The Geisha, primarily women trained in the traditional arts of Japan, are renowned throughout the world for their beauty, poise, talent, witty conversation and confidentiality. This article discusses aspects of Geisha life and history. Gei (art)- sha (person) ‘One who is skiled in the arts”
The term Geisha, suprisingly, is unisex. The first Geisha were male. They were called the Taikomochi. They did, and still do (there are only 5 or 6 left), everything that the Geisha do (i.e. dancing, singing, performing, chatting). They were the ‘ring masters’ and they did it very well. They were extremely funny, and like their female counterparts, loved to brush upon taboo subjects for laughs.
But primarily a Geisha is a woman, highly trained in the arts, who gets paid to entertain at parties with games, music, dance, or conversation. She must stroke the ego, and make her clients feel like they have done no wrong, can do no wrong, and will never do any wrong. Though it may not seem difficult a Geiko’s most important worry is that her customers are happy. Though, not in the way that most Westerners believe. Contrary to popular belief, a Geisha is not a prostitute, and her job rarely involves anything more sexual than the bare skin on the back of her neck. She coddles her clients and caters to every whim with the grace and dignity of a swan, but most importantly, with wit and a clever tongue. Beauty is treasured, but a quick- witted girl will always make her mark.
Her job is to entertain. Be that with polite yet scintillating conversation, or an elegant dance. She thrills the crowds with her presence, and an air grace that is rarely seen in today’s world. Though a young Maiko relies on her looks and innocence, a mature Geiko has far more charm than some people would believe. She conveys complete attention and always finds her customers enthralling. Her biggest worry is that her patrons are always completely at ease and well taken care of. She would be a poor Geiko to let a glass go unfilled, or an ashtray un-emptied.
At a dull point during the evening a game may be proposed. A fully trained Geiko will have hundreds to choose from. One of a Geisha’s greatest talents is that she will never loose if she doesn’t want to. Strange as it sounds, Geisha are trained in all of their games just as their dancing, and other skills, and practice until they are perfect. Most games usually involve some kind of singing or dancing, or some other crazy antics designed specifically to make middle aged men feel like 5 year old boys. Tosenkyo involves throwing a paper dancing fan at a weighted target to knock it over, which is harder than it looks. Tora-Tora is a physical game of paper rock scissors, but the players are either an old woman, a hunter, or a tiger. Most games end with someone being made to drink sake as a penalty. Usually taboo subjects are welcome at Geisha party and will send the room into fits of laughter.
The most serious portion of the night is usually when a dance is performed. A dance has to be requested before-hand to provide the proper accompaniment (drum, flute, shamisen). Geisha who will perform the music are called Jikata and dancing geisha are Tachikata. The room falls silent and the patrons sit in quiet awe. Each dance tells a story and each distinct dance move must dictate it exactly. These dance are a precise ballet of movements strewn together and are considered highly sophisticated in Japanese society.
To many patrons a Geisha party is an ideal place to strike up business proposals and trade secrets. The Geisha have always entertained the rich and powerful, and throughout history have been known for their secrecy. There have been several Geisha throughout history who have broken their code of silence, and have been shunned for it. In the eyes of the community, they aren’t true Geisha, because a true Geisha will always keeps quiet about the goings-on in the Ochaya. What is said in the Ochaya, stays in the Ochaya. The relationships in the Karyukai are based on mutual respect, trust and loyalty.
A Geisha’s work is never done. Most of their jobs take place at night, but they must spend their days working to improve, to become perfect.
Becoming a Geisha
The first step on the road to become a Geiko is to be accepted into an Okiya, or Geisha family and to move into a hanamachi in one of the 5 geisha districts in Kyoto: Kamishichiken, Miyagawa cho, Pontocho, Gion Kobu, and Gion Higashi-shinchi. Each hanamachihas a placard in the entryway with the names of the Geiko who live there inscribed on it. The ruling factor in a Geiko’s life will be her new Okasan. Okasan means mother, and sometimes the term is literal. Some Maiko will be legally adopted by their Okasan and become an Attori, the legal heir to the business. Years ago, the Attori began her training when she turned 6 years, 6 months, and six days old. These days, however, girls are starting later and later, sometimes at the age of 16. But beggars can’t be choosers, and applicants for new Maiko are dwindling.
A Maiko will go through several stages on her way to becoming a geiko. The first being a Shikomi. Shikomi normally do chores, go to classes, practice their lessons, and help the Maiko get dressed. Basically a step above the hired help. She will begin to wear a kimono everyday. This is also allows the Shikomi to become accustomed to the flowery dialect of the Kyoto Geisha, and correct her behavior to be that of a proper Maiko.
