Geisha (芸者) (/ˈɡeɪʃə/; Japanese: [ɡe̞ːɕa̠]), geiko
(芸子), or geigi (芸妓) are traditional Japanese female
entertainers who act as hostesses. Their wide skills include
performing various arts such as Japanese classical music and
traditional dance, witty games and conversation, traditionally to
entertain male customers, but also female customers today.
2.2 18th-century emergence of the geisha
2.3 Rise of the geisha
4 Stages of training
5 Female dominance in geisha society
5.1 Relationships with male guests
Geisha as a women-centered society
6 Modern geisha
7 Non-Japanese geisha
7.1 Public performances
Geisha and prostitution
9.1 Personal relationships and Danna partnership
Geisha (Gee-sha) girls"
10.4 In Popular Culture
10.4.1 Films about geisha
11 See also
13 Further reading
14 External links
Typical nape make-up on a maiko (Note the red collar)
Maiko Tomitsuyu playing the game "Konpira Fune Fune" with a female
The word geisha (/ˈɡeɪʃə/; Japanese: [ɡe̞ːɕa̠]),
consists of two kanji, 芸 (Gei) meaning "art" and 者 (Sha) meaning
"person" or "doer". The most literal translation of geisha into
English would be "artist", "performing artist", or "artisan". Another
name for geisha is
Geiko (芸妓), which translates specifically as
"Woman of Art." This term is used to refer to geisha from Western
Japan, which includes
Kyoto and Kanazawa.
Apprentice geisha are called
Maiko (舞妓), literally "Woman of
Dance", or Hangyoku (半玉), "Half-Jewel" (meaning that they were
paid half of the wage of a full geisha), or by the more generic
term o-shaku (御酌), literally "one who pours (alcohol)". The white
make-up and elaborate kimono and hair of a maiko is the popular image
held of geisha. A woman entering the geisha community does not have to
begin as a maiko, having the opportunity to begin her career as a full
geisha. Either way, however, usually a year's training is involved
before debuting either as a maiko or as a geisha. A woman above 21 is
considered too old to be a maiko and becomes a full geisha upon her
initiation into the geisha community.
On average, Tokyo apprentices (who typically begin at 18) are slightly
older than their
Kyoto counterparts (who usually start at 15).
Historically, geisha often began the earliest stages of their training
at a very young age, sometimes as early as 6 years old. The early
Shikomi (in-training) and Minarai (learns by watching) stages of
geisha training lasted for years (shikomi) and months (minarai)
respectively, which is significantly longer than in contemporary
times. A girl is often a shikomi for up to a year while the modern
minarai period is simply one month.
It is still said that geisha inhabit a separate world which they call
the Karyūkai or "The Flower and Willow World". Before they
disappeared, the courtesans were the colourful "flowers" and the
geisha the "willows" because of their subtlety, strength, and
In the early stages of Japanese history, there were female
entertainers: Saburuko (serving girls) were mostly wandering girls
whose families were displaced from struggles in the late 600s. Some of
these saburuko girls sold sexual services, while others with a better
education made a living by entertaining at high-class social
gatherings. After the imperial court moved the capital to Heian-kyō
(Kyoto) in 794 the conditions that would form geisha culture began to
emerge, as it became the home of a beauty-obsessed elite. Skilled
female performers, such as
Shirabyōshi dancers, thrived.
Traditional Japan embraced sexual delights (it is not a
and men were not constrained to be faithful to their wives. The
ideal wife was a modest mother and manager of the home; by Confucian
custom love had secondary importance. For sexual enjoyment and
romantic attachment, men did not go to their wives, but to courtesans.
Walled-in pleasure quarters known as yūkaku (遊廓、遊郭) were
built in the 16th century, and in 1617 the shogunate designated
"pleasure quarters", outside of which prostitution would be
illegal, and within which yūjo ("play women") would be classified
and licensed. The highest yūjo class was the geisha's predecessor,
called tayuu, a combination of actress and prostitute, originally
playing on stages set in the dry Kamo riverbed in Kyoto. They
performed erotic dances and skits, and this new art was dubbed kabuku,
meaning "to be wild and outrageous". The dances were called "kabuki",
and this was the beginning of kabuki theater.
18th-century emergence of the geisha
Ukiyoe depicting a
Gion geisha, from between 1800 and 1833
Ukiyoe print by Yamaguchi Soken of a
These pleasure quarters quickly became glamorous entertainment
centers, offering more than sex. The highly accomplished courtesans of
these districts entertained their clients by dancing, singing, and
playing music. Some were renowned poets and calligraphers. Gradually,
they all became specialized and the new profession, purely of
entertainment, arose. It was near the turn of the eighteenth century
that the first entertainers of the pleasure quarters, called geisha,
appeared. The first geishas were men, entertaining customers waiting
to see the most popular and gifted courtesans (oiran).
The forerunners of the female geisha were the teenage odoriko
("dancing girls"): expensively trained as chaste dancers-for-hire.
In the 1680s, they were popular paid entertainers in the private homes
of upper-class samurai, though many had turned to prostitution by
the early 18th century. Those who were no longer teenagers (and could
no longer style themselves odoriko) adopted other names—one
being "geisha", after the male entertainers. The first woman known to
have called herself geisha was a Fukagawa prostitute, in about
1750. She was a skilled singer and shamisen player named Kikuya
who was an immediate success, making female geisha extremely popular
in 1750s Fukagawa. As they became more widespread throughout the
1760s and 1770s, many began working only as entertainers (rather than
prostitutes), often in the same establishments as male geisha.
Rise of the geisha
Tokyo geisha with shamisen, circa 1870s
The geisha who worked within the pleasure quarters were essentially
imprisoned and strictly forbidden to sell sex in order to protect the
business of the oiran. While licensed courtesans existed to meet men's
sexual needs, machi geisha carved out a separate niche as artists and
erudite female companions.
