Brief Overview of Geisha

Geisha with an Umbrella

Traditional Performer in Japanese History
Geisha refers to geigi (Japanese singing and dancing girl) or young geisha that add zest to banquets and entertain customers by performing traditional Japanese dance, songs with shamisen accompaniment, long epic song with shamisen accompaniment, and a Japanese band using traditional musical instruments. Geisha is one of professions that became popular in the mid Edo Period that refers to women serving at banquets performing their various arts and entertaining guests.

There were Male Geisha in Old Days
Geisha in the banquetThere were otoko geisha (male geisha) and onna geisha (female geisha) in the Edo Period. Onna geisha were only seen in Edo (modern Tokyo), Kyoto-Osaka, and Nagasaki Prefecture during the Edo Period. For example, in Osaka, geisha always referred to male and geiko meant female. In the early Meiji Period, otoko geisha disappeared and, thereafter, geigi was referred to as geisha in Osaka and geiko in Kyoto. Today, geisha may have a boyfriend or lover but do not provide sexual service for money.

Additionally, there are geisha (so called onsen geisha) in the hot springs areas and independent geisha who work through agencies but, we will discuss here only the orthodox type of geisha who come to work at traditional Japanese restaurants and machiai jaya.

Geisha In a Japanese Garden
Geisha In a Japanese Garden
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Name Variety of Geisha

Geisha in the Kyoto StreetName Variety in each Region of Japan
The old way of calling geisha was either 'geisha (onna geisha)' or 'geiko' but since the Meiji Period, the term 'geigi' began to be used (and we will use this term in this article). Geisha is frequently broken down between a full-fledged geigi and trainee and the terms referring to them vary by the region.

The Kanto Region Centering around Tokyo
Geigi is referred to as 'geisha,' whereas a trainee is referred to as 'hangyoku (child geisha)' or 'oshaku.' The above-mentioned names are widely established as the standard terms.

The Kansai Region including Kyoto and Osaka
Geigi is referred to as 'geiko,' whereas a trainee is referred to as 'maiko (child geisha).' The foregoing terms are used in some other areas including Yamagata Prefecture and Ishikawa Prefecture.

Geisha Dansing in the Banquet
Geisha Dansing in the Banquet
Geisha Dansing in Shinto Ritual
Geisha Dansing in Shinto Ritual

Maiko, the Geisha Apprentice


Young Geisha in Kyoto Region
The term "Maiko" refers to a young geisha or a geisha apprentice. "Maiko" is the name used in Kyoto Prefecture (also in Osaka, and Nara Prefectures, etc). It corresponds to "Hangyoku (child geisha, apprentice entertainer)" or "Oshaku (person pouring alcohol for guests or customers)" in the Kanto region. The "Maiko (舞妓)" was written as "Maiko (舞子)" in past times, and she learned customer service skills at ozashiki (banquets in which guests were attended by geisha) at the age of 9 - 12 and stood on her feet through the training of entertainment, but now no young girls can become Maiko until she graduates junior high school in accordance with the revision of the Child Welfare Act and the Labor Standards Law after the war.

Transition of Hairstyle in Training Period of Maiko
MaikoUsually, after a 'training' period from a half to two years, Maiko wear a sash of 'Handarari,' which is half as long as darari no obi (long draping sash) as 'an apprentice' for a month and trains herself with senior geisha at a tea house. If admitted by the mistress of the geisha dwelling and the tea house association, she can debut as a new Maiko ('Misedashi'). At ozashiki and on the stage both geisha and maiko are heavily-powdered with Shironuri (white makeup), but while a geisha usually wears a wig, Maiko dresses her hair in traditional Japanese style and wears a gorgeous ornate hairpin, tsumami-kanzashi (a decorative hair pin) featuring something like flowers of each season. The hair style of Maiko at the early stage is 'wareshinobu,' which turns to be 'Ofuku' in a few years later, and 1 - 4 weeks before erigae (promoted to a full-fledged geisha) she dresses 'sakko fashion (Maiko's hairstyle)' and puts teeth black (she does not paint eyebrows, which can be regarded as the custom of Hangempuku (attaining womanhood informally) continuing still now).

MaikoMaiko is a Symbol of Kyoto
Many Maiko are promoted to full-fledged geisha around the age of 20. In accordance with the public stance that she is an apprentice because she is young, Maiko surely wears a long-sleeved kimono pulled in a tuck at the shoulders and sleeves. Since Maiko wear gaudy costumes such as Pokkuri (Koppori or 'Okobo' in Kyoto, girl's lacquered wooden clogs) and darari no obi, it could be said that Maiko is a more representative figure at red-light districts in Kyoto and vicinity, rather than geisha. Maiko is mainly in charge of dancing at ozashiki and performs the dancing of Kyomai Inoue school in Gion Kobu district and other dancing such as the Wakayagi school in other districts. She is trained to use the Kyoto dialect without regard to her origin, and consequently, Maiko is often treated as if she is a symbol of Kyoto.

