You may have heard of geishas through Western films and old-style Japanese movies. But do geishas still exist in Japan?
There were once around 80,000 geisha across Japan, dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1886) when geisha were classed as high-end courtesans for the Japanese elite. They would perform at banquets, entertain at parties, and reside in the pleasure quarters of the city.
Nowadays, there are just 1,000 geisha left in Japan, most of whom live and work predominantly in Tokyo and Kyoto. These modern geisha tend to remain within their district, where they’re treated with the utmost respect by Japanese locals, and not approached for photos or conversation.
But what is a geisha really? To answer this question, it’s worth delving into the specifics – starting with the etymology of the word itself.
The word geisha is easily translated into English when we look at the two kanji it uses: ‘Gei’ (芸) means ‘art’ and ‘ sha’ (者) means ‘person’. Combined, we can translate geisha to mean a performing artist, like an entertainer or artisan.
Along with dancing, singing and playing traditional instruments, geisha are professionally trained in arranging flowers, conducting tea ceremonies and engaging in conversation. All these skills, along with their impeccable and unforgettable appearance, make a geisha the most highly respected class of artists in Japan.
It’s also important to note the dedication required of a geisha to their craft and career. These women dedicate themselves entirely to demonstrating Japanese traditional arts, and their living and working life centers around it.
What is Geisha Training?
Part of the geisha tradition is to advance through several levels of training before becoming a real geisha. But there are still questions to be answered. What is a maiko? How do you become a geiko? Read on to learn more about the fascinating process of geisha training!
Girls as young as 14 or 15 years old enter specialized training schools (okiya) to become geisha, usually after finishing middle school. These girls are called shikomi (仕込み), which means ‘in training’, and usually board at the school. Nowadays the entry process is often facilitated by parents emailing the okiya and discussing their child’s eligibility. Unlike earlier periods of history, no girl is sold into being a geisha. There’s an initial three-month trial period for new shikomi girls, so if they’re unhappy, they can leave the okiya during this time with no issue.
The shikomi stage of training focuses on doing household chores like cleaning and ironing around the geisha house to build discipline. Daily actions, like kneeling, bowing and offering greetings, are regularly performed to the senior geishas as a mark of respect. Mentors, called oneesan or ‘older sister’, help guide their protegees: this can be as particular as the proper ways to sit, stand, walk and speak. They also learn how to wear the kimono – an iconic part of being a geisha.
The shikomi stage typically takes less than a year. At this point, the shikomi girls take part in a misedashi ceremony, marking the transition from their early training to becoming an apprentice geisha. During the ceremony, shikomi girls wear their most formal clothing and walk around their local area to greet people in the neighborhood. They also drink ceremonial sake with their peers and other geisha.
The minarai stage is short, taking only a month or so, and involves much of the same trappings as the maiko, including wearing similar kimono and the nihongami hairstyle. However, becoming minarai is about ‘learning by watching’: these girls will accompany maiko and geiko to banquets and functions, and observe how their elders behave.
Apprentice geisha are called maiko (舞妓), which means ‘woman of dance’. They are usually aged between 15 to 20 years old, and their maiko training takes between two to six years. This is the period where apprentice geisha receive daily lessons in order to learn and study all the traditional Japanese arts, as well as how to host tea ceremonies and how to conduct scintillating conversation with their future clients. Skills they learn are traditional dance and playing traditional instruments to entertain guests.
Maiko also wear a colorfully designed kimono, paint their face with intricate makeup (including the infamous white face and red lip), and style their hair with pins and decorations - these accessories are called kanzashi.
When the maiko stage is complete, the erikae ceremony is held. Also called ‘the turning of the collar’ ceremony, it’s where apprentice geisha graduate.
Becoming a full geisha is known as geiko. This is when the geisha has completed her training and can now practice the profession. There are a number of changes at this point. A geiko’s appearance is more demure and modest; they wear simpler kimono with longer sleeves and save the unique white makeup for rare occasions. Their natural hair is no longer styled: instead, they wear a shimada-style wig.
Okiya, the geisha house
In a tradition that reaches back centuries, the okiya (geisha house) is responsible for teaching, housing, clothing and feeding their trainees. In return, the girls dedicate multiple years of their lives to the training they receive from the okiya.
All trainee geisha will live at the geisha house until they finish their training, and all geisha must legally be registered with a licensed okiya throughout their career – though not all will continue living there while they work.
The okiya is a matriarchal society. It’s usually run by a geisha ‘mother’, who looks after the girls and women in her care by supporting their education and careers. This woman, known as okami or okaasan, is often a retired geisha herself.
What Happened to the Geishas?
There has been a gradual decline of geishas in Japanese culture ever since World War Two, when the majority of Japanese women were required to work in factories as part of the war effort. In addition to this, there were less clients to employ their services.
During the war, sex workers in Japan apparently claimed to be geishas in order to attract the attention of foreign soldiers, which led to the myth that geisha provide sexual services. As prostitution is illegal in Japan, it goes without saying that this particular geisha rumor has never been fact.
In the modern day, very few women are choosing to become geisha. That said, another myth surrounding geishas is that becoming one is a lifelong commitment – but this isn’t true! While many geisha remain in the profession for much of their lives, it’s also fine to retire whenever they desire. This often happens if a geisha wants to start a family or marry, as geisha are expected to be single while working.
Where are Modern Day Geishas Located?
If you’re interested in supporting geishas, you can still visit traditional tea houses in Japan. There are about a thousand geisha based in a few major cities like Tokyo and Kanazawa, but the majority work in Kyoto which is considered to be the home of modern geisha culture.
In order to meet a geisha, a fee is required (though the exact cost of this is never revealed). Further, the possibility of meeting is only feasible if you have an invitation from a frequent guest of a geisha-frequented tea house. Luckily, lots of tour companies can arrange this.
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