By 1800, being a geisha was considered a female occupation (though
there are still a handful of male geisha working today). Eventually,
Oiran began to fall out of fashion, becoming less popular
than the chic ("iki") and modern geisha. By the 1830s, the evolving
geisha style was emulated by fashionable women throughout society.
There were many different classifications and ranks of geisha. Some
women would have sex with their male customers, whereas others would
entertain strictly with their art forms. Prostitution was legal up
until the 1900s (decade), so it was practiced in many quarters
World War II
World War II brought a huge decline in the geisha arts because most
women had to go to factories or other places to work for Japan. The
geisha name also lost some status during this time because prostitutes
began referring to themselves as "geisha girls" to American military
men. In 1944, the geisha world, including the teahouses, bars and
geisha houses, was forced to close, and all employees were put to work
in factories. About a year later, they were allowed to reopen. The few
women who returned to the geisha areas decided to reject Western
influence and revert to traditional ways of entertainment and life.
"The image of the geisha was formed during Japan's feudal past, and
this is now the image they must keep in order to remain geisha."
It was up to these returning geisha to bring back traditional
standards in the profession, though with increased rights for the
After Japan lost the war, geisha dispersed and the profession was in
shambles. When they regrouped during the Occupation and began to
flourish in the 1960s during Japan's postwar economic boom, the geisha
world changed. In modern Japan, girls are not sold into indentured
service. Nowadays, a geisha's sex life is her private affair.
— Liza Dalby, Do They or Don't They?
There were many rumors that stated before the war, a maiko's virginity
would be auctioned (the original "mizuage"). But this was
confused with the girls who were apprentices to prostitutes and
courtesans. Compulsory education laws passed in the 1960s made
traditional geisha apprenticeships difficult, leading to a decline in
women entering the field.
In her book Geisha, a Life,
Mineko Iwasaki said: "I lived in the
karyukai during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when Japan was undergoing
the radical transformation from a post-feudal to a modern society. But
I existed in a world apart, a special realm whose mission and identity
depended on preserving the time-honored traditions of the past."
At the pinnacle of the complex geisha ranking system are the grand
dowagers of Kyoto. The Gokagai of
Kyoto are its five geisha
districts, also known as hanamachi ("flower towns").
Kamishichiken have the highest status; they are very
expensive and are frequented by powerful businessmen and
Gion Kobu is sometimes seen as having the very highest
ranking). As reported by Dalby (1983) from her impressions in 1975
Geiko from the other two hanamachi (
Gion Higashi and Miyagawa Cho)
have high prestige but are considered to be one rank lower.
Stages of training
Geiko Fumikazu with her minarai imōto Momokazu, and a shikomi from
the Odamoto okiya
Geisha began their training at a young age. Some girls
were bonded to geisha houses (okiya) as children. Daughters of geisha
were often brought up as geisha themselves, usually as the successor
(atotori, meaning "heir" or "heiress" in this particular situation) or
daughter-role (musume-bun) to the okiya.
A maiko is an apprentice and is therefore bonded under a contract to
her okiya. The okiya supplies her with food, board, kimono, obi, and
other tools of her trade. Her training is very expensive and her debt
must be repaid to the okiya with the earnings she makes. This
repayment may continue after the maiko becomes a full-fledged geisha
and only when her debts are settled is she permitted to move out to
live and work independently.
A maiko will start her formal training on the job as a minarai, which
literally means "learning by watching" at an ozashiki (お座敷, a
banquet in any traditional Japanese building with tatami), to sit and
observe as the other maiko and geiko interact with customers. This is
a way in which she will gain insights of the job, and seek out
potential clients. Although minarai attend ozashiki, they do not
participate at an advanced level. Their kimono, more elaborate than a
geiko's, are intended to do the talking for them. Minarai can be hired
for parties but are usually uninvited (yet welcomed) guests at parties
that their onee-san attends. They only charge a third of the usual
fee. Minarai generally work with a particular tea house (Minarai-jaya)
learning from the okaa-san (literally "mother", the proprietress of
the house). From her, they would learn techniques such as conversation
and gaming, which would not be taught to them in school. This stage
lasts only about a month or so.
Maiko Katsumi and Mameteru performing the
After a short period the final stage of training begins, and the
students are now called "maiko", rather than minarai.
"dance girl") are apprentice geisha, and this stage can last for up to
Maiko learn from their senior maiko and geiko mentors. The
onee-san and imouto-san (senior/junior, literally "older
sister/younger sister") relationship is important. The onee-san, any
maiko or geiko who is senior to a girl, teaches her maiko everything
about working in the hanamachi. The onee-san will teach her proper
ways of serving tea, playing shamisen, dancing, casual conversation
Senior maiko Suzuha wearing sakkō, two weeks before her erikae.
There are three major elements of a maiko's training. The first is the
formal arts training. This takes place in special geisha schools which
are found in every hanamachi. The second element is the entertainment
training which the maiko learns at various tea houses and parties by
observing her onee-san. The third is the social skill of navigating
the complex social web of the hanamachi. This is done on the streets.
Formal greetings, gifts, and visits are key parts of any social
structure in Japan and for a maiko, they are crucial for her to build
the support network she needs to survive as a geisha.
Maiko are considered one of the great sights of Japanese tourism, and
look very different from fully qualified geisha. They are at the peak
of traditional Japanese femininity. The scarlet-fringed collar of a
maiko's kimono hangs very loosely in the back to accentuate the nape
of the neck, which is considered a primary erotic area in Japanese
sexuality. She wears the same white makeup for her face on her nape,
leaving two or sometimes three stripes of bare skin exposed. Her
kimono is bright and colourful with an elaborately tied obi hanging
down to her ankles. She takes very small steps and wears traditional
wooden shoes called okobo which stand nearly ten centimeters high.
There are five different hairstyles that a maiko wears, that mark the
different stages of her apprenticeship. The "Nihongami" hairstyle with
"kanzashi" hair-ornamentation strips is most closely associated with
maiko, who spend hours each week at the hairdresser and sleep on
holed-pillows to preserve the elaborate styling.
