Where did Geisha originate?

“There is currently no Western equivalent for a geisha-they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art.”
What is a Geisha?
Geisha are traditional, female Japanese entertainers whose skills include performing various Japanese arts
such as classical music and dance. The most literal translation of geisha into English would be "artist" or
"performing artist".
Apprentice geisha are called maiko literally "dance child" or hangyoku, "half-jewel" (meaning that they are
paid half the wage as opposed to a full geisha), or by the more generic term o-shaku, literally "one who
pours (alcohol)". Either way, usually a year's training is involved before debuting either as a maiko or as a
Where did Geisha originate?
In early seventeenth-century Japan (long before the word geisha was ever used), the predecessor of the
geisha was a combination of actress and prostitute and worked on the stages set in the dry riverbed of the
River Kamo in Kyoto. The line between actress and prostitute was blurry, as the women would perform
erotic dances and skits for their audiences. This new type of performance was dubbed kabuku, meaning "to
be wild and outrageous". The dances were called "kabuki," and this was the beginning of kabuki theater.
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Wait a second…Sex with a Geisha? Isn’t that prostitution?
This is the biggest misconception…true Geisha are not considered prostitutes by Japanese as you
understand “prostitution” in the Western sense of the word.
Traditional Japanese views of sex were very relaxed. Men were not constrained to be faithful to their wives.
In fact it was socially acceptable to be in love with one's wife, and take the services of a Geisha. For sexual
enjoyment and romantic attachment, men did not go to their wives, but to “courtesans” (prostitute with an
upper-class clientele). In order to maintain this profession, the Japanese government created "pleasure
quarters" where the courtesans could reside and work and men could go to relax and enjoy the
These entertainment centers offered far more that just sex. The highly accomplished courtesans of these
districts entertained their clients by dancing, singing, and playing music. Some were even 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 very first geishas were men, entertaining customers waiting to see the most popular
and gifted courtesans.[1]
How are Geisha’s Ranked?
Within the complex world of geisha, there is a strict ranking system. At the very top of the rank are the
grand dowagers of the Gion district of Kyoto. The geisha of these districts are visited by powerful
businessmen and politicians and are very expensive.
At the opposite end of spectrum are the hot-spring geisha. These geisha work in the spa resorts and are
viewed by most Japanese as no better than a common prostitute. They normally cater to far less exclusive
patrons, usually office workers or others of the sort, and are much less expensive. They very well may
supplement their income by selling sex, however, they are not the same as prostitutes. Like all other geisha,
they are trained in the art of Japanese dance and music. Even so, hanamachi and other high-ranking geisha
would not consider them geisha at all and perhaps would be horrified to be categorized together. [1]
So, how does one become a Geisha?
Before the twentieth century, geisha training began when a girl was around the age of four. Now, girls
usually go to school until they are teenagers and then make the personal decision to train to become a
Traditionally, Geisha began their training at a very young age. Some girls were bonded to geisha houses
(okiya) as children. This was not a common practice in reputable districts and disappeared in the 1950s
with the outlawing of child labor.
A maiko is essentially an apprentice and is therefore bonded under a contract to her okiya. The okiya
supplies her with food, board, tuition fees, kimonos, obis, 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.
Who trains the Maiko (“ the Geisha apprentice”)?
Maiko are considered one of the great sights of Japanese tourism. They appear very differenty from fullyqualified Geisha. They are at the peak of traditional Japanese femininity. The geisha is trained by an “older
sister.” The onee-san and imouto-san (senior/junior, literally "older sister/younger sister") relationship is
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important. Since the onee-san teaches her maiko everything about working in the hanamachi, her teaching
is vital. She will teach her proper ways of serving tea, playing shamisen, dancing, casual conversation and
more. The onee-san will even help pick the maiko's new professional name with kanji or symbols related to
her name.
There are three major elements of a maiko's training. :
The first is the formal arts training. This takes place in special geisha schools.
The second element is the entertainment training which the maiko learns at various teahouses and
parties by observing their onee-san (“older sister”).
