Japanese Geisha Culture

Geisha was once as much a Japanese icon as Mount Fuji. However, in most people's minds, geisha have only a vague impression, and some even have misunderstandings about their identity. In this article, we will explore the history, makeup, costumes, significance, current situation and tourist experience of geisha in Japan.


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What is a Geisha?

A geisha (芸者) is a Japanese female performance artist, traditionally hired to entertain guests at teahouses and social events. During such events, a geisha will sing, dance, perform music, host tea ceremonies, and serve food and drinks - all while engaging in lively conversation. The word geisha literally means “art person”, and geisha are expected to master various forms of traditional Japanese arts, such as dance, music, singing, poetry and calligraphy. Geisha are also known for their distinct appearance, characterized by long, trailing kimono, traditional hairstyles and oshiroi makeup.


Geisha are not prostitutes, as some people may mistakenly believe. Although some geisha historically engaged in sexual relationships with their clients, this was never an official part of their profession, and was abolished by law in 1956. Geisha are trained to be refined and elegant entertainers, who value their artistic skills and reputation.




History of Geisha in Japan

The origin of geisha can be traced back to the 17th century, when male performers called taikomochi or hōkan entertained guests within the pleasure quarters of Japan. These performers sang, danced and told jokes, and were often accompanied by female assistants called odoriko or sancha-joro. Gradually, some of these female assistants developed their own artistic skills and became independent entertainers. They were called onna-geisha (female geisha) or geiko (art child), and competed with the male performers for customers.


By the 18th century, female geisha outnumbered male geisha, and became more popular and respected than courtesans. Geisha were organized into districts or hanamachi (flower towns), where they lived and worked under the guidance of a mother figure called okiya or okāsan. Geisha also had patrons or danna, who supported them financially and emotionally. Geisha usually started their training at a young age, as apprentices called maiko (dancing child). They learned from senior geisha called onee-san (older sister), who taught them the arts and etiquette of being a geisha. After several years of training and a ceremony called erikae (turning of the collar), a maiko would become a full-fledged geisha.


The golden age of geisha was in the 19th century, when there were as many as 80,000 geisha in Japan. However, after World War II, the number of geisha declined dramatically due to social changes and economic difficulties. Many geisha left the profession or married their patrons. Today, there are only a few thousand geisha left in Japan, mostly concentrated in Tokyo and Kyoto.


Geisha Makeup and Costumes

One of the most distinctive features of geisha is their makeup and costumes. Geisha wear oshiroi or white face powder, which covers their entire face except for a small area on the nape of their neck called eri-ashi (collar edge). This creates a contrast between their pale skin and dark hair, and also symbolizes their professional identity. Geisha also apply red lipstick on their lips and lower eyelids, black eyeliner on their upper eyelids, and pink blush on their cheeks.


Geisha wear kimono or traditional Japanese robes that vary in color, pattern and style depending on the season, occasion and rank of the geisha. Kimono are made of silk or cotton fabric that is wrapped around the body and secured with a wide belt called obi. Kimono are usually worn with tabi (socks) and zōri (sandals). 


Geisha also wear elaborate hairstyles that are created with their own hair or wigs. They decorate their hairstyles with various accessories such as combs, pins, flowers and ornaments. The hairstyles vary depending on the rank and age of the geisha. For instance, maiko during their first stage of training wear a hairstyle called wareshinobu, which has a bun on the top and two red ribbons on the sides. Then, they switch to a hairstyle called ofuku, which has a bun on the top and a red silk cloth on the back, during their second stage of training. Senior geisha or geiko usually wear a hairstyle called shimada, which has a bun on the back and a front parting. Finally, maiko during their last stage of training before becoming geisha wear a hairstyle called sakkō, which has a high bun and elaborate ornaments.


The Significance of Geisha to Japanese Culture

Geisha are not only entertainers, but also cultural ambassadors who preserve and promote traditional Japanese arts and values. For example, geisha perform dances that express emotions, stories and seasons, using fans, umbrellas and other props to enhance their movements. They also play musical instruments such as the shamisen, the koto, the shakuhachi and the taiko, and sing songs that are based on folk tunes, poems or historical events. 


Moreover, geisha host tea ceremonies that are rituals of preparing and serving green tea and sweets, following strict rules of etiquette and aesthetics. In addition, geisha compose and recite poems that are based on classical forms such as haiku, tanka and renga, and participate in poetry games such as uta-awase and uta-karuta. Furthermore, geisha practice calligraphy or the art of writing characters with a brush and ink, and use calligraphy to decorate their fans, letters or scrolls. By performing these arts, geisha demonstrate their skills, knowledge and personality to their guests. They also express their appreciation for the beauty and elegance of Japanese culture.


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Current Situation of Geisha in Japan

The number of geisha in Japan has decreased significantly over the years, due to various factors such as social changes, economic difficulties, competition from other forms of entertainment, and lack of interest from young women. However, there are still some geisha who continue to practice their profession and uphold their traditions. They mainly work in Tokyo and Kyoto, where there are several hanamachi or geisha districts that have preserved their historical atmosphere and structures.


The life of a modern geisha is not easy, as they have to balance their work and personal lives, deal with high expenses and expectations, cope with aging and health issues, and adapt to changing times and tastes. However, they also enjoy some benefits such as having loyal patrons, traveling abroad, meeting celebrities, appearing on media, receiving recognition, and experiencing satisfaction from their work.


How Do Foreign Tourists Experience Geisha Culture?

Kyoto is considered to be the heart of geisha culture in Japan, as it has the most number of geisha in Japan, and it is the only place where the kyo-mai style of dance is taught and performed. For many foreign tourists, seeing a geisha in Kyoto is a dream come true. However, it is not easy to arrange a private dinner or party with geisha, as they usually require a personal introduction from an existing client or a reputable travel agency. Moreover, such events can be very expensive, ranging from US$900 to US$3000 or more per person.


Fortunately, there are other ways to experience geisha culture in Kyoto without breaking the bank or violating etiquette. There are five hanamachi, or geisha districts, in Kyoto, each with its own history, characteristics and traditions. They are Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi, Kamishichiken, Pontocho and Miyagawacho. Gion Kobu and Gion Higashi are both located in Gion, where the famous Hanamikoji Street is. This street is also where the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” was filmed. It is a good place to spot geisha.

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