12 Things You Didn’t Know About Geisha

Geisha are one of the most captivating symbols of Japan. Their iconic appearance is unmistakable thanks to the elaborate makeup, hairstyle, kimono, and more. Yet much of a geisha's lifestyle and responsibilities remain shrouded in mystery, with many misconceptions about the profession spoiling its image. To help shed light on this secretive world, we’ve put together 12 fascinating geisha facts sure to surprise!

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What Is a Geisha?

A geisha is a Japanese female performance artist, traditionally hired to entertain guests at teahouses and social events. During such events, a geisha will sing, dance, perform music, host tea ceremonies, and serve food and drinks - all while engaging in lively conversation. The meaning of “geisha” comes from two kanji characters, “gei” (芸), meaning arts or entertainment, and “sha” (者), which means person. The word translates as a “person of the arts.”

A woman wanting to become a geisha must first serve an apprenticeship where she will learn the many skills required for the role. An apprentice geisha is called a “maiko,” and an apprenticeship takes around five years to complete. To become a geisha, maiko will take lessons on how to sing, dance, and play music. They will also learn the art of conversation as well as the formal hosting skills expected of a geisha.

1. There Are Several Different Terms for Geisha

While the word “geisha” is widely known, it is actually just one of the terms used to refer to Japan's traditional female entertainers. Though now widely accepted as the standard, “geisha” was originally reserved for entertainers in Tokyo. In Kyoto, geisha are called “geiko,” which shares the same “gei” (芸) kanji as geisha while its second character is replaced with “ko” (子), meaning child or young person. In the western cities of Niigata and Kanazawa, geisha are known as “geigi,” with “gi” (妓) meaning “artistic woman.” Despite the different names, all still refer to what are commonly seen as geisha.

2. Geisha Still Exist in Japan Today

Though the number of geisha in Japan has steadily declined since the golden age of the late Edo Period (1603-1867), it's estimated that there are still around 600 geisha working in Japan today. Despite more stable career paths available, some young women are still drawn to the allure of becoming a geisha. Today, around half of Japan's geisha live and work in Kyoto, though there are still a few geisha districts remaining in Tokyo, Kanazawa, Niigata, and Hachioji. Geisha districts are known as “hanamachi,” meaning “flower town,” and were established during the 17th century when laws were passed to contain certain forms of entertainment within specific neighborhoods.

The most famous hanamachi in Japan is Gion in Kyoto, where a number of “okiya” geisha lodging houses remain. The area is popular with tourists and is one of the best places to see the modern geisha. The narrow, atmospheric alley of Ponto-cho and Kamishichiken in the northwest are two of Kyoto’s other remaining hanamachi. Kanazawa has three hanamachi, the most famous being the historic “Higashi Chaya.” Amongst these old streets is “Ochaya Shima,” a beautiful old teahouse built in 1820 that once hosted geisha performances and is now open to the public. Tokyo itself boasts six remaining hanamachi districts, the most prevalent being Asakusa and Kagurazaka.

3. Apprentice Geisha Are Called Maiko

An apprentice geisha is called a “maiko.” It takes around five years of training for a maiko to become a fully fledged geisha. The word “maiko” means “woman of dance,” and today their journey usually begins at around 15 years old, soon after graduating junior high school. Typically, a prospective maiko will make an application to begin an apprenticeship with an “okiya,” which are owned and run by a female head of house called an “okaasan,” meaning “mother.” During her training period, maiko will learn a wide range of skills to entertain her future guests, including learning to play traditional Japanese instruments such as the shamisen and koto, along with singing, dancing, and the art of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Along with performance, maiko will also study other elements of traditional Japanese culture, including calligraphy, flower arranging, poetry, and literature. They will also attend events with established geisha to learn the correct etiquette to entertain. When a maiko has completed her apprenticeship at around 20 years old, she will become a geisha. This event is marked with a ceremony called “erikae,” meaning the “turning of the collar,” where she will finally wear the kimono and elaborate wig that denotes a geisha.

4. A Geisha's Trademark Look Relies on a Serious Makeup Routine

A fundamental element of a geisha's appearance is the brilliant makeup. Both maiko and geisha cover their faces and necks in a traditional white foundation called “oshiroi,” a powder mixed with water to become a paste. Before applying, a geisha puts on a layer of wax called “bintsuke abura” to help smooth her skin before oshiroi is applied with a wide brush. Next, a subtle yet distinctive red lipstick, called “beni,” is added along with black eye-liner and red pigment around the eyes. Heavily defined eyebrows drawn using pigment complete the iconic look. A geisha carries out this routine every day, taking between 30 mins to an hour. The only part left free of oshiroi is the back of the neck, where two or three small patches of clear skin are left uncoated. These are called “eri-ashi,” and are left to give the impression of elongating the neck. The makeup is wiped away at the end of the night using a dissolving oil.

