Many years ago while browsing in a used book store, I came across a book by A. Golden “Memoirs of Geisha” (1997). A world of a geisha seemed so mystical, magical, and different that nothing else compared. Later, I found a memoir written by the most successful geisha of all times Mineko Ivasaki “Geisha, a life”. Interesting fact is that A. Golden wrote his novel after interviewing M. Ivasaki and the book has a lot of parallelism based on her personal life.
The reason we know so little about geishas is because of the traditional geisha code of silence.
Geisha in Japanese means “artist”, “performing artist”, or “artisan”. It is an interesting history how geisha tradition evolved. In 1617 the shogunate created “pleasure quarters” when prostitution became illegal outside, but legal inside the establishments. Quickly these centers became glamorous entertainment centers and clients were offered more than sex. Women working at these establishments were ranked in classes and the highest ranked were accomplished dancers, poets, calligraphers, musicians and singers. With time these women became specialized only as an artists completely moving away from prostitution. Their accomplishments became so appreciated by the high society, that by the 1830s geishas became real role models for all women. Geishas became accomplished artist with a high social status that honored traditions, they lived in elite world, that was very private and secured; therefore, always surrounded by the myths.
There are many misconceptions related to geisha. One of them arouse during the World War II when most women including geishas had to go to work to the factories; therefore, geisha arts declined. In addition, prostitutes called themselves “geisha girls” to American military men adding another reason for the profession to disappear and confusion to the foreigners. Fortunately, in 1960 during Japanese postwar economic boom, some geishas decided to regroup, to make some changes in their profession and to become what we know today – a modern world geishas. Another myth or fact is depending on the literature you read about maiko’s virginity auctions that were outlawed in 1959; however these incidents are still reported in 1990s and 2001.
Sometimes you might hear people use a term Maiko. Maiko is an apprentice geisha. It is not mandatory to become maiko first, in order to become a geisha; however, those who choose to do so, as they become geisha appreciate more prestige and are highly honored. Maiko appearance is very different from geisha, she wears distinctive white make-up, ravishing kimono and artistic hair.
Maiko is paid twice less than geisha. In modern times Maiko cannot be older than 21 years of age and depending on the region in Japan they can start at age 15 or 18. In older times, some girls started at age 5, first few years as servants and later as observers. Once in 1950 child labor was outlawed, reputable districts no longer hired young girls. However, daughters (some were adopted as children) of a geisha, commonly were brought up as geishas.
There is also complex ranking system of geishas. There are few neighborhoods (hanamachi) in Tokyo (Tshimbashi, Asakusa and Kagurazaka), but only three in Kyoto where the most honored and the most expensive geisha houses (okiya) exist even till this day.
In Kyoto we walked around Gion Kobu, where we saw geishas walking to their appointments in the evening. Unfortunately, none of them stopped to take pictures, since some tourist stand outside their homes and flash camera right in to their face.
In addition geisha is very rare sight to see, there used to be about 80,000 while today exact numbers are unknown but estimate is 1000 to 2000. Thus do not confuse the women you see in the streets walking and hopping leisurely, it’s usually women who pay to be dressed up as a geisha.
Training to become Geisha is extremely expensive; therefore, geisha houses usually set up a contract and maiko must pay their debts for some time after becoming full geisha. Okiya provides maiko with food, board, collections of kimonos, private classes, and everything else needed to succeed as geisha. Only when geisha pays her debts to okiya she may move on to live and work independently.
First step in becoming Maiko one must attend special geisha school to start learning arts. Geisha study traditional instruments: the shamisen, shakuhachi, and drums. They are expected to practice shamisen every day. In addition they play flute and ko-tsuzumi. Some even learn how to compose a music and write poems. They learning games, traditional songs, calligraphy, Japanese traditional dances, tea ceremony, literature, and poetry. Dances that geisha performs have many movements, reminds a little of tai-chi. Every gesture that geisha makes while dance has a deep meaning and it tells a story.
Soon Maiko is formally trained, by older geisha, who acts as her mentor. Maiko will observe geisha in her daily routine and will learn by watching. However, even if they do not participate, they still meet potential clients and learn the tricks of trade and things that would not be taught to them at school. During these gatherings they get to wear much more elaborate kimonos and make-up than their mentor, the reason is that their appearance does talking for them. Even though never officially invited, they are very welcomed guests.
Next stage in training is hands on and lasts for years to come. Maiko learns from her mentor all the proper ways how to participate in the conversation, how to behave, how to pour and serve tea, how to perform; finally, how to deal with out of line guest.
Final stage in training is learning how to navigate social circles, how to become known in tea houses, Restaurants, and geisha neighborhoods. This is accomplished by visiting important social circles and bringing gifts.