Maiko can develop
a bald spot on their crown caused by rubbing from
Kanzashi strips and
tugging in hairdressing.
Around the age of 20–21, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged
geisha in a ceremony called erikae (turning of the collar).
This could happen after three to five years of her life as a maiko or
hangyoku, depending on at what age she debuted.
Geisha remain as such
until they retire.
Female dominance in geisha society
The biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured
pearls, or manufacturing transistor radios or cameras. It is
— Boye De Mente, Some Prefer Geisha
The term geisha literally translates to "entertainer". Some
prostitutes refer to themselves as "geisha", but they are not. A
geisha's sex and love life is usually distinct from her professional
life. A successful geisha can entertain her male customers with music,
dance, and conversation.
Geishas are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some
of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women
in Japan, and traditionally have been so.
— Iwasaki Mineko, Geisha, A Life
Geisha learn the traditional skills of dance and instruments and hold
high social status.
Geisha are single women, though they may have
lovers or boyfriends whom they have personally picked, who support
There is currently no western equivalent for a geisha—they are truly
the most impeccable form of Japanese art.
— Kenneth Champeon, The Floating World
Relationships with male guests
A geisha entertaining a foreign guest
The appeal of a high-ranking geisha to her typical male guest has
historically been very different from that of his wife. The ideal
geisha showed her skill, while the ideal wife was modest. The ideal
geisha seemed carefree, the ideal wife somber and responsible.
Historically, geisha did sometimes marry their clients, but marriage
necessitated retirement, as there were never married geisha.
Geisha may gracefully flirt with their guests, but they will always
remain in control of the hospitality. Over their years of
apprenticeship they learn to adapt to different situations and
personalities, mastering the art of the hostess.
Geisha as a women-centered society
Women in the geisha society are some of the most successful
businesswomen in Japan. In the geisha society, women run everything.
Without the impeccable business skills of the female tea house owners,
the world of geisha would cease to exist. The tea house owners are
entrepreneurs, whose service to the geisha is highly necessary for the
society to run smoothly. Infrequently, men take contingent positions
such as hair stylists, dressers (dressing a maiko requires
considerable strength) and accountants, but men have a limited
role in geisha society.
The geisha system was founded, actually, to promote the independence
and economic self-sufficiency of women. And that was its stated
purpose, and it actually accomplished that quite admirably in Japanese
society, where there were very few routes for women to achieve that
sort of independence.
Mineko Iwasaki in interview, Boston Phoenix
The majority of women were wives who did not work outside of their
familial duties. Becoming a geisha was a way for women to support
themselves without becoming a wife. Thus, some argue that geisha women
live in a women-centered society. Women run the
geisha houses, they are teachers, they run the tea houses, they
recruit aspiring geisha, and they keep track of a geisha's
finances. The only major role men play in geisha
society is that of guest, though women sometimes take that role as
Historically, Japanese feminists have seen geisha as exploited women,
but some modern geisha see themselves as liberated feminists: "We
find our own way, without doing family responsibilities. Isn't that
what feminists are?"
Modern geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya in
areas called hanamachi (花街 "flower streets"), particularly during
their apprenticeship. Many experienced geisha are successful enough to
choose to live independently. The elegant, high-culture world that
geisha are a part of is called karyūkai (花柳界 "the flower and
Before the twentieth century, geisha training began when a girl was
around the age of six. Now, girls must go to school until they are 15
years old and have graduated from middle school and then make the
personal decision to train to become a geisha. Young women who wish to
become geisha now most often begin their training after high school or
even college. Many more women begin their careers in adulthood.
Geisha still study traditional instruments: the shamisen, shakuhachi,
and drums, as well as learn games, traditional songs,
calligraphy, Japanese traditional dances (in the nihonbuyō
style), tea ceremony, literature, and poetry.
By watching other geisha, and with the assistance of the owner of the
geisha house, apprentices also become skilled dealing with clients and
in the complex traditions surrounding selecting and wearing kimono, a
floor length silk robe embroidered with intricate designs which is
held together by a sash at the waist which is called an obi.
In modern Japan, geisha and their apprentices are now a rare sight
outside hanamachi or chayagai (茶屋街, literally "tea house
district", often referred to as "entertainment district"). In the
1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today,
there are far fewer. Most common are sightings of tourists who pay a
fee to be dressed up as a maiko.
A sluggish economy, declining interest in the traditional arts, the
exclusive nature of the flower and willow world, and the expense of
being entertained by geisha have all contributed to the tradition's
decline. However, the flower and willow world has seen a
resurgence in new members over the last 10 years due
to the accessibility that the internet has provided for young girls
wanting to know more about the profession and not needing a formal
introduction to an okiya.
Entrance to Ichiriki Ochaya, one of the most famous tea houses where
geiko entertain in
Geisha are often hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally
at ochaya (お茶屋, literally "tea houses") or at traditional
Japanese restaurants (ryōtei). The charge for a geisha's time
used to be determined by (measured by burning incense stick) is called
senkōdai (線香代, "incense stick fee") or gyokudai (玉代 "jewel
fee"). Now they are flat fees charged by the hour. In Kyoto, the terms
ohana (お花) and hanadai (花代), meaning "flower fees", are
preferred. The okasan makes arrangements through the geisha union
office (検番 kenban), which keeps each geisha's schedule and makes
her appointments both for entertaining and for training.
Since the 1970s, non-Japanese have also attempted to become geishas.
Liza Dalby, an American national worked briefly with geisha in the
Pontocho district of
Kyoto as part of her doctorate research, although
she did not formally debut as a geisha herself. 
The district of
Kyoto, Japan does not accept non-Japanese
women to train for becoming a geisha.
Other foreign nationals who have completed training became fully
pledged working as geisha in Japan include the following:
Rinka — (Zhang Xue) a Chinese national from Shenyang,
became a geisha in Shimoda Japan.