The original reason for such makeup was as much practical as decorative. During the 19th century, teahouses were only dimly lit by candlelight, and the bright white makeup of a geisha helped illuminate their faces during the performance. This technique was already well established in Japan, and was used by kabuki actors and other entertainers around the same time. While originally made from lead, it now uses much less toxic ingredients such as talc, corn starch, and minerals like magnesium carbonate and kaolinite.

5. There Are Several Ways to Tell Geisha and Maiko Apart

While the untrained eye may find it difficult to differentiate maiko and geisha, there are several visual clues to instantly tell them apart. The first difference is in their makeup, with set ways that maiko and geisha are allowed to apply it to reveal their status. This starts from the lipstick - junior maiko only apply lipstick to their bottom lip, while senior maiko will paint a thin red line around both the top and bottom lips. A geisha's lips will be fully painted, and they will usually wear a little less oshiroi than maiko too.

Another way to tell a maiko and geisha apart is the hair. Maiko wear a number of traditional hairstyles called “nihongami,” which are styled from their own natural hair. A maiko will typically have a few different hairstyles during her apprenticeship, which often denote rank or seniority. The most common hairstyle for maiko is “momoware,” which features a bun at the back of the head, although this hairstyle will gradually change as they get older. Alternatively, geisha wear elaborate custom wigs of real hair known as “katsura.” These are designed in the “shimada” style, where the hair is worked up into a top knot at the crown of the head.

Both maiko and geisha also adorn their hairstyles with a variety of hairpins and ornaments that hang from the hair, called “kanzashi.” The kanzashi worn by maiko are usually very elaborate, large, and often decorated with gold or jewels. Kanzashi worn by geisha are also decorative but usually much smaller and more refined and understated.

It's also possible to tell a maiko and geisha apart by their kimono. Geisha kimono are generally muted and chic with shorter sleeves and a small obi (sash). Maiko, on the other hand, wear a type of “furisode” kimono with longer sleeves and cute, colorful designs and a bigger obi (as pictured above). Maiko also wear sandal-like shoes called “okobo” or “pokkuri geta” that have thicker soles, while geisha will opt for more regular “geta” or “zori” sandals.

6. Geisha Are Not Sex Workers

It’s a common, and unfortunate, misconception that geisha are prostitutes. Geisha do not sleep with clients - although there were some instances where this did occur during the Edo Period. This, along with a few other historical innacuracies, has lead many to believe that geisha are sex workers. Setting the record straight, geisha are purely performance artists and entertainers and do not engage in sexual acts with their guests or clients. Some of these misconceptions may have arose from the following:

Yukaku

In the 16th century, the shogunate permitted the creation of “yukaku.” These were red light districts where various forms of entertainment could be provided for Japan's emerging merchant class and where prostitiution was legal. Many former yukaku districts would become hanamachi, or geisha districts.

In these pleasure districts emerged a high ranking category of courtesans called “oiran.” Almost a mirror image of geisha, oiran were highly skilled and would entertain customers exclusively from the upper ranks of society with performances of song, dance, and witty conversation. Oiran would also engage in prostitution, although the extraodinarly high cost of employing their services put them beyond the means of all but the very wealthy.

Mizuage

Although sleeping with clients was forbidden for geisha, the practice of “mizuage” was not entirely uncommon in the past. Mizuage saw clients bid for the right to take the virginity of a maiko and was seen as part of her coming of age ceremony and rise into the role of geisha. The final bid would be paid to the maiko's lodging house and the maiko would not receive any money from the arrangement. Though not universal, the practice was fairly widespread until it was outlawed by the passing of anti-prostitution legislation in Japan in 1956.

Geisha Girls

Another reason why some assume geisha are sex workers stems from the “geisha girls.” In the aftermath of WWII, many prostitutes dressed in kimono advertised themselves as “geisha girls” to the occupying overseas forces stationed in Japan. As a result, the word geisha became synonymous with prostitution in Japan.

7. Geisha Traditionally Live in an Okiya

Maiko and geisha live in lodging houses called “okiya” run by the “okaasan” mother of the house. All maiko and geisha have to be registered with an okiya, and the okaasan will manage all the training, board, and food required for maiko, as well as procuring their kimono wardrobe. As these costs add up, any earnings that the maiko makes during her apprenticeship will go directly to the okaasan, with only a small allowance given to the maiko. Once a geisha has paid off her debts, she is allowed to keep the money she earns.

After graduating, a successful geisha may decide to live in her own home within the hanamachi outside of the okiya, although some may choose to remain. Though they live in the okiya, maiko and geisha will usually entertain guests at a teahouse, which is arranged directly with the okaasan. Even if they live outside, geisha will return to their okiya to prepare before a performance. Okiya are always run by women, most of whom are retired geisha who take over the role of okaasan when the previous head of house retires.

