What is a Geisha?

Everything You Need To Know About This Japanese Tradition

There are many aspects of the Japanese culture that we have come to know and recognize. One of the most prominent traditions in Japan is the role of the Geisha. However, many Westerners do not quite understand what exactly is a Geisha and where the tradition comes from.

Geishas are some of the oldest and most worldwide known traditions that are celebrated in Japan and around the world. Geishas have even been depicted in the 2005 Academy award winning movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’.

Whilst the film was enjoyed and awarded for its many true Japanese elements, some people were disgusted by how the movie depicted the Geisha, and how inaccurate the tradition was portrayed. 

Some will argue that the untrue portrayal of the Geisha in the film is what has led Westerners to have many misconceptions about the role of the Geisha, and how important the tradition is for many in Japan.

What the movie may have left out is the vast amount of dedication, perseverance and commitment that goes into becoming a Geisha, and the skill that it takes to represent this authentic Japanese tradition.

As such, this article will outline what exactly a Geisha is, the origin of the Geisha tradition, and what defines a Geisha, so that people can truly appreciate this unique aspect of the Japanese culture.

What is a Geisha?

The actual word geisha literally translates to artisan. This relates to how the Geisha is seen as an artist who practices the traditional arts of Japan, and acts as purveyors of Japanese culture and tradition.

The profession of the Geisha has been recognized since the late eighteenth century, and is represented by women who dedicate their whole lives to learning and practicing Japanese arts and culture.

In origin, the Geisha profession would actually be practiced by both women and men, where they would have to practice and master many different Japanese arts to perform for guests and customers.

These arts would be singing, traditional Japanese dances with fans, reciting literature, flower arranging, playing instruments and reading poetry that pertains to the culture. In addition to this, Geishas are expected to be very knowledgeable, intelligent and skilled in the art of conversation.

It is because of their high level of skill, refined tastes, looks and cultural intelligence that Geishas are considered the height of refinement, and opulence. Geishas act as custodians of the Japanese tradition and culture.

They are therefore very respected in Japanese culture, and still are highly sought after as customers and enthusiasts will pay lots of money to engage with a Geisha, or see them perform in tea houses.

The most common customers that Geishas may have are typically wealthy individuals, such as businessmen, politicians or rich travelling clientele. These clients can employ the services of a Geisha for a period of time, but the Geisha would have to be recommended to the client or house by an already established customer.

This may be where the confusion comes in as to what a Geisha is. Many people have mixed up Geishas with prostitutes or concubines. This could not be further from the truth.

Despite the similarities in dress, singing and dancing, Geishas have never engaged in prostitution, and being a Geisha has been regulated from 1779 onwards, in which they are not allowed to engage in prostitution.

Geishas are instead demonstrators of Japanese art, tradition and culture, and are in no way linked to concubines or prostitution. Today, Geishas are hired or paid by tourists to get a taste of Japanese culture, and will be found conducting tea ceremonies or performing in shows, or on the street.

Nowadays, it is harder to define exactly what a Geisha is, as there are so few that still practice this profession. At the peak of the Geisha age, there were around 80,000 Geishas recorded to be in Japan, whereas now there are only around 300 still acting as Geishas, or as their apprentices, called Maiko. So what has changed since then? Let’s look at the origin of the Geisha, and how this differs from today.

History of a Geisha

Geishas originated in Tokyo and Kyoto, in Japan over hundreds of years ago. The profession of a Geisha has been dated back to the early 1700s, but the practice was more prominent in the late 1800s. After this time, it was only then recognized as a profession, as before then it was more regarded as a glamorous form of entertainment.

In the first examples of the Geisha, they were seen as entertainers that would amuse and fascinate customers waiting to visit popular courtesans called oiran. As time would pass, oiran services would become obsolete, and eventually eradicated, whereas the Geisha would grow in social status, and would gain an elite reputation in Japan.

Geisha grew in popularity and status up until around World War II, where the number of Geishas began and continued to fall. As War depleted incomes and livelihoods, many Geisha districts were shut down, and Geishas struggled to find work in other fields.