The third is the social skill of navigating the complex social web. 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.
So, do Geisha really get a lot of business?
“The biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured pearls, or manufacturing transistor
radios or cameras. It is entertainment.” Enteriainment is the profession of the Geisha. It is huge in
Japanese culture! Geisha houses were quite competitive, so jealousy within, and in between rival geisha
houses, was pretty intense. Members in one Geisha house would benefit from sabotage to a rival geisha
So, Geisha aren’t prostitutes. What do they actually sell?
First, lets discuss the sex-life part—her sex-life and love life are the most personal parts of a geisha’s life,
rarely involving their professional lives. They entrance their male customers with their traditional skills of
music and dance. Men pay high prices for geisha, and in return expect to be like the masculine and
powerful men that they see themselves as being. Geisha are entirely different than the men's wives who
stay at home and care for the family, and must retire from the profession if they get married. “Geisha 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” [6]. There is currently no western equivalent
for a geisha- they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art .[7]They hold the highest social status
in Japan.
So Geisha sell “entertainment” to married men. Weird. How is this allowed in Japanese culture?
Japan is viewed as a very male-dominant society, so the world of geishas is both surprising and intriguing
as it is strictly matriarchal. Geisha are meant to be completely different from wives. Wives in Japanese
society are expected to be more submissive to their husbands. They typically don't work so that they can
stay at home with their children. Men look for wives who will provide them with healthy children, not
necessarily women whom they love. Men look for their wives to be good mothers and child-bearers,
whereas they want their geisha to make them feel like more of a man. They are paying for the experience
and company that they desire, which they don’t receive from their wives. Geisha offer pleasure to men by
their classical entertainment and overall femininity, not by having sex with them. “The cultural style of
masculinity in Japan tends to demand female subservience, and many things contribute to an ideology in
which men are the sources of authority” [9].
The relationships that geisha have with their male patrons are one of the most interesting aspects of their
lives. They basically withhold sex through graceful seduction, which is one of the reasons the men keep
coming back for entertainment. In a way, not having sex with their patrons puts the women in a more
powerful position than the men because they are more in control. Their years of apprenticeship teach the
women how to keep men infatuated with their entertainment. They act as every man’s fantasy and learn
to adapt to different male personalities.
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Well, at least the married men aren’t having sex with the Geisha. That would not be good.
That doesn’t mean Geisha don’t have sex for money.
See, I knew it…it IS prostitution!
Actually, no. It isn’t. Hear me out on this one…Geisha would sell their virginity, called mizuage, so
technically they would have sex for money, but just once in her life..
Geisha undergoing mizuage were sponsored by a patron or “donna”, (almost always a very wealthy,
married man who had the means to support the very large expenses related to a geisha's traditional training
and other costs) that agrees to support a Geisha’s during her career. It was that patron, and he alone, who
had the right of taking their virginity[37]. This practice became illegal in 1959.[4] All maikos had to go
through this ceremony in order to become a full fledged geisha. Once the mizuage patron's function was
served (of deflowering the young maiko) he was to have no further relations with the girl. [38]
Mizuage was not considered by geisha to be an act of prostitution. The ceremonial deflowering of the
Geisha is not only a rite of passage, but a commercial transaction.[2] The money acquired for a maiko’s
mizuage was a great sum and it was used to promote her debut as a geisha. And, because the Maiko was
only a virgin once, this was obviously a one time thing.
Do they still “do” Mizuage today?
No. It is illegal. This is a major change with modern Geisha. After World War II was the absence of a
young geisha’s mizuage, or selling their virginity to the highest bidder. This reform was also in the form of
a feminist movement, because the girls wanted control over their bodies, especially sexually. “There is no
doubt that coerced sex and bidding on a new geisha’s virginity occurred in the period before WWII…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, nor are they coerced into sexual
relations. Nowadays, a geisha’s sex life is her private affair” [19].
Thank goodness for the feminist movement! No one should have to sell her virginity! Right???