After several tests in various skills, the Shikomi will become a Minarai. As a Minarai, she will learn all her duties that there are no classes for, such as, conversation, pouring sake, and cleaning ashtrays. She will also get to wear the traditional outfit and makeup. Sometime soon she will hopefully be accepted by an Onesan.
A new Maiko’s biggest asset is her older sister, or Onesan. To her older sister, a Musume-bun (younger sister) is a protegee. She will teach her everything she needs to know. Most importantly, she will pass on her connections with tea houses and patrons. The Onesan and her Musume-bun will be inseparable, and have a relationship based on respect an loyalty. There will even be a ritual to bind the two together forever called a Sansun-kudo, which resembles a marriage ceremony. The ceremony consists of the sharing of ritual sake: the Onesan drinks a cup of sake in three sips, after which the Musume-bun does the same. They do this three times, with a bigger cup than the one before. Also, a Musume-bun will be given a new name, that is loosely based on her older sisters. ex: Onesan -Haruka (spring flower) and Musume-bun Harumi (spring beauty).
Eventually a Maiko will become a Geiko, if she chooses. This will be a big event and a Maiko’s patrons and friends will send her congratulatory notes and she will make her rounds to all of the tea houses and such that helped her in the past to thank them and maybe give them a gift. And so she starts her life as a Geiko.
An older Geiko may live on her own and not in an okiya. A Geiko that has a danna is especially apt for this type of living arrangement, but on occasion the okiya will pay rent for it’s star Geiko. The business portion of her job (booking and money issues) is still run through the okiya. It will act as an agency for her until she retires.
Maiko and Geiko will get up later than most, because they are up so late (sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning), and have something to eat. A less elaborate kimono is what she wears when doing her daily business. Every day, a Geisha goes to her classes. Laziness is not tolerated in any of them. She must practice long and hard to perfect her moves in dance class, and learn to create harmony and balance in ikebana . A Geiko must know the proper way to perform a tea ceremony and takes classes on this, as well. She may also learn to play drums or the shamisen or maybe even to sing.
Sometimes she may have errands to run. She could have new Kimono to pick up or a wig at the cleaners. Also, a Geiko or Maiko may stop into the Kenban, the official offices for the industry, to see a schedule or check on various other things. The Kenban is in charge of booking Geiko for each ochaya, and also handles all of the billing. As well as errands, these are important social interactions, that help her to well known and develop strong bonds with those around her that like the Musume-bun/Onesan are based on mutual respect and loyalty. If she were to anger any of the people that support her, it might take especially long to make a kimono or reset a wig. Why should they support someone who doesn’t appreciate them?
A Geiko can easily be suspended from her home teahouse, if the mama-san feels that she and or her Ochaya have been disgraced by a Geiko or Maiko. And no smart geisha would dare go to another teahouse. In reality, no other teahouse would have her, for fear of damaging ties within the community.
Her work starts in the evening. She prepares by putting on her makeup and having a dresser put her kimono on for her. When she leaves the okiya, she will have an engagement to attend. Typically there are 3 or more Geiko and Maiko at each party or banquet, which are held at teahouses called Ochaya. The most famous of all the teahouses is the Ichiriki which has been revered throughout history as quite prestigious and is know to be the setting of many stories of Samurai and the most famous geisha in the history of the flower and willow world.
Maiko and Geiko differ in their dress. The differences are subtle but to a trained eye, quite obvious. They both wear white makeup, a powder that is mixed with water and turned into a paste. This is always done before the kimono is put on the keep it from getting dirty. First, the skin is rubbed with oil and wax (to help the makeup to stick) the white paste is brushed on, leaving a gap only around the hairline and at the back of the neck. The bit of skin at the back of the neck is painted into the shape of a serpents tongue and is thought to be highly sensual in Japanese society. A thin layer of powder is dusted on carefully. Eyeliner is then applied and a tiny amount of red to the corner of the eyes. The eyebrows are brushed on softly and sometimes highlighted with red as well. A Geiko will sometimes leave out the red on her eyes and eyebrows completely. Last but not least, the lips. They are outlined first and then filled with color. Sugar is applied for shine. A full fledged Geiko may wear simpler, western-style makeup once she has been working for 3 years.
A Kimono is a very difficult thing to put on. A Geiko kimono (hikizuri) is even harder. That is why the Geiko prefer to have a dresser come and do it for them. Their trade is passed down through generations and takes a lot of practice and hard work. It is very much like a puzzle that only an expert can put together. Piece by piece, they pull, tuck, tie, and fasten until every bit of the Geiko is covered in beautiful fabric and tied in an elegant obi.