After the War was over, there was an increase in the popularity of the Geisha, and some returned to the trade, however, many ex-Geisha’s had found comfort in their new lifestyles, and never returned to the profession.

To be a Geisha, there are many rules, practices and regimes that must be followed, and so this profession is not an easy way of life. An individual who wants to become a Geisha has to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to the practice, and must learn a variety of traditional arts and skills. This takes years of training from a young age, including how to behave, converse and perform in every situation.

Many Geishas who returned to the profession following the second World War adapted to Western tropes and traditions, which has caused a divide in some places. However, nowadays Geishas still uphold many of the same values from their origin.

What are Geishas like today?

The modern Geisha still lives by the same standards set for the profession many centuries ago, with similar morals, beliefs and expectations as before. However, as times change, and so does the world, the Geisha has changed too.

That being said, the profession of a Geisha is still steeped in tradition, origin and the roots of Japanese culture, they are just more in tune with modern society. One of the biggest differences is that the mizuage ceremony has changed. The term mizuage was mainly used for the coming of age ceremony, where a Maiko (trainee Geisha) would become a fully fledged Geisha.

One of the associations with this ceremony was that the Maiko was supposedly meant to lose her virginity too. Whilst this is alleged, and may be a tradition inconsistent with historical truth, the practice has been wholly banned since the second world War.

Another main difference is that typically Maikos would begin their training to become a Geisha from an incredibly young age, some being as young as six years old. Nowadays, Geishas begin their training generally after high school, and at a teen age.

In addition, Geishas have long been associated with high society, and are still some of the most valued professional entertainers in places such as Tokyo and Kyoto. Some more esteemed Geishas still live in prestigious areas and okiyas (specific lodging for training or Maiko and Geishas), and perform for rich clients.

In their prime, Geishas had to be recommended from another family to a client, whereas nowadays, Geishas can make a living with tourism companies, or by working in tea houses and traditional Japanese restaurants for enthusiasts.

Despite their greater accessibility these days, being a Geisha is still a prestigious profession, and should be treated with respect and admiration. To see a Geisha is a blessing, and you cannot expect to visit Japan and see one perform without some previous serious planning, and a hefty price tag.

Geishas are so highly sought after as their skills are unique, and they represent Japanese arts and culture that takes years of training and dedication to master.

Training to Be a Geisha

As one of the most prestigious professions in Japanese culture, it comes as no surprise that training to be a Geisha is incredibly difficult, and takes years of devotion.

To be a Geisha, girls will be governed by strict rules that they will have to follow and upkeep to change from a Maiko to a fully fledged Geisha.

For instance, a young apprentice Geishas, called Maikos must wear a lot of makeup. This will include thick white makeup all over the face, dark black around the eyes and red lipstick.

As Geishas age, the rules around makeup become looser, and after 30 years old, Geishas only wear make up for specific special occasions, as they are expected to show off their natural beauty as they age.

Similarly, young Maikos have bright and patterned kimonos with lots of sashes, bows and high sandals. This is different from Geishas as they only wear a simple silk kimono that knots in the back much shorter than a Maikos. That being said, kimonos are made with many layers and lots of fabric, and so many Geishas require a professional dresser and hair stylists to get them ready.

Not only are Geishas expected to look a certain way, but they are meant to have a specific manner and demeanor at all times. Geishas can be distinguished by their refined manners, and are considered a part of high society. This means that a Geisha cannot go to regular stores or supermarkets, or even have food at a fast food restaurant.

Therefore, Geishas must keep a classy demeanor at all times, and in every meeting with clients or customers they are expected to entertain politely, with the utmost respect and restraint.

Many years ago, Geishas were trained from ages as young as six, and the okaasan (mother) of the Geisha house would buy children from poorer families, and take them to be trained and educated as a Geisha until adulthood. These girls would be expected to train, perform, and complete chores every day, and were instructed to be obedient at all times.

Then, they would become trained in the arts, with the expectation for them to specialize in one in particular, with dancing being considered the most noble and appreciated.

The training Geisha, a Maiko, would then have to master all of the arts, and would be accompanied by a sister Geisha to help pass on the knowledge and skills that she would need. The elder Geisha would then introduce the Maiko to her circle of friends and clients, so that the Maiko would become recognized, and could build her own clientele.