Change of Maiko Traditions in Contemporary Japan
MaikoThe main business is entertainment at a tea house, but recently other business such as TV appearance, visiting care facilities or hospitals and going abroad are increasing. The red-light district which was a closed space of 'No first-time customers' seemed to have gradually opened its doors to outsiders. In fact, it is said that some geisha dwellings which have no Maiko are recruiting applicants for Maiko through the Internet. At present it is the five red-light districts of Gion Kobu, Miyagawa-cho, Gion Higashi, Ponto-cho, and the Kamishichiken districts, where there are Maiko in Kyoto. The number of applicant for Maiko is increasing, partly because of the recent boom. However, a girl who becomes a disciple of Maiko only because of her yearning feelings often resigns, because she cannot bear the old-fashioned severe training of the feudalistic red-light district. Therefore, it is future task how to keep highly qualified Maiko and geisha in the red-light districts.

Maiko Dancing in the banquet
Maiko Dancing in the Banquet

Kimono Costumes of Geisha

Costume of geisha

Distinctive Costumes for Geisha
In case of a full-fledged senior geisha, they primarily wore their hair in the shimada mage, kimono with train and tsume sode, and mizu oshiroi (powder foundation with water). (Formally speaking, in the Kansai region, they used to apply tooth blackening which they no longer practice today in general, whereas, in the Kanto region, they did not apply tooth blackening (while prostitutes in Kanto did) and neither drew eyebrows with charcoal or pencil and, depending on the location in some rural areas, they wore simply wore their hair up in a bun and regular makeup.)

Unique Costumes and Hairstyle of Maiko
Geisha in the FestivalThey go to the banquet that they were assigned to accompanied by menservants who carry their shamisen-bako (shamisen case). The younger geisha such as hangyoku or maiko have their hair done in shojo no mage (hairstyle for young girls) such as Momoware (hairstyle of the Meiji and Taisho era, featuring a bun resembling a halved peach) and wear furisode (long-sleeved kimono) with kataage (a shoulder tuck). Their obi (kimono sash) and obi musubi (the way the obi is put on) are different from that for the older geisha. Of these younger geisha, maiko in Kyoto are known for their darari no obimusubi and okobo (wooden footwear). Tatsumi Geisha in Fukagawa (Koto Ward), Tokyo prided themselves for looking 'natty' showing their spirit by wearing geta made of paulownia on barefoot with no tabi (Japanese socks with split toe) and haori coat.

Beautiful and Colorful Kimono of Maiko
Beautiful and Colorful Kimono of Maiko

The System of Geisha

System of Geisha

Sophisticated System of Geisha Society
Geisha usually belong to Okiya (geisha dwelling). Okiya is kakaemoto (similar to management offices that entertainers belong to) of geisha and is not a place to entertain customers. In the Edo Period, it was common for a customer who came to a machiai jaya to request a specific geisha through that chaya (restaurant) (which is referred to as 'to call so-and-so in' or 'to let so-and-so know') to be entertained at ageya (brothel). In Kyoto Prefecture and its vicinity, however, chaya also functioned as a brothel and a request for specific geisha was often times directly made to the concerned okiya or whereby customers could be entertained without moving to a brothel. Back in those days, geisha was often used as time filler until the prostitute arrived at the customer's room in the red light district and this is a distinction between the roles of geisha before and after the beginning of the Meiji Period. Today, there are no ageya anywhere in Japan. Instead, kenban (geisha call-office) is set up to coordinate okiya and the majority of geisha and hokan (professional jesters) belong to kenban. Customer who came in to a chaya (or ageya) contacts kenban to request a geisha. Additionally, kenban often provides training for geisha.

How to Use the Geisha Services
System of GeishaUsually, clients can call geisha in to the place where they are having a banquet for the pre-arranged period of time. Specifically, when making a reservation, one can let the restaurant where their banquet will be know the length of time the geisha's service will be required and the restaurant will make arrangements according to the budget and preferences. You can of course ask for a specific geisha. It should be noted that geisha can only go to some specific restaurants and not just any restaurant. In these days, however, as the rules have been relaxed, geisha are seen at some establishments that are not part of the affiliated restaurants (and, in those cases, there may be various conditions such as a premium for geisha's service). If there is an opening for then and there, it is possible to make an arrangement for a geisha, but it is usually not done. The fee is referred to as 'Gyokudai (time charge for a geisha)' or 'Senko-dai (fee for a geisha's time)' in the Kanto region and 'Hana-dai (fee for a woman's companionship)' in the Kansai region. Senko-dai' was named for the length of time of a geisha's service which was measured by the time it took for a stick of incense to burn in times when there were no clocks. Additionally, 'shugi (goshugi)' that is something similar to gratuity is necessary. The fee for the geisha's service will be lumped together with that for food and drinks consumed and will be charged by the respective restaurant.