A kimono can cost many thousands of dollars, as can the obi. A Geiko’s kimono are her livelihood and her fortune. She needs at least one for each season but will probably have a thousand or more. Most of them she will wear only once, and then store carefully away in fire-proof containers. The Geiko kimono is different than that of a normal one. It hangs lower in the back to reveal the neck and the top of the back. During the summer months a thinner kimono made of cotton, called a yukata, is worn, but the dressing continues to be elaborate when she attends banquets. Geiko and Maiko alway carry a bag with a basket weave bottom topped by a silk drawstring pouch called a ozashiki-kago. In it she carries makeup for touchups, a fan, and a few other items.
Geiko and Maiko wear different shoes along with their tabi socks. The Geiko wear a flat, flip flop looking, sandal called a zori . A Maiko wears a tall platform sandal called an okobo to keep her kimono from dragging. During the summer a sandal called a getanamed for the sound it makes on the pavement, is worn without socks to accommodate warm weather.
The first ‘pleasure quarter’ was constructed in the year 1589 when a stable keeper received permission to open a brothel. He built a walled quarter which he called Yanagimachi (Willow World). He built a few teahouses and brothels, and hired some of the high-class courtesans to lure in the wealthy. The ‘Willow World’ was a great success.
The courtesans were divided into a few groups. The highest rank would be the Tayu and the Oiran. They were permitted inside the palace and were the concubines of royalty. Most didn’t make the high class and became yujo, basically, prostitutes who waited to be chosen by a customer.
The first woman to use the term Geisha was Kikuya. She was a prostitute who had become famous for her dancing and shamisen playing. She decided to become an entertainer. At the same time, it became fashionable to host parties where dancing girls (Odori-Ko) performed. Kikuya was one of these dancers, and along with tea brewing women, and drum players took on the name Geisha. They wished to be respected as artists. They were and became quite successful.
Slowly, the Geisha began to take over the Pleasure Quarter and the Tayu and Oiran faded from the minds of the wealthy. This new breed of woman, these Geisha, were witty, free spirited, independent, and intelligent. They provoked thought and could hold up their end of a conversation with ease. Most of all, their ‘art skills’ far surpassed those of anyone before them.
The Geisha must rely on their talent, as their plumage was severely restricted. They were mandated to dress much plainly than the courtesans and thus took to wearing monochrome kimonos, and only a few hairpins. Geisha were given strict rules about their conduct. They weren’t allowed to take part in prostitution and couldn’t interfere with the courtesan’s business in any way. They were even chosen from the less beautiful women and were forbidden to work alone, only in twos or threes. They were escorted from place to place to be sure that they followed the strict rules.
Even with the many laws, the Geisha became far more popular than the Tayu and Oiran and virtually replaced them and their place in Japanese society.
In the early 1900’s the Geisha business was booming and not all could join the ranks of the most refined and beautiful. Young and poor girls were sold to okiyas by their families to make ends meet. This was a time when only the most beautiful and promising young girls were chosen. The ones who were rejected would become the denizens of the red light districts. These are the women who were in fact, paid for sex, rather than a night of conversation and art. This was the sad truth.
The true geisha however, thrived. They grew in numbers, reaching several thousand, and every night they left their houses, en-masse, to clip-clop to their appointments, like brightly plumed birds. The wealth of the upper-class businessman was whiled away in the flower and willow world, though neither side, businessmen nor geisha, objected. Life was lavish and money flowed freely.
But as with any large group of people, there will always be some who can’t manage to get along well. Though tranquil on the surface, there was rough water below. Relationships in the karyukai were sometimes difficult. Competition to become the most prestigious Geisha was fierce and some Geiko as well as okasans, were ruthless in their pursuit for the top.
Beginning of the end?
Recent times haven’t been so kind to the geisha. A new Japan has emerged that seems to have a waning appreciation for the traditional arts. In turn, fewer and fewer seek out the life of the eternal beauty and artisan of old Japan. Only a couple of new maiko apply each year, and even fewer will decide to stay on to become full fledged Geisha. They seem not to realize that the Geisha life, while glamorous on the outside, is actually a life of hard work and dedication. Though some see the end of the Karyukai, others believe that the ever cunning geisha will continue on “as long as there is tatami in Japan”. Only time will tell.
I would like to insert my little comment, so bear with me: I truly hope that the Geisha will continue on, and remain the beautiful, intelligent, self sufficient, and wonderfully talented women that they have always been and the keepers of the traditional arts.