Ibu — (Eve) a geiko of Ukrainian descent working in Anjo district of
Juri — (Maria) a Peruvian geiko working in the resort town of
Kanagawa Prefecture 
Fukutarō — (Isabella) a Romanian national worked in the Izu-Nagaoka
district of Shizuoka Prefecture.
Mutsuki — (Yi Xin Sun) a Chinese national worked in
Kimicho — (Sydney) an American woman from
Missouri who briefly
worked for two years, first as a side translator and then a
full-pledged geisha in Shinagawa, Tokyo. She later quit the profession
due to conflict with
Australian trainee Fiona Graham.
Sayuki — (Fiona Graham), an
Australian national who debuted in 2007,
being the first Caucasian foreigner who worked in the Asakusa district
of Tokyo. However, she was formally kicked out in 2011 for not
following the rules given to her by her elders, which included making
her own bookings outside of the established registry system and
performing in art forms that she was not given permission to practice
in public. Due to her non-Japanese citizenship, Graham was
not permitted to take on a registered independent practice and refused
to complete lessons in musical arts and dance, among the reasons cited
by the Asakusa
While traditionally geishas have led a cloistered existence, in recent
years they have become more publicly visible, and entertainment is
available without requiring the traditional introduction and
The most visible form of this are public dances, or odori (generally
written in traditional kana spelling as をどり, rather than modern
おどり), featuring both maikos and geishas. All the
hold these annually (mostly in spring, with one exclusively in
autumn), dating to the
Kyoto exhibition of 1872, and there are
many performances, with tickets being inexpensive, ranging from around
1500 yen to 4500 yen – top-price tickets also include an optional
tea ceremony (tea and wagashi served by maiko) before the
Kyoto hanamachi and Kanazawa hanamachi for a
detailed listing. Other hanamachi also hold public dances, including
some in Tokyo, but have fewer performances.
maiko Satohana from the
Kamishichiken district serving tea at
Baikasai, the plum blossom festival, at Kitano Tenman-gū.
Another notable event is that the geishas (including maikos) of the
Kamishichiken district in northwest
Kyoto serve tea to 3,000 guests on
February 25 in an annual open-air tea ceremony (野点, nodate) at the
plum-blossom festival (梅花祭, baikasai) at Kitano Tenman-gū
shrine. As of 2010[update], these geishas also serve beer in a
beer garden at
Kamishichiken Kaburenjo Theatre during summer months
(July to early September); another geisha beer garden is
available at the
Gion Shinmonso ryokan in the
Gion district. These
beer gardens also feature traditional dances by the geishas in the
Geisha are skilled artists, trained in and performing music and dance.
Geisha Komomo and Mameyoshi from
Gion Kobu playing shamisen
Geisha begin their study of music and dance when they are very young
and continue it throughout their lives.
Geisha can work into their
eighties and nineties, and are expected to train every day even
after seventy years of experience.
The dance of the geisha has evolved from the dance performed on the
noh and kabuki stages. The "wild and outrageous" dances transformed
into a more subtle, stylized, and controlled form of dance. It is
extremely disciplined, similar to t'ai chi. Every dance uses gestures
to tell a story and only a connoisseur can understand the subdued
symbolism. For example, a tiny hand gesture represents reading a love
letter, holding the corner of a handkerchief in the mouth represents
coquetry and the long sleeves of the elaborate kimono are often used
to symbolize dabbing tears.
The dances are accompanied by traditional Japanese music. The primary
instrument is the shamisen. The shamisen was introduced to the geisha
culture in 1750 and has been mastered by female Japanese artists for
years. This shamisen, originating in Okinawa, is a banjo-like
three-stringed instrument that is played with a plectrum. It has a
very distinct, melancholy sound that is often accompanied by flute.
The instrument is described as "melancholy" because traditional
shamisen music uses only minor thirds and sixths. All geisha must
learn shamisen-playing, though it takes years to master. Along with
the shamisen and the flute, geisha also learned to play a ko-tsuzumi,
a small, hourglass-shaped shoulder drum, and a large floor taiko
(drum). Some geisha would not only dance and play music, but would
write beautiful, melancholy poems. Others painted pictures or composed
Geisha and prostitution
Sheridan Prasso wrote that Americans had "an incorrect impression of
the real geisha world ... geisha means 'arts person' trained in music
and dance, not in the art of sexual pleasure". K. G. Henshall
wrote that the geisha's purpose was "to entertain their customer, be
it by dancing, reciting verse, playing musical instruments, or
engaging in light conversation.
Geisha engagements may include
flirting with men and playful innuendos; however, clients know that
nothing more can be expected. In a social style that is common in
Japan, men are amused by the illusion of that which is never to
In 1872, shortly after the Meiji Restoration, the new government
passed a law liberating "prostitutes (shōgi) and geisha (geigi)". The
wording of this statute was the subject of controversy. Some officials
thought that prostitutes and geisha worked at different ends of the
same profession—selling sex— and that all prostitutes should
henceforth be called "geisha". In the end, the government decided to
maintain a line between the two groups, arguing that geisha were more
refined and should not be soiled by association with prostitutes.
Also, geisha working in onsen towns such as
Atami are dubbed onsen
Onsen geisha have been given a bad reputation due to the
prevalence of prostitutes in such towns who market themselves as
"geisha". In contrast to these "one-night geisha", the true onsen
geisha are competent dancers and musicians. However, the autobiography
of Sayo Masuda, an onsen geisha who worked in Nagano Prefecture in the
1930s, reveals that in the past, such women were often under intense
pressure to sell sex.
Personal relationships and Danna partnership
Geisha are portrayed as unattached. Formerly those who chose to marry
had to retire from the profession, though today, some geisha are
allowed to marry. It was traditional in the past for established
geisha to take a danna, or patron. A danna was typically a wealthy
man, sometimes married, who had the means to support the very large
expenses related to a geisha's traditional training and other costs.