Appearance. The image of a geisha that everyone knows so well: stunning kimono, with beautiful hair and infamous white make-up. Geishas do not have the same appearance throughout her career. It changes a lot in the first few years and quite drastically.
Makeup. Traditionally thick, white base make up is worn only by Maiko. But sometimes established geisha would wear it during a special performance. The white base is made of rice powder; long time ago it was made with lead but after discovery of poisonous effects – discontinued. The white rice powder is mixed with water and applied to the skin already covered with oil or wax foundation. The white make-up is applied to the face, chest and a neck, however at the base of the neck it is applied in a “w” form. They leave the base of the neck exposed since it is considered erotic area by Japanese.
Eyebrows are drawn in. Short eyebrows would be for maiko and long mature ones for fully pledged geisha. Around the eyes and eyebrows and highlighted with red. The lips are also covered with red. Maiko would partially cover the lower lip in her first year. Newly established geisha would partially color her only her top lip. The lips are colored in a style to resemble a flower bud. Once maiko reaches 3 years in her practice her makeup becomes very simple to symbolize maturity and to show her natural beauty.
Kimono. Kimono style varies widely worn by maiko, geisha, married women, the season of the year and the event attended. Its said that it takes more than one year to complete a kimono. Maiko will wear elaborate kimono, while geisha more subtile. Obi changes from elaborate to simpler as the way it is tied in the back. Maiko’s obi is very heavy; in addition, her kimono has long pocketed sleeves that reach the ground. It was difficult not to trip over them while walking, and had to wrap them around the arms while dancing.
In the Japanese history wealthy, young women with high social status would wear many layers of kimonos, so they would be heavy and it would be very difficult for a young lady to walk. This way it shoes her as calm and collected lady – as a sigh of her high status or rank in a society.
Geisha’s under-kimo is red or pink with white collar . Maiko will wear red under-kimono with white patterns. Initially her collar will be red with white, silver or gold embroidery. Three years in her career embroidery will be white in front. Once maiko turns 20 her collar will be only white.
Maiko or geisha is always observed walking in very small steps and wearing wooden shoes. Shows worn only outdoors and white socks with toe split (tabi) – indoors. In cold season both maiko and geisha wear wooden clogs, but both vary in style.
Hair. The style of hair worn by geisha is called shimada and there are 4 different styled according to years maiko or geisha has been in practice. It’s difficult to describe the hair styles, but the general understanding is that in first years maiko will have more decorative hair style. It is a very long and painful process for the maiko to get her hair done. I requires a visit to a hair stylist at least once a week and it takes a very talented and skilled person to do the hair. The hair is pulled so hard that with years it causes bolding spots. In order to maintain the hair due to perfection maiko had to sleep on special pillows to support her neck and to protect the hair. Hair style is ornamented with different hair pins and hair-comb as well.
Question, looking at the geisha, what image do you create in your head of a women who is always dressed up, with full make up and the hair done into perfection. Many might think that Geisha is fragile, carefree, and mischievous. On the contrary, geisha women are the strongest women in the Japanese society. Geisha women, throughout the history, have been accomplished entertainers, were confident, successful and independent businesswomen. Geishas are not only in charge of hosting at the parties but are also running their business: by running geisha house, teaching, mentoring and selecting new aspiring geishas. Men are usually hired as dressers, accountants or additional help around the house with limited responsibility. In the past women would not work outside; hence, to become independent and successful without becoming a wife was impossible; therefore being geisha provided all means of support to oneself.
Geisha’s responsibilities include attending a party or a gathering at Japanese tea houses or a restaurant. Time spend entertaining is measured by burning incense stick. There is geisha union office where clients make an appointment and they keep geisha’s work schedule for entertaining as well as training.
To be geisha they could never marry, but they always had lovers, boyfriends or men who would support them financially; however, they kept their personal life private. If they ever marry, they must retire and that is usually in their late 20s – it’s a short career, but usually a very successful one. As they wish they can work as geishas till their 80s or 90s.
Geisha are great not only at performing arts but they also are good conversationalist in various topics as well as flirting. While geisha knows when to draw a line on flirting and they would learn how to handle inappropriate guests without compromising their ideal hostess status. In the past it is known that some men would support a geisha and her expenses related to training. Such man was very wealthy, often married. However, relationship between them was platonic. If geisha picked a love interests, it would have been after a lot of consideration, since good reputation in such small community of geisha is very important.
True geisha work is purely perfection, it cannot be any other way.
Geisha life is fascinating, but so little known to the outside world. Catching a glimpse of them, while rushing down the street, is simply magnificent and feels like out of this world.