Oiran in the Meiji Period
Geisha in the Meiji Period

Distinction from Yujo (prostitutes)

Yujo in Japan

Geisha is a Professional Entertainer using their Arts
The role of geisha, first and foremost, is to entertain the party that they are assigned to with their arts. However, since the Edo Period, geisha was an apprenticeship with debt much like yujo (prostitute) and red-light districts in the past were breeding grounds for human trafficking and prostitution. Selling one's body indiscriminately to anyone was referred to as being 'loose' and was warned against but up until World War II, these 'loose' geisha were seen in everywhere and it was common for okiya to actively encourage this practice.

Pride of Geisha that distinguish from Yujo
Yujo in JapanHowever, geisha was clearly distinguished from yujo whereby the first-class geisha was supposed to pride herself in 'selling her arts and not her body' and receiving money in return for being good to her danna (customer). Many of the talented and/or beautiful geisha, however, opted for never having danna in their life time that undoubtedly had distaste for such a reality and showed their spirit in not being at customers' disposal. On the contrary to popular perception that geisha have no freedom, it seems that their freedom to fall in love with a man that they choose has long been well respected. Since the Meiji Period, geisha who support themselves with their arts have often been perceived as a sort of dream girls and there have been occasions when some magazines conducted popularity contests or postcards featuring some popular geisha were well received.

Yujo Parade in Historical Festival
Yujo Parade in Historical Theme Park
Yujo in the Movie Scene
Yujo in the Movie Scene

Danna-sama (Patrons) of Geisha

Geisha and Japanese Maple

Lifetime Sponsor of Geisha
Once, danna-sama was essential to the world of geisha. Where there was a geisha, there was a danna-sama who played a role of patron or sponsor. The role of a danna-sama extends beyond occasional help and cooperation whereby, once he finds a geisha to whom he will be committed to, the danna-sama will take care of her virtually for the rest of her life. It requires a large sum of money to develop a geisha from the trainee days to a full-fledged professional. Danna-sama absorbs several millions to several tens of millions of yen to cover his geisha's kimono, accessories, jewelry and living expenses. It is not uncommon for danna-sama to pay several hundred millions of yen to take care of a geisha. Given these exorbitant costs, not everyone could become danna-sama and, as a necessity, a person who would become danna-sama has to be among the business leaders of the area or one of the top executives of major corporations who had a monetary means to be able to afford such large expenses. As for geisha, on the other hand, just being a geisha does not warrant she would have danna-sama and only those beautiful and exceptionally talented geisha can expect to have danna-sama.

Deep Relation between Danna-sama and Geisha
If a geisha gets a danna-sama while being a young trainee, there is the ritual of mizuage (offering her virginity) or they can still get a danna-sama after finishing the trainee period to a point. Geisha in the kyoto ForestThat geisha will become that danna-sama's mistress and danna-sama will be her best customer who will take care of her whereby establishing a relationship of trust between them. There are obvious advantages in this relationship on the geisha's side. Danna-sama, however, usually is married having his own family and, hence, there are no particular advantages to speak of. The relationship between the geisha and her danna-sama, however, includes that of the sexual nature as, after all, they are man and woman, but in principle, it is supposed to be a sound partnership. Danna-sama's advantage is that it reflects on his being a 'successful man.' He demonstrates a sophisticated generosity by 'giving that geisha so much' and 'spending so much money for her.' Since danna-sama is one of the richest men in the respective area, it can also be a means to impress people around him with his wealth. As a principle, danna-sama is supposed to strike a balance between his home and geisha, but some end up becoming bankrupt by spending too much money on geisha or by being taken advantage of by an evil geisha.

Geisha doing make upDanna-sama in Modern Days Japan
As mentioned below, there is virtually no danna-sama in existence today. It is due to the fact that the system and substance of danna-sama are incompatible with the way things are in these days and age. There are several factors for the disappearance of danna-sama including the poor economy, availability of diverse entertainment, trend to attach importance to family, financial reasons and there are very few men around who would be willing to spend money on geisha just for the sake of looking cool. There are, however, albeit only a few danna-sama remaining in large cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto today. In the meantime, there has been a change in geisha's thinking and some geisha decline an offer of the prospective dannna-sama in favor of ordinary lifestyle or marriage which seems attributable to changes of the times. These 'danna-sama' can no longer be seen in the areas with the geisha culture due to changes in the danna-sama side, geisha side or times.

Geisha in Kyoto's Street
Geisha in Kyoto's Street
Geisha Under the Sakura Tree
Geisha Under the Sakura Tree
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Encyclopedia of Japan