This sometimes occurs today as well, but very rarely. A geisha and her
danna may or may not be in love, but intimacy is never viewed as a
reward for the danna's financial support. While it is true that a
geisha is free to pursue personal relationships with men she meets
through her work, such relationships are carefully chosen and unlikely
to be casual. A hanamachi tends to be a very tight-knit community and
a geisha's good reputation is not taken lightly.
Geisha (Gee-sha) girls"
During the period of the Allied occupation of Japan, local women
Geisha girls" worked as prostitutes. They almost exclusively
serviced American GIs stationed in the country, who actually referred
to them as "Geesha girls" (a mispronunciation). These women
dressed in kimono and imitated the look of geisha. Many Americans
unfamiliar with the Japanese culture could not tell the difference
between legitimate geisha and these costumed performers. Shortly
after their arrival in 1945, some occupying American GIs are said to
have congregated in
Ginza and shouted, "We want geesha girls!"
Eventually, the English term "geisha girl" became a general word for
any female Japanese prostitute or worker in the mizu shōbai and
included bar hostesses and streetwalkers.
Geisha girls are speculated by researchers to be largely responsible
for the continuing misconception in the West that all geisha are
engaged in prostitution.
Main article: Mizuage
Mizuage (水揚げ) was a ceremony undergone by a maiko where she was
promoted to senior status and changed her hairstyle from the junior
wareshinobu to the senior ofuku. A ritual deflowering, also called
mizuage, was practiced among prostitutes and geisha in smaller towns
where these occupations often blurred lines. Prostitutes posing as
geisha often used this term to refer to their acts with customers,
which lead to great confusion when such prostitutes often called
themselves "geisha" in the company of foreign soldiers and even
Mizuage literally means "raising the waters" and originally meant
unloading a ship's cargo of fish. Over time, the word came to
represent money earned in the entertainment business.
Mature geisha (center) ordinarily wear subdued clothing, makeup, and
hair, contrasting with the more colourful clothing, heavy makeup, and
elaborate hair of maiko (apprentices; left and right).
The maiko Mamechiho in the
Gion district. Notice the green pin on the
mid-left called tsunagi-dango: this identifies her as a maiko of Gion
kobu under 18.
A geisha's appearance changes throughout her career, from the girlish,
heavily made-up maiko, to the more somber appearance of an older
established geisha. Different hairstyles and hairpins signify
different stages of a girl's development and even a detail as minute
as the length of one's eyebrows is significant. Short eyebrows are for
the young and long eyebrows display maturity.
In modern times the traditional makeup of apprentice geisha is one of
their most recognizable characteristics, though established geisha
generally only wear full white face makeup characteristic of maiko
during special performances.
The traditional makeup of an apprentice geisha features a thick white
base with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and
eyebrows. Originally, the white base mask was made with lead; after
the discovery that it poisoned the skin and caused terrible skin and
back problems for the older geisha towards the end of the Meiji Era,
it was replaced with rice powder.
The application of makeup is hard to perfect and is time-consuming.
Makeup is applied before dressing to avoid dirtying the kimono. First,
a wax or oil substance called bintsuke-abura is applied to the skin.
Next, white powder is mixed with water into a paste and applied with a
bamboo brush starting from the neck and working upwards. The white
makeup covers the face, neck, and chest, with two or three unwhitened
areas (forming a W or V shape, usually a traditional W shape) left on
the nape, to accentuate this traditionally erotic area, and a line of
bare skin around the hairline, which creates the illusion of a mask.
After the foundation layer is applied, a sponge is patted all over the
face, throat, chest, the nape and neck to remove excess moisture and
to blend the foundation. Next the eyes and eyebrows are drawn in.
Traditionally, charcoal was used, but today, modern cosmetics are
used. The eyebrows and edges of the eyes are coloured black with a
thin charcoal; a maiko also applies red around her eyes.
The lips are filled in using a small brush. The colour comes in a
small stick, which is melted in water. Crystallized sugar is then
added to give the lips luster. Rarely will a geisha colour in both
lips fully in the Western style, as white creates optical illusions
and colouring the lips fully would make them appear overly large. The
lower lip is coloured in partially and the upper lip left white for
maiko in her first year, after which the upper lip is coloured. Newly
full-fledged geisha will colour in only the top lip fully. Most geisha
wear the top lip coloured in fully or stylized, and the bottom lip in
a curved stripe that does not follow the shape of the lip. Geisha
round the bottom lips to create the illusion of a flower bud.
Maiko who are in their last stage of training sometimes colour their
teeth black for a brief period. This practice used to be common among
married women in Japan and, earlier, at the imperial court, but
survives only in some districts. It is done partly because uncoloured
teeth seem very yellow in contrast to white face makeup; colouring the
teeth black means that they seem to "disappear" in the darkness of the
open mouth. This illusion is of course more pronounced at a distance.
For the first year, a maiko wears this heavy makeup almost constantly.
During her initiation, the maiko is helped with her makeup either by
her onee-san, or "older sister" (an experienced geisha who is her
mentor), or by the okaa-san, or "mother" of her geisha house. After
this, she applies the makeup herself.
After a maiko has been working for three years, she changes her
make-up to a more subdued style. The reason for this is that she has
now become mature, and the simpler style shows her own natural beauty.
For formal occasions, the mature geisha will still apply white
make-up. For geisha over thirty, the heavy white make-up is only worn
during those special dances that require it.
Further information: History of cosmetics
A senior maiko (left) with darari obi and geisha with taiko-musubi
Niigata geisha performing dance, dressed in kimono and taiko musubi
Geisha always wear kimono. Apprentice geisha wear highly colourful
kimono with extravagant obi. The obi is brighter than the kimono she
is wearing to give a certain exotic balance.
Kyoto wear the
obi tied in a style called "darari" (dangling obi), while Tokyo
"hangyoku" wear it tied in various ways, including taiko musubi. Older
Kyoto wear more subdued patterns and styles (most notably
the obi tied in a simpler knot used by married women known as the
"taiko musubi" (太鼓結び), or "drum knot"). Tokyo and Kanazawa
geisha wear "yanagi musubi" (柳結び, willow style), taiko musubi
and "tsunodashi musubi" (角出結び).
