The word Geisha literally means “Artisan”. These artists practice traditional Japanese arts and are purveyors of Japanese culture. Explore a world of flowers, a world tinged with mystery is of Kyoto origin.
The profession of geisha was officially recognized in the second half of the 18th century. Geishas are women who devote their lives to traditional Japanese arts and lend their talents to entertaining patrons at banquets and shows.
What is the role of a geisha ?
Originally, the profession of geisha could be practiced by both men and women. The geisha must master several types of arts, which are usually traditional Japanese dances (including those involving a fan), singing, literature, poetry, flower arranging, and playing traditional musical instruments. In addition to entertaining themselves through the arts, geishas are also skilled in the art of conversation and must have vast general knowledge.
Geishas have long embodied the pinnacle of sophistication and they are undoubtedly the guardians of Japanese culture and traditions. Today they are highly respected and their loyal customers still spend huge sums of money to profit from their business, usually at Ochaya, the teahouses.
Their loyal customers are mostly businessmen, politicians or other wealthy people. Traditionally, all wealthy clients could seek the services of a geisha at will, even if they had to be recommended to the house or introduced by an existing client.
This is more or less the case today, although some geishas have decided to devote part of their time to tourism, by organizing tea ceremonies or performing in shows for example.
Note that the cost of a geisha’s services is assessed based on her time and attendance. Clients also pay for meals and beverages consumed at the meeting. The invoice is often sent some time after their assembly.
An ultra-codified profession: Geisha codes
The geisha universe is governed by dedication to the arts but also has extremely strict rules that cover several aspects.
The apprentice geisha, called Maiko in Kyoto, often wears very distinctive makeup. Their faces are covered with a thick white layer of powder and they wear lipstick. Black is also used around the eyes and on the eyebrows.
The rules on make-up loosen up more with age, unless you are a seasoned geisha, as geikos are forced to wear make-up only for special occasions, the idea being to make room for their natural beauty.
The geishas wear only silk kimonos, closed by a wide knot in the back, called Obi. The shape of the knot depends on the age of the geisha: a knot with a long train is displayed by a maiko, while a shorter knot will be used in its place for an older confirmed geisha.
Likewise, bright colors and patterns are usually worn by younger maiko. The outfit is completed with white socks (tabi) and wooden sandals (geta). Putting on a kimono is a complex task and the fabrics are heavy, so often a professional assistant takes care of the geisha and helps them get dressed. He is the only man allowed to enter the Okiya, the house where the geishas live.
Kimonos are traditionally handmade and are of great value. They often cost thousands of yen.
Geishas wear their hair in very sophisticated buns held by traditional combs. Since the styling is so long, their hair has to stay perfect for several days, so they sleep resting their necks on small supports.
Geishas are distinguished by their mannerisms. Their need for sophistication at all times prevents them from doing things like having lunch at fast food restaurants, shopping at regular clothing stores or supermarkets, or even using a plastic bag when shopping.
During meetings with clients, they must entertain them with the utmost restraint and without ever sinking into vulgarity.
Training to become a geisha
Becoming a geisha is a lot of hard work and dedication that takes years of intensive work.
- From childhood to adult
In the past, women running geisha houses bought young girls under the age of 10 from poor families in the countryside.
Called Okaasan (mother), she took charge of all their upbringing and training until adulthood.
At the beginning of their training, the girls had to perform daily household chores mainly in the Okiya and take care of the geisha which amounted to hard and intensive work and requiring extreme obedience.
The girls then begin their intensive training in the arts. During the apprenticeship, many specialized in a particular art, with dancing often considered the noblest.
By beginning to master the different specialties, the apprentice geisha, maiko, completed her training by accompanying a confirmed geisha to her appointments.
The two geisha sisters were bound by the relationship and the eldest passed on her knowledge to the younger, and gradually introduced her into the closed circle of the geisha. To succeed, the novice had to get noticed, and thus build her own clientele.
When they were ready, they entered the geisha profession and arranged their own dates. An event particularly marked by a change of collar, during a ceremony called erikae. The red collar of an apprentice is abandoned in favor of white, reserved for the confirmed geisha.
Today, geisha training remains broadly the same, although it is probably shorter. In addition, apprentices must of course voluntarily embrace this career, apprentices today are on average 17 or 18 years old when they begin their training.
Reimbursement for training
Geikos must repay the cost of their training, costs that accrued over the years and were therefore often exorbitant, by working for the okiya. Thus, the income they earned did not come back to them (and it still does today).
Once their debt is paid, they can continue to work for the okiya or fend for themselves. However, being a geisha is an expensive affair, with only the cost of clothes, hair and makeup, but also the reimbursement of a commission to the okiya, which acts as an intermediary. The lucky ones find a wealthy patron who can bring them some financial stability, called a danna .
The association with prostitution
The profession of geisha still suffers from an association with prostitution, especially in the West. However, geisha are not, never have been, prostitutes and the reputation of okiya is distinguished only by the excellence of its entertainment, the traditional Japanese arts.
Several factors have led to this false association:
- Geishas were confused for a time with high-ranking courtesans in the Edo period, who excelled in dancing and singing. Some similarities in their style of dress and makeup contributed to this confusion. Note that the activity of geishas has been regulated since 1779 and that they are not allowed to engage in prostitution.
- Throughout the story, they entertain their clients in the same neighborhoods as prostitutes. It happened that the two professions often crossed paths at banquets.
- During World War II, many geishas were sent to factories to help with the war effort. During this time, prostitutes took inspiration from the geisha style and imitated it in order to win the favor of American soldiers. The latter, very fond of those they called “geisha girls”, helped to spread this idea. Some geishas, having taken the route of prostitution during the war, also contributed to the confusion.
- Cinema and literature have contributed to reinforcing a certain number of clichés. The film “Memory of Geisha” is often cited as an example.
In the 18th century, the number of geishas numbered in the thousands, unfortunately this is no longer the case. There are less than 200 geishas now. Difficult training, the obligation to sacrifice their youth, the inability to start a family or marry (unless you leave the profession) and the lack of intimacy are some of the deterrents.
There is a way to spot a geisha for free on a trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, the birthplace of geisha. In Gion, Pontocho, Miyagawacho, Kamishichiken or Shimabara all these cities in Japan, you can sometimes come across geishas and maikos in the streets, as they walk to get to appointments with their Japanese clients.
You will find in our shop, all kinds of articles related to the geishas, ranging from the t-shirt printed with the effigy of the geisha, you will find the traditional costume and the obi and all the accessories.