Geisha - The epitome of Japanese culture

Geisha, a word that most people have heard of and associate it with the beautiful Japanese women wearing kimonos and white painted faces. But that is not all that earned them the title. Let’s go back in time and learn more about them.

Geisha (芸者), also known as geiko (芸子) or geigi (芸妓) the kanji for “gei” (芸) meaning art and “sha(者) meaning a person would translate into an “artist” or “ a person performing art”. Geisha are female entertainers (male entertainers still exist) who train in performing arts such as dancing, singing, playing the shamisen (Japanese instrument) and entertaining their guests.

Back in the days, around the 1730s the first geisha were actually men who were called Taikomochi or Houkan, 20 years later female geishas started appearing in the form of odoriko (踊り子, meaning dancers) and shamisen players.

Geisha usually live with all their other sisters and their proprietress whom they call Okaa-san (mother) in Okiya (the geisha house). There is a strict level of matriarchal hierarchy that has to be followed within the okiya. The okaa-san, at the top tier managing everyone and taking care of them. Then the geisha and maiko ranked according to their status within the house. Maiko (舞妓) meaning “woman of dance" are apprentice of geisha, who are still under training. They wear a specific type of kimono that distinguishes them from their apprentices, simple and with elegant patterns. Geisha painted their face with white powder type of paint which enhanced their skin tone as it would help them with enhancing their expressions during performances.

People often tend to confuse geisha with Oiran (花魁). Oirans were high ranked prostitutes or courtesans. But they were different from the normal prostitutes who slept with anyone for money. Oirans were highly skilled in traditional Japanese art forms and had the power to choose the man they wanted to pleasure. The highest oiran is called Taiyoo.

A common misconception of geisha is that all of them are referred to as prostitutes. Geisha are pure entertainers who were highly respected and wooed their guests with their artistic talents. They acted as hostess who were strictly forbidden from having intimate relationships with their clients,  that said, some geisha did provide sexual services. A better understanding can be based on the terms used; kuruwa geisha, for example, described geisha who slept with customers as well as entertained their guests with their artistic abilities.

Around the time period of World War 2 some geisha women turned to sleeping with the soldiers of the American military for their survival and some prostitutes used the term “geisha girls” to lure the soldiers in for business. The status of geisha began to disappear as anyone and everyone called themselves a geisha. This is one of the reasons people tend to assume that geisha were prostitutes.

Geisha in modern times:

The tradition of geisha is still alive in modern Japan. In fact there are geisha training schools where girls over the age of 18 are allowed to enroll. Kyoto is most strongly associated with the geisha arts, as well as some parts of Tokyo. Japanese geisha today still live in traditional okiya in areas called hanamachi (花街) or “flower towns” and the concept, ways and traditions of geisha is still being continued.