Life Of The Geisha

CULTURE | March 8, 2019

Geisha playing traditional musical instruments, Japan, 1880. Source: (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

What is a Geisha?

In Japan, a geisha is a professional woman whose job it is to entertain men. She does this by singing, dancing, and playing instruments. In addition, she must be skilled at making conversation. A geisha is a fully trained woman, while a maiko is an apprentice geisha. When we see images of women in the full makeup and brightly colored kimonos, what we are usually seeing is a maiko. The fully trained geisha wear more subdued clothing and makeup, as they know how to keep attention using their other skills.

Photo of a Maiko. Source: (yumikoubou.info)

 Geisha in Training

The first stage of training is called shikomi. The youngest girls, usually between eight and ten will be out to work as a maid and do everything they are told to do. They assist the most senior geisha when they return from an evening out. The girls also attend hanamachi: geisha school. Even today, the girls follow this custom. At school, they learn traditions, dress, and dialect. In order to advance to the next stage of training, minarai, a girl has to pass a dance exam and be proficient in all of her classes. In the minarai part of training, the girls are no longer maids and training is now done in the ‘field’. They are to be seen and not heard, which is why their makeup and dress are more impressive, as this is what is speaking for them. A minarai is paired up with a onee-san, meaning older sister. She follows her onee-san to events and observes, sometimes pouring tea. She will also work with an okaa-san, the person in charge of the geisha house. She will learn how to play games and practice the art of conversation. The next stage is maiko, an apprentice geisha. The maiko stage may last several years.

Maiko in Gion District in Kyoto, Japan KYOTO. Source: (123rf.com)

Maiko Training

At this point, the maiko will go with her onee-san and participate when the one-san feels she is ready. The onee-san is the teacher and will show the maiko how to be a geisha. She will teach her the tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, playing the shamisen, dancing, and conversation. The maiko will choose a professional name. She will learn how to do her hair and makeup.

Geisha in full makeup. Source: (jpninfo.com)

The Look of the Geisha

Hair is done once a week. The design of the hairstyle is very intricate and needs a professional to create the look. The makeup consists of a thick white foundation applied to the entire face and neck. A line is left around the hairline. It is intended for it to look like a mask. There is also a ‘W’ shape left at the back of the neck. Black is traced around the eyes and eyebrows. A maiko will wear red around the eyes and a full geisha will just have black. Part of the lips are colored bright red. Established geisha will only wear this full makeup when giving a special performance. Different regions of Japan have different geisha styles. Tokyo geisha are usually more flamboyant and Kyoto geisha are more subdued.

Traditional Geisha. Source: (japandaily.jp)

What Geisha Are Not

Many times, when people think of a geisha, they think she is a prostitute. A true geisha is most definitely not a prostitute. Because a geisha is so appealing and elusive to the average person, prostitutes will call themselves geisha to bring in more customers. If you look closely, there is a big difference in the way they dress. While both wear a kimono, a geisha ties their obi (sash) in the back. Prostitutes tie their obi in the front mostly for convenience sake. Prostitutes called themselves ‘geisha-girls’ or ‘pan-pan girls’ and most of their clients were American militaries. True geisha do not engage in paid sex with clients. Some geisha may have a ‘danna’, a patron become interested in them, it doesn’t mean they will be intimate with them.

Traditional Geisha Performance. Source: (viator.com)

What Geisha Are Paid For

There are two kinds of geisha, a tachikata who mostly dances and a jikata who sings and plays instruments. They are hired to attend parties and go to tea houses to act as the entertainment and hostesses. They pour tea according to tradition, sing, and dance, play instruments, and talk with the guests. Not just anyone can hire a geisha. You must have some kind of connection and it is not cheap. It is very expensive and clients are vetted to ensure they are worthy of a geisha. A man with a geisha on his arm is seen as quite the status symbol. There are ways to see and interact with geisha without breaking the bank. There is a tour in Kyoto where you can go to a tea house and a geisha will pour the tea. This ninety-minute tour starts at $500. The number of geisha are becoming less and less. The training is very rigorous and you must leave all that you know behind. Hopefully, this beautiful tradition can live on.

Tags: japan, geisha, life of a geisha

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