Geisha first appear?

Geisha (meaning art do-er or artist) existed as early as the 7th century in Japan, although the first modern geisha only began to appear in the large cities from the 17th century. And though you might not expect it, they were originally men. Known as Taikomochi, they were essentially the Japanese equivalent of a court jester. Soon, however, female geisha began to appear and quickly took over the profession.

The original role of geisha was as an assistant to the Oiran, who were high-class courtesans, dressed in amazingly flashy kimono and wearing heavy hairstyles. Oirans resided in the “pleasure quarters” -- or red-light districts -- of Edo (modern day Tokyo), Kyoto, and other major cities.  

The Geisha were tasked with entertaining the Oiran's upper class guests - often wealthy, powerful and influential clients - by playing music, elegantly dancing and telling jokes. These clients paid a lot of money to meet Oiran who gained the nickname of "keisei" (literally the "castle-toppler") for their reputation of being able to match the wit and capture the hearts -- (and wallets) -- of these upper-class men. 

As the Geisha’s popularity grew, the Oiran courtesans for whom they worked began to grow increasingly resentful of them. The Oiran even lodged an official complaint with the government,  stating that the geisha were taking their business by stealing their customers. To satisfy both professions, the government passed a rather intriguing set of laws stating what geisha and oiran could and could not do. They strictly stated that geisha were not to practice any form of prostitution or they would lose their license to entertain, whereas the Oiran courtesans, also known as "women of pleasure", were only allowed to sell sex and not entertain. In fact, these laws forbade geisha from forming personal relations with customers and they were not even allowed to sit near guests. So despite some popular misconceptions, the geisha are traditionally not considered sex workers.

However, patrons of the Oiran gradually began to gravitate towards the less expensive and much more socially accessible geisha. By the 1800s, the popularity of the oiran had waned, while the geisha had now become vital providers of hospitality and entertainment at dinner parties for large companies and government officials. 

The Geisha developed a reputation as dedicated purveyors of traditional Japanese entertainment, performing various ancient Japanese arts encompassing music, song, dance, tea ceremonies, calligraphy, flower arranging, poetry and, of course, the “art” of conversation. 

How did Geisha look?

We know what the original, traditional geishas looked like thanks to old scrolls and prints, as well as through the words of the poet Ihara Saikaku, one of the most prominent figures of the 17th-century revival of Japanese literature. He described their “red lips and white skin” and how their demeanour was “quiet, passive and demure, yet sensual and seductive”.

The Geisha's appearance was deliberately striking, partly to make her stand out from the typical crowd of married Japanese women who practiced ‘ohaguro’, the custom of blackening one's teeth, as well as whitening their skin and replacing their natural eyebrows with smudged paint. Creepy, right? Hardly surprising that the extraordinarily beautiful Geishas were so envied and desired. 

How did Japanese girls become geisha?
Quite often the daughters of lowly peasants would become geisha, as their parents were typically keen to not have an extra mouth to feed, and at the same time would receive income from their daughter’s work. 

Young apprentice geisha were (and are) known as maiko, a term roughly translating to "woman of dance". Maiko do not entertain guests and are easily recognizable by their style of dress - a furisode. A type of kimono, a furisode has long sleeves and is covered entirely with gorgeous patterns that are more intricate when compared with other kimono. The front and back neck of a Maiko’s kimono has a red collar, but when girls become geisha, they change it to dazzling white.

Maiko wear 6-inch high platform wooden sandals called ‘okobo’ which make walking seem almost impossible… I guess beauty requires some sacrifice...

After a period of training, Maiko graduate to the coveted Geisha status. (It’s worth noting that in some cities, such as Kyoto, geisha are referred to as geiko. In most of Japan, including Tokyo, however, they are known as geisha.)

Since Geisha are older than Maiko, they wear more mature kimono, usually of one softer color and with shorter sleeves. Because Maiko have not yet mastered the ins and outs of the profession like an experienced Geisha, they rely more on their beautiful, brightly coloured Kimono to impress. There are differences in hair style - Geisha usually go for a simple look, while maikos shape their own hair into elaborate arrangements that vary depending on the stage of training they are in. 

Geisha today

There are still geisha today – but only a handful remain compared to their golden days, less than 200. Even the most famous and highest-paid geisha in Japan, Mineko Iwasaki, lamented in her own ‘Memoir’ … yes, that’s a real Memoir of a Geisha... that the profession has steadily declined and will eventually die out. The fact is that very few Japanese women these days want to become a geisha, not because it’s especially frowned upon by society or not paid well, but because of the many years of strict training required to learn the ropes of being a geisha. The exclusivity of the Geisha has increasingly made the career path inaccessible, rather than mysterious.

In this sense, despite the huge cultural significance and traditional value of the geisha, it seems to not be an institution that is faring well with the development of modern society. As can also be seen in the decline of popularity of sumo wrestling, it speaks to a dwindling interest within Japan towards the more the traditional arts. It will be interesting to see if there are any more memoirs left to write, in the decades to come...
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