Once the Maiko has done so, they can become a Geisha. However, training to become a Geisha is an expensive business. The kimonos and hair pieces alone can cost thousands of dollars, and so the newly established Geisha can repay the debt by working for the okiya.

The Okiya is the establishment where Geishas train, but also where parties and engagements can be held to see Geishas. A new Geisha would then have to work and book clients there until her debt is paid, after which time she is free to work however and wherever she pleases.

What is the difference between a Geisha and a Maiko?

We have discussed the terms Geisha and Maiko at length, but you may be unsure what the actual differences are between them. To clarify, a Maiko is just a Geisha in training. A Maiko is not yet a full Geisha, and still has some training to complete.

Once a Maiko has finished her training, she will have a mizuage ceremony before she becomes a fully fledged Geisha. If you are unsure, you can tell which are Geishas and which are Maiko, by looking at their dress, make up and hairstyle.

Age

The easiest way to determine whether someone is a Geisha or a Maiko is by their age.

Maiko can begin their training at a very young age, but most begin around the age of 15-16 in Kyoto, whereas they are typically 17-18 in Tokyo. In comparison, real Geisha training begins from the age of about 21-23 years old.

Kimono

A Geisha will adorn a subtle and simple kimono that is generally one color, with a short sash and short sleeves. On the other hand, a Maiko will wear more colorful and long sleeved kimonos, with a large sash and bow down the back.

Also, a Maiko wears a thick, loose red collar on the kimono, whereas a Geisha will have a tight white collar on their kimono.

Hairstyle

In addition, a Geisha would wear an exquisitely styled wig, whereas a Maiko would style their naturally hair into traditional buns. However, it may be hard to tell the difference just by looking at the hairstyle as both have their hair done by skilled Geisha artisans.

Maiko also wear many more decorated ornaments in their hair, with greater complexity, colors and designs given when they reach a certain level of training. Once they become a Geisha, they wear just simple combs and no extensive hair accessories.

Make Up

You will notice a Maiko as they always wear a full face of white makeup. However, a Maiko will leave a small band of skin showing very close to the hairline.

In Maiko training, they will also only paint the bottom lip red, until they progress to both lips painted thinly, and then full lips painted red as they move onto a Geisha.

Footwear

The main difference between a Geisha and a Maiko’s footwear is the height. A Maiko will wear high wooden sandals called okobo, whereas a Geisha will wear shorter ones called geta.

Now that you know the main differences between what a true Geisha looks like, and what a Maiko looks like, you can spot which is which when travelling in Japan.

How to find a Geisha in Japan

Booking yourself a Geisha to interact with will be very expensive. Luckily, if you are a tourist or travelling in Japan, then there are a few ways that you can see this unique tradition for yourself.

You can book various experiences and attractions whilst on your travels in Japan that involve Geishas. For instance, there is a Geisha Encounter Experience in Tokyo.

However, if you do not want to book an experience with a Geisha then you can tour the area of Kyoto, which is the birthplace of the Geisha, and you are bound to see the sights of a Geisha in this area. If you travel to the Gion district, you can learn and experience the customs of the traditional Geisha.

You can also visit Hanami-koji-dori in Gion (towards Kennin-ji Temple), and the Shiji-dori end of Pontocho in Kyoto. This area is known for its Geisha activity, and you will most likely be able to spot a Geisha or two here. However, this is a popular tourist spot where many people may be hoping to see a real life Geisha, and so it may be busy.

If you miss out on this experience, then you can make your way to Kaburenjo theatre in Kyoto, where many Geisha and Maiko will often take orders for traditional Japanese drinks in the beer garden there. Try to book ahead to ensure that you get a spot, for your own glimpse of a real Geisha.

In addition to this, you can catch an afternoon performance at the Kyoto Tower of the Maiko Show. This will be a chance for you to witness Maiko who are still training, and watch them entertain and show off their skills and training of the arts.

Summary

We hope this article gives you a better understanding of the origin, traditions and expectations of a Geisha.

This way, if you travel to Japan, you can appreciate the culture a little better, and the meaning behind the Geisha girl.