The colour, pattern, and style of kimono is dependent on the season
and the event the geisha is attending. A kimono can take from two to
three years to complete, due to painting and embroidering.
Geiko wear red or pink nagajuban, or under-kimono. A maiko wears red
with white printed patterns. The junior maiko's collar is
predominantly red with white, silver, or gold embroidery. Two to three
years into her apprenticeship, the red collar will be entirely
embroidered in white (when viewed from the front) to show her
seniority. When she becomes a fully fledged geisha her collar will
turn from red to solid white.
Geisha wear raised wooden sandals, called geta while maiko wear a
special wooden sandal known as okobo and wear only tabi (white
split-toed socks) indoors.
Geisha and apprentices wear the flat-soled
sandal zōri outdoors during inclement weather.
Mamechiho as a geiko.
The hairstyles of geisha have varied through history. In the past, it
has been common for women to wear their hair down in some periods and
up in others. During the 17th century, women began putting all their
hair up again, and it is during this time that the traditional shimada
hairstyle, a type of chignon worn by most established geisha,
There are two major types of the shimada seen in the karyukai: the
Taka Shimada, a high mage (high section) usually worn by young, single
women and the Tsubushi Shimada, a more flattened mage generally worn
by older women Additional hairstyles for maiko include Wareshinobu,
Ofuku, Katsuyama, Yakko Shimada, and Sakkō.
wear an additional six hairstyles leading up to Sakkō, including
Oshidori, Kikugasane, Yuiwata, Suisha, Oshun, and Osafune.
These hairstyles are decorated with elaborate hair-combs and hairpins
(kanzashi). Beginning In the seventeenth century and continuing
Meiji Restoration period, hair-combs were large and
conspicuous, generally more ornate for higher-class women. Following
Meiji Restoration and into the modern era, smaller and less
conspicuous hair-combs became more popular.
Maiko sleep with their necks on small supports (takamakura), instead
of pillows, so they keep their hairstyle perfect. Even if there
are no accidents, a maiko will need her hair styled every week. Many
modern geisha use wigs in their professional lives, while maiko use
their natural hair. Either must be regularly tended by highly
skilled artisans. Traditional hairstyling is a slowly dying art. Over
time, the hairstyle can cause balding on the top of the head.
Sakkō (先笄) is a Japanese hairstyle. It is worn by maiko today,
but was worn in the
Edo period by wives to show their dedication to
Maiko wear it during a ceremony called Erikae, which
marks their graduation from maiko to geiko.
Maiko use black wax to
stain their teeth as well. Crane and tortoiseshell ornaments are added
as kanzashi. The style is twisted in many knots, and is quite striking
In Popular Culture
A growing number of geisha have complained to the authorities about
being pursued down the street and tugged on the sleeves of their
kimonos by groups of tourists keen to take their photograph. As a
result, residents and local businesses have joined forces to protect
the geisha by launching patrols of the streets of Kyoto's Gion
entertainment district in order to prevent tourists from pestering
Many stories are told about geisha. This includes Arthur Golden's
popular English-language novel 'Memoirs of a Geisha' which was adapted
into a film in 2005.
Films about geisha
Sisters of the
Gion (1936)—Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
The Life of Oharu
The Life of Oharu (西鶴一代女 Saikaku Ichidai Onna) (1952)—Dir.
A Geisha (祇園囃子,
Gion bayashi) (1953)—Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956)—Dir. Daniel Mann
The Barbarian and the Geisha
The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)—Dir. John Huston
The Geisha Boy
The Geisha Boy (1958)—Dir. Frank Tashlin
Late Chrysanthemums (Bangiku) (1958)—Dir. Mikio Naruse
Cry for Happy
Cry for Happy (1961)—George Marshall comedy
My Geisha (1962)—Dir. Jack Cardiff
The Wolves (1971)—Dir. Hideo Gosha
The World of Geisha (1973)—Dir. Tatsumi Kumashiro
In the Realm of the Senses
In the Realm of the Senses (1976)—Dir. Nagisa Oshima
Ihara Saikaku Koshoku Ichidai Otoko (1991)—Dir. Yukio Abe
The Geisha House
The Geisha House (1999)—Dir. Kinji Fukasaku
The Sea is Watching (2002)—Dir. Kei Kumai
Zatoichi (2003)—Dir. Takeshi Kitano
Fighter in the Wind
Fighter in the Wind (2004)—Dir. Yang Yun-ho
Memoirs of a Geisha
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)—Dir. Rob Marshall
Wakeful Nights (2005)—Dir. Masahiko Tsugawa
Maiko Haaaan!!! (2007)—Dir. Nobuo Mizuta
Maiko (2014)—Dir. Masayuki Suo
Ca trù, a similar profession in Vietnam
Kisaeng, a similar profession in Korea
Yiji, a similar profession in China
^ 'Geisha' pronounced in Japanese, Forvo, the pronunciation dictionary
Geisha translations, EZ Glot
^ a b Masuda, Sayo, 2003, Autobiography of a Geisha, trans. G.G.
Rowley, Columbia University Press, New York ISBN 0-231-12951-3
^ Prasso (May 2006). "The Real Memoirs of Geisha". The Asian Mystique:
Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient.
p. 218. ISBN 978-1-58648-394-4.
^ Downer, L. (February 2004) . "In Search of Sadayakko". Madame
Geisha Who Bewitched the West. Gotham. pp. 5–6.
^ a b c d Gallagher, John. Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition,
Elegance, and Art. London: PRC, 2003. ISBN 1-85648-697-4
^ "The rise of the Geisha-photos from 19th & 20th century show the
Japanese entertainers". The Vintage News. 2016-05-16. Retrieved
^ "History of geisha". Retrieved 2010-06-18.
