What is a geisha?

September 25, 2019

It is one of the most discussed and controversial figures of Japan, described in books and famous movies. But who is a geisha? Let's find out!

Young geisha or maiko bowing

The geisha is a traditional Japanese artist and entertainer, whose figure was widespread in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and which is now gradually disappearing. Geishas are women particularly well versed in music, singing and dancing. The apprentice geisha is called maiko. The original maiko of Gion district (the "geisha quarter" in Kyoto) is also often called geiko. The 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the novel by Arthur Golden, has made this figure popular in the West, often in a stereotypical manner.

The image that normally one has of the geisha is that of a woman with pale skin, elaborate hairstyles and a flamboyant kimono. In fact, this type of clothing, is more typical of the maiko, rather than the geisha.

The history

The first real geishas appeared in 1600, when courtesans dedicated to the entertainment of the nobility began to participate in the celebrations of the high society. Often men were called upon to perform this role. In 1617 when prostitution became legal in Japan, brothels and houses of pleasure began to spread in major cities and the figure of the geisha and prostutute began to be confused. In the nineteenth century specific laws were enacted to forbid geishas to exercise prostitution, and in major cities, especially Tokyo and Kyoto, some neighborhoods were specifically dedicated to host tea and geisha houses.

Tradition says that to become a geisha the preparation must begin as a little girl. Usually, the girls who decided to become geishas were daughters of other geishas. As soon as they arrived in the okiya, the "house of geishas", the girls learned domestic chores (which were often very challenging). Then later they learned entertainment activities, such as playing the shamisen and shakuhachi (a bamboo flute), performing traditional dance, singing and serve tea and sake correctly.

After a dance exam, they reached the second level of apprenticeship: assisted by older apprentices, they learned the complex choice and manner to wear the kimono and how to entertain clients. They attended the banquet where the older sisters served the customers, without participating actively, but wearing flashy makeup and garish clothing. The third apprenticeship level was ultimately that of the maiko. At this stage, the soon-to-be geisha had to follow her onee-san ("older sister") in all her daily activities, in particular learning the art of conversation. The maiko at this point could choose a stage name in order to exercise her activities as a geisha.

After a maximum period of five years, finally the maiko could become a geisha, a title that she maintained until her retirement. The geisha could start to repay the debt contracted with the okiya, which had covered all her expenses during her apprenticeship. To date, the traditional Japanese geishas roughly follow the same training process according to the kenban, a kind of professional register, which requires them to follow strict rules when it comes to clothing and lifestyle.

Maiko in Japan
Maiko are geisha apprentices who wear colorful make up and clothes

Gion district in Kyoto

Gion district is located in Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan. Traditionally it was one of the most exclusive geisha quarters, ​​commonly known as hanamachi, across the country. It includes two areas, the Gion Kobu and the Gion Higashi, with many traditional old buildings, this is why this area of ​​the city is protected by the Japanese government. The figure of the geisha is now slowly disappearing, but Gion district continues to be extremely charming for visitors because time here seems to have stopped.

Three maiko in Gion district, Kyoto
Gion is the traditional district of geishas

In Gion, fully restored to preserve its beauty, there are still traditional Japanese houses and the famous tea houses, where businessmen and samurais were entertained by geishas. Here, in addition to serving tea, geishas used to perform traditional dances and songs and they were at men's disposal for pleasant learned conversation. The geishas in Kyoto are called geiko, which in local dialect means "woman of art." Even today, the geikos of Gion Kobu perform the traditional dance in April. This event, extremely popular with tourists, is called Miyako Odori, or "dance of the cherry blossoms."