Japanese culture is among the most fascinating in the world for Europeans and it’s hardly surprising as to why. With samurai, martial arts, manga, etc., there are plenty of ways to learn about traditional and modern Japanese life, rituals, and customs.
The Japanese government has also done a lot to ensure that the West is familiar with Japanese culture through the “Cool Japan” campaign. Among all the folklore and tradition in Japan, geishas have fascinated the western world and these young ladies’ professions remain a mystery to many Europeans.
In this article, we’re going to look at exactly what geishas are, the discipline, the clothing, and the famed tea ceremony. Far too often, geishas are thought of as Japanese prostitutes, so we’re here to lift the veil on the myths surrounding this traditional Japanese vocation.
What Is a Geisha?
Most Westerners think of a geisha as a pretty Japanese woman in white makeup, wearing a kimono, and having sexual encounters with Japanese men. In fact, a geisha is often much more than that and the latter point is often wrong!
The term “geisha” literally means “person of art” or “artist”. While it’s true that geishas often wear a wig and extravagant kimonos, it’s because their job is to entertain male clients through a variety of different art forms including:
- Playing the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument.
- Types of traditional Japanese dance
- Kabuki theatre
- Playing the Tsutsumi, a small drum placed on the shoulder or between the legs.
- The Tea Ceremony (Chanoyu).
- Floral arrangements (Ikebana).
In short, the Japanese geisha is an entertainer. You can find geishas at banquets where they move around in their yukata to the music. While the prostitution aspect is exaggerated, some geishas do have sexual relations with their clients, though these relations are not obligatory.
Geishas live in an Okiya (which literally means a house for geishas) and only young women and girls. On the inside, there are managers, women known as “Okasan” or “mothers” surrounded by 5 or 6 geishas, future geishas, servents, and an official prostitute (until 1957).
The Birth of Geishas in Medieval Japan
Being a geisha was an official profession in Japan in the 18th century but its origins go way back. In fact, you need to go as far back as the 13th century to really understand what geishas are.
However, you could go as far back as the 8th century and look at the dancers for the emperor Kammu. These women danced along to Buddhist prayers and soon started having sexual relations with their clients, the nobility and the warriors in the court at Kyoto.
However, the real history of geishas to Gion, Kyoto’s traditional quarter. It wasn’t just women who entertained the lords; the taikomochi, masters of the tea ceremony, as well as dancers and artists. They also wore white makeup (oshiroi), which at the time was just for men.
Bit by bit, women replaced men in this role and by the end of the 17th century (the Tokugawa period), leading to the terms geisha and geiko (“women of the arts”). The Japanese government quickly set up rules for authorised sexual acts. Thus, geishas were not allowed to offer sexual services, only prostitutes were.
Geishas became increasingly popular in tea rooms and ryokan (traditional hostels), creating an industry between entertainment and pleasure. In fact, just because prostitution was illegal for geishas, this didn’t mean that the virginity of some geishas was sold at a high price.
The artistic aspect of being a geisha was celebrated all over Japan.
“We don't become geisha because we want our lives to be happy; we become geisha because we have no choice.” - Memoirs of a Geisha
Geishas were under strict rules, like having to live in a particular neighbourhood, called a hanamachi or kagai. While these neighbourhoods were initially frequented by both geishas and prostitutes (yujos), they quickly became exclusive those in the traditional clothing and makeup.
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The Golden Age of the Geisha in the 19th and 20th Centuries
The golden age of geishas was from the 19th century until the start of the Second World War.
There were thousands of these living dolls from Kanazawa to Asakusa. The Meiji government promoted the profession and each tea room or house was regularly frequented by samurai that were fans of the geishas.
Thus, the industry became hugely profitable, so much so that prestigious guests were often in attendance and a geisha could earn the equivalent of thousands of pounds for her Okiya.
The geishas, during this period of prosperity, were considered as fashionable purveyors of Japanese traditions as well as being at the forefront of fashion through their hairstyles (often in buns) and their outfits, which often consisted of a hakama or a Japanese style tunic.
By the start of the 20th century, the geishas were inspired by the western world as they discovered it. However, due to the opposition from many traditional geishas, this style didn’t last.
The golden age of geishas ended with the start of the Second World War. In fact, in 1944, the Japanese government closed the geisha neighbourhoods in favour of serving the war effort by making them work in factories. The next year, after the end of the war, the neighbourhoods reopened.
This is the time when a new type of geisha came about; the onsen geisha, women free to look for work themselves in the areas near the Japanese hot springs (onsen). They were closer to prostitutes than traditional geishas, looking for work from American soldiers.
In 1957, prostitution in Japan was made illegal, so the Japanese people started distinguishing between geishas and prostitution. Furthermore, young girls had to be in education until they were 16 (and 18 in Tokyo). Thus, the number of geishas decreased as there were fewer ways to get into it.
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Geishas in Contemporary Japan
Geishas still exist in Japan but in far fewer numbers than in the past. In 1965, the Kyoto dento gigei shinko zaidan or the “Kyoto Foundation for the Development of Traditional Arts and Music” only had 65 apprentices. Ten years later, it had dropped to 28.
By the 1990s, the number of geishas was back up to 60 in Kyoto. In fact, being a geisha isn’t as popular because it’s just not as lucrative as it once was. Furthermore, young girls in Japan have more choices than they did in the past. Furthermore, a genuine geisha kimono can cost around £5,000, making it not very accessible.
However, there has been a recent increase in interest for geishas with over 100 apprentices in Kyoto in 2008. The information available about being a geisha has played an important role in how to become one.
Similarly, being a geisha has changed a lot during the 21st century. The rituals are still there but their meaning has changed. For example, the mizuage ritual, which meant a geisha had lost her virginity, is now a ceremony that judges a maiko wishing to become a geisha, allowing her to change her collar from red to white.
Similarly, while the haircuts are the same, geishas can now wear wigs. In fact, this type of hairstyle pulled on a geisha’s hair, meaning that they would end their careers almost bald.
It’s easy to understand why they changed.
Today, a lot of young Japanese girls dress up as geishas. If you head to Harajuku in Tokyo, you’ll probably run into geisha cosplayers. Of course, if you want to see a real geisha, you have to go to Kyoto.
There are around 200 geishas practising the art and tradition in Japan and keeping the cultural heritage of Japan alive.
Now you should know a little more about geishas, the history, rituals, and their profession. If you want to learn more about Japan, we recommend reading our other articles on Japan or getting a Japanese private tutor!
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