^ a b c d e f g Lesley Downer, "The City
Geisha and Their Role in
Modern Japan: Anomaly or artistes", in Martha Feldman and Bonnie
Gordon, eds, The Courtesan's Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2006; ISBN 0-19-517028-8),
^ Fujimoto, Taizo (1917). The Story of the
Geisha Girl. p. 18.
^ Seigle, C. S. (March 1993) . "Rise of the Geisha". Yoshiwara:
the glittering world of the Japanese courtesan (illustrated ed.).
University of Hawaii Press. p. 171.
^ Fiorillo, J. "Osaka Prints: Glossary". geiko: "Arts child",
originally dancing girls who were too young to be called geisha but
too old (more than twenty years of age) to be called odoriko. Geiko
was the pronunciation used in the Kamigata region. Some geiko operated
as illegal prostitutes. By the nineteenth century the term became
synonymous with geisha.
^ Tiefenbrun, S (2003). "Copyright Infringement, Sex Trafficking, and
the Fictional Life of a Geisha". Michigan Journal of Gender & Law.
10: 32. doi:10.2139/ssrn.460747. SSRN 460747 .
^ Gallagher, J. (October 2003). "Appendix II a timeline of geisha and
related history". Geisha: a unique world of tradition, elegance, and
art. PRC Publishing. p. 252.
ISBN 978-1-85648-697-2. —Gallagher says that "Kiku" from
Fukugawa district founded the profession in 1750, and that by 1753 one
hundred odoriko were consigned to Yoshiwara, which licensed (female)
Geisha in 1761.
^ Seigle (1931) Archived 2011-06-13 at the Wayback Machine. p. 172-174
^ Dalby, L. C. "The paradox of modernity". geisha. p. 74.
^ Ohnuki-Tierney, E. (October 2002). Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and
Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History.
University Of Chicago Press. p. 347. ISBN 978-0-226-62091-6.
[Before 1796] kuruwa geisha referred to the geisha in the geisha
quarters who entertained their clients with the skills and performing
arts and also offered their bodies. The term yūjo and jorō were used
to distinguish them from machi geisha, who were exclusively
entertainers ... some of the latter too engaged in sexual
^ a b c d Dalby, Liza (1998). Geisha. Berkeley: University of
^ Dalby, Liza. "Do They or Don't They". Retrieved 12 January 2010. The
question always comes up...just how 'available' is a geisha? ... There
is no simple answer.
^ a b Melissa Hope Ditmore (2006). Encyclopedia of prostitution and
sex work. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.
ISBN 0-313-32969-9. , page 184 
^ Japan encyclopedia. Belknap Pr of Harvard U. 2005.
ISBN 0-674-01753-6. page 234
^ Reynolds, Wayne; Gallagher, John (2003). Geisha: A Unique World of
Tradition, Elegance and Art. PRC Publishing. p. 135.
^ Taubman, Howard. "
Geisha Tradition Is Bowing Out in Japan; Geishas
Fighting Losing Battle Against New Trends in Japan", The New York
Times. June 12, 1968. Page 49. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
^ a b Mineko, Iwasaki; Rande Brown (2003). Geisha, A Life. New York:
Kyoto Traditional Musical
Art Foundation. The
total number of
Kyoto geisha had declined to 196 by 2007 (and 77
maiko); see: "Preface "
Geisha in the 21st Century" in the 25th
anniversary edition of Geisha". 2008.
Geisha 2008 p. 17–18
Geisha 2008 p.18,77,148
^ Iwasaki, Mineko; Brown Ouchi, Rande (October 2002). Geisha: A Life
(first ed.). Atria. p. 132. ISBN 978-0-7434-4432-3.
^ Tetsuo, I.
Nihongami no sekai [The World of traditional hairstyles
and hair ornaments].
^ Layton, J. "Dressing as a Geisha".
^ Reynolds, Wayne; Gallagher, John (2003). Geisha: A Unique World of
Tradition, Elegance and Art. PRC Publishing.
ISBN 1-85648-697-4. page 159
^ De Mente, Boye (1966). Some Prefer Geisha. Rutland, VT: Charles E.
^ Champeon, Kenneth (3 November 2002). "The Floating World". Things
Asian. Retrieved 12 January 2010.
^ Apps, Amino. "What Is A Geisha?". Anime aminoapps.com. Retrieved
^ a b c McCurry, J. (2005-12-11). "Career geisha outgrow the
stereotype". The Age. Melbourne. p. 3. Retrieved
^ Wieder, Tamara (17 October 2002). "Remaking a memoir". Boston
Phoenix. Archived from the original on 6 January 2010. Retrieved 12
^ Collins, Sarah (24 December 2007). "Japanese Feminism". Serendip's
Exchange. Retrieved 12 January 2010.
^ Jones, N. (2007-04-20). "Japan's geisha hit by poor economy". The
Washington Times. now more [university] students are interested in
^ Kalman, B. (2008). Japan the Culture. p. 29.
^ McCurry, J. (2005-12-11). "Career geisha outgrow the stereotype,
page 2". Melbourne: The Age. Retrieved 2010-06-21.
^ Coutsoukis, Photius (2004-11-10). "Japan Performing Arts". Retrieved
2009-06-02. Originally from The Library of Congress Country
Studies; CIA World Factbook.
^ Coutsoukis, Photius (2004-11-10). "Japan Dance". Retrieved
2009-06-02. Originally from The Library of Congress Country
Studies; CIA World Factbook.
^ Tames, Richard (September 1993). A Traveller's History of Japan.
Brooklyn, New York: Interlink Books. ISBN 1-56656-138-8.
^ a b Kalman, Bobbie (March 1989). Japan the Culture. Stevens Point,
Wisconsin: Crabtree Publishing Company. ISBN 0-86505-206-9.
^ Dougill, John (2006). Kyoto: a cultural history. Oxford University
Press. p. 182. ISBN 0-19-530137-4.
^ Merriam-Webster, Inc (2000). Merriam-Webster's collegiate
encyclopedia. Merriam-Webster, Inc. p. 639.
^ Lies, Elaine (2008-04-23). "Modern-day geisha triumphs in closed,
traditional world". Reuters. Retrieved 2009-06-02.
^ "Near extinction". Reuters. December 2007. An economic downturn in
the 1990s forced businessmen to cut back on entertainment expenses,
while high-profile scandals in recent years have made politicians
eschew excessive spending. A dinner can cost around 80,000 yen
(US$1,058) per head, depending on the venue and the number of geishas
present. But even before the 90s, men were steadily giving up on
late-night parties at 'ryotei", restaurants with traditional straw-mat
tatami rooms where geishas entertain, in favour of the modern comforts
of hostess bars and karaoke rooms.
^ Hyslop, Leah (4 October 2010). "Liza Dalby, the blue-eyed geisha".
The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 18 July 2011.
^ Liza, Dalby (1983). Geisha. London: Vintage U.K. pp. 106–109.
^ "Chunichi Shimbun, 1 October 2011, 3rd opening".
^ "湯河原温泉ふきや 若女将のブログ :
^ Gilhooly, Rob (2011-07-23). "Romanian woman thrives as geisha".
Tokyo: The Japan Times. Retrieved 2014-10-26.
^ "Life inside the Flower and Willow World - Wattention". Wattention
(in Japanese). Retrieved 2015-10-23.
^ "Turning Japanese: the first foreign geisha". London: The
Independent. 2008-01-24. Retrieved 2009-06-02.
^ Ryall, Julian (2008-01-09). "Westerner inducted into mysteries of
geisha". London: The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-06-02.
^ "Foreign Geisha's Future Uncertain". New York: The Wall Street
Journal. 2011-06-07. Retrieved 2017-11-28.
^ "First ever Western geisha leaves the 'sisterhood'". London: The
Telegraph. 2011-06-04. Retrieved 2011-06-04.
"外国人芸者 独立はダメ 浅草の組合「想定外」".
Tokyo: The Tokyo Shimbun. 2011-06-07. Retrieved 2011-06-08.
^ a b "
Geisha dances". Archived from the original on 2013-01-02.
^ Baika-sai (Plum Festival) Archived 2011-01-20 at the Wayback
Kyoto Travel Guide
^ Open-Air Tea Ceremony with the Scent of Plum Blossoms: Plum Blossom
Festival at Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine,
Kyoto Shimbun, 2007.2.25
^ a b Demetriou, Danielle (2010-07-16). "Geishas serve beer instead of
tea and conversation as downturn hits Japan". Telegraph.co.uk.
Geisha beer garden opens in Kyoto". Sydney Morning Herald.
Geisha gardens in Kyoto, 12 Jul 2010 – contact information
^ "World's oldest geisha looks to future to preserve past".
2007-12-03. Girls in the past could become apprentice geishas from the
age of 13, but it is now illegal to become an apprentice before 18
Kyoto where a girl can be an apprentice at 15.
^ Jones, N. (2007-04-20). "Japan's geisha hit by poor economy". The
Washington Times. Even the older sisters who became geisha as
teenagers, they are [now] over 80 but still train every day
^ a b Maske, Andrew L. "
Geisha Beyond the Painted Smile."
Peabody:Peabody Essex Museum, 2004:104
^ Asian Mystique, page 52
^ Henshall, K. G., 1999, A History of Japan, Macmillan Press LTD,
London, ISBN 0-333-74940-5, page 61
^ Matsugu, Miho, 2006, "In the Service of the Nation:
Kawabata Yasunari's 'Snow Country'", in Martha Feldman and Bonnie
Gordon, ed. The Courtesan's Arts, Oxford University Press, London,
ISBN 0-19-517028-8, page 244
^ a b c d e f Prasso, Sheridan. "The Asian Mystique." New York: Public
^ Ozeki, R. (2005). Inside and other short fiction: Japanese women by
Japanese women. Kodansha International. ISBN 4-7700-3006-1.
^ Alan Booth, Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan
Kodansha Globe Series, 1995. ISBN 1-56836-148-3
World War II
World War II and the American Occupation". geishaofjapan.com.
^ Dalby, L. (February 2009). "waters dry up". East Wind Melts the Ice:
A Memoir through the Seasons by Liza Dalby. University of California
Press. pp. 190–191. ISBN 978-0-520-25991-1. the resulting
official line that geisha live by art alone is unrealistically
^ "A Week in the Life of: Koaki, Apprentice
Geisha – Schooled in the
arts of pleasure". London: The Independent. 1998-08-08.
^ Tokyo, By Danielle Demetriou in. "Tourists warned to stop
'harassing' Kyoto's geisha".
Aihara, Kyoko. Geisha: A Living Tradition. London: Carlton Books,
2000. ISBN 1-85868-937-6, ISBN 1-85868-970-8.
Ariyoshi Sawako, The Twilight Years. Translated by Mildred Tahara. New
York: Kodansha America, 1987.
Burns, Stanley B., and Elizabeth A. Burns. Geisha: A Photographic
History, 1872–1912. Brooklyn, N.Y.: powerHouse Books, 2006.
Downer, Lesley. Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of
the Geisha. New York: Broadway Books, 2001. ISBN 0-7679-0489-3,
Foreman, Kelly. "The Gei of Geisha. Music, Identity, and Meaning."
London: Ashgate Press, 2008.
Ishihara, Tetsuo. Peter MacIntosh, trans.
Nihongami no Sekai:
Kamigata (The World of Traditional Japanese Hairstyles: Hairstyles of
the Maiko). Kyoto: Dohosha Shuppan, 2004. ISBN 4-8104-1294-6.
Iwasaki, Mineko, with Rande Brown. Geisha, A Life (also known as
Geisha of Gion). New York: Atria Books, 2002. ISBN 0-7434-4432-9,
ISBN 0-7567-8161-2; ISBN 0-7434-3059-X.
Scott, A.C. The Flower and Willow World; The Story of the Geisha. New
York: Orion Press, 1960.
Look up 芸者 or geisha in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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