8. Tourists Can See Geisha Performances

Arranging a geisha to appear at a banquet is not straightforward. Usually you'll need a referral from an okiya's existing client before an okaasan will consider setting up a performance. It's also far from cheap, with a few hours in the company of a geisha likely to cost several hundred dollars - plus the cost of food and drink. However, geisha have moved with the times and now carry out a number of performances easily bookable by tourists, particularly in Kyoto. Several tour websites also offer a variety of packages to see performances by or dine with maiko. Do note that it is generally maiko who are sent out to mingle with tourists, not geisha.

One of the best ways to see geisha in Kyoto are during the five “odori” dance festivals held in theaters in Kyoto at different times of the year. During these performances, maiko and geisha from different okiya perform on stage together. The most famous of these is Miyako Odori, running in April since 1873. Each of the odori performances last for several weeks and there are usually two or three performances a day, depending on the festival. Tickets range from between 3,000 to 5,000 yen and can usually be booked online through each theater's website.

You can also see traditional performances by local maiko and geisha at the Kamishichiken Kabukai, which sits within Kyoto’s oldest geisha district. In summer, the theater also hosts a beer garden with drinks served by geisha. Several hotels likewise offer geisha performances, such as a dining with maiko experience at the Gion Hatanaka Ryokan. Traditional performances of “kyo-mai” dances by maiko can also be enjoyed at Gion Corner in Yasaka Hall in Gion.

9. Geisha Are Paid by the Hour

These days, a geisha's fee is calculated by the hour. However, during the Edo Period, time was charged according to how long it took a single stick of incense to burn, a process known as “senkodai.” The amount of money a geisha earns will depend on her popularity and how many hours she works, with in-demand geisha able to charge more per hour. As a result, becoming a geisha is an unstable profession, without a guaranteed regular income. As already mentioned, the apprentice maiko do not receive any salary except for the allowance from their okiya. Only when they graduate and have cleared their debts will they be able to keep the money they earn.

10. Some Geisha Used to Commit to a Single Client

In the past, some geisha were supported financially by patrons called “danna.” A danna would pay for almost all of a geisha's lifestyle, including her clothes, jewelry, and living expenses. As funding such an extravagant lifestyle is expensive, a danna would need to be an incredibly wealthy man. In exchange for their patronage, a geisha would commit exclusively to their danna and would not be available for hire by anyone else. Whilst a romantic connection between the geisha and danna could sometimes develop, it was much more common for the relationship to remain purely platonic. Being a danna brought high social status and was a sign of extreme wealth.

Today, danna are incredibly rare. Not only is the cost of funding a geisha beyond the means of all but the wealthiest, most modern geisha do not want to commit to a single customer. Instead they prefer the flexibility of being able to entertain multiple clients and having control over their careers and when they work. Many modern geisha also want to retain the option of leaving the profession if they so desire. Whilst there is no required retirement age for geisha, they do have to give up the role if they wish to marry. Being tied to a patron obviously makes this much more complicated.

11. Geisha Were Originally Men

As hard as it is to believe, the very first geisha were men. Before the female geisha developed into what we know today, Japan's first group of entertainers were the male “taikomochi” or “hokan.” These roles developed from what we might call jesters, who would entertain Japan's feudal lords with dancing and story-telling.

By the 17th century their role had changed. No longer needed to entertain the lords, they instead moved to the pleasure districts to perform for the general public. The term geisha began to be applied to taikomochi around this time. By the mid-18th century, female geisha also began to perform in these pleasure districts, which is when the term “geiko” came into use. Geiko swiftly overtook their male counterparts in popularity, and by the early 19th century, the vast majority of geisha were now women. Taikomochi were forced to evolve again, now playing a supporting role to the main female geisha. With the dominance of the geisha, the number of taikomochi in Japan continued to fall. Today there are believed to be only a handful still performing in Japan.

12. There Have Been Many Geisha From Overseas

Though geisha are a symbol of Japan, a number of non-Japanese women have become successful geisha too. This includes those from as far as China, Romania, Ukraine, and Peru. Perhaps the most famous non-Japanese geisha is Liza Dalby, an American anthropologist who moved to Japan in 1975 to study the world of geisha, undertaking the required training in Kyoto.

Though unable to be formally granted the title of geisha due to the nature of her stay in Japan, Dalby did attend and perform at events and gatherings unofficially under her given name Ichigiku. Dalby formed a strong bond with many geisha during her time in Japan and went on to become a leading authority on the topic. Dalby has written extensively about the history and traditions of Japan's geisha and was heavily involved as a consultant of both the book and film “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

Unmasking the Allure of Japan’s Geisha

From early beginnings to the modern day, geisha have endured as beloved yet somewhat misunderstood symbols of Japan. Though there are far fewer geisha working in Japan today compared to the late Edo Period, there are still many young women who are prepared to learn the culture and customs of geisha and become a part of Japanese history and tradition.

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Top Image:   Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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James
James Davies

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