I agree. Actually, there is a lot of woman’s empowerment, or feminism, in Geisha culture.
In an interview with the Boston Phoenix, Mineko Iwasaki, reportedly the most successful geisha of all time,
stated, “The geisha system was founded, actually, to promote the independence and economic selfsufficiency 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” [11].
Becoming a geisha was a way for women to support themselves without submitting to becoming a wife.
The geisha women live in a strictly matriarchal society. Women dominate. Women run the geisha houses,
they are teachers, they run the teahouses, they recruit aspiring geisha, and they keep track of geishas’
finances. The only role that men play in the society is that they are the people being entertained.
Geishas also embody a type of feminism [12]. "We find our own way, without doing family responsibilities.
Isn't that what feminists are?” [13]. These women leave their families at a young age to immerse themselves
in their art. They believe that men can make a life for themselves, always being in control, so why can't
women? Also, they "have grown adept at using their silken charms to wind their men around their little
fingers... [to] manipulate the dumb, unsuspecting male of the species... to make a man think that he is the
one who has the brilliant ideas" [14].
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So, what’s with the makeup?
Today, the traditional makeup of the 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, but after
the discovery that it poisoned the skin and caused terrible skin and back problems for the older geisha, it
was replaced with rice powder.
So the makeup actually made the Geisha and Maiko sick?
Yes. Lead paint is poisionus. That’s why homes today are inspected for lead paint.
Plus, putting the makeup on took forever. The application of makeup is hard to perfect and is a timeconsuming process. 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.
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. The effect of this style of
makeup is essentially to tease.
So, the nape of the neck is, in Japan, like cleavage in Western culture?
Yes, that’s an appropriate analogy. That’s why Geisha don’t put makeup on the nape of the neck.
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 colored black with a thin charcoal; a maiko also applies red around her eyes.
What about lipstick?
The lips are filled in using a small brush. The color comes in a small stick, which is melted in water.
Crystallized sugar is then added to give the lips lustre. Rarely will a geisha color 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 colored in partially and the upper lip left white for maiko in her first year, after
which the upper lip is also colored. Newly full-fledged geisha will color in only the top lip fully. Most
geisha wear the top lip colored in fully or stylized, and the bottom lip in a curved stripe that does not follow
the shape of the lip.The geisha round the bottom lips to create the illusion of a flower bud.
Maiko who are in their last stage of training will sometimes color their teeth black for a short period of
time. This practice used to be common among married women in Japan and, earlier, at the imperial court,
but survives only in some districts, or even families. While this sounds unsavoury to Western ears, it is
again at least partly because of the optical illusion generated by white makeup: in contrast, teeth seem very
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yellow; 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 three years, 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.
So, Geisha wear a kimono?
Yes, always. Apprentice geisha wear highly colorful kimono with extravagant obi, or sash. The obi is
brighter than the kimono she is wearing to give a certain exotic balance. Older geisha wear more subdued
patterns and styles
The color, pattern, and style of kimono is also dependent on the season and the event the geisha is
attending. In winter, geisha can be seen wearing a three-quarter length haori lined with hand-painted silk
over their kimono. Lined kimono are worn during colder seasons, and unlined kimono during the summer.
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. At around age 20, her collar will turn from red to white.
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. The effect of this style of
makeup is essentially to tease, much like cleavage in western society. Her kimono is bright and colorful
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.
What about their shoes?
Maiko wear a special wooden clog known as okobo. She can only take small steps when wearing the
okobo because the traditional wooden shoes are hard to walk on, and stand nearly ten centimenters high.
Also, Geisha wear a flat-soled sandal, zori, outdoors, and wear only tabi (white split-toed socks) indoors. In
inclement weather geisha wear raised wooden clogs, called geta.
What about hairstyles? Some of them look really elaborate…
Yes, the hair was very elaborate, and would take a long time to put together.
To keep their hair from getting messed up, Geisha were trained to sleep with their necks on small supports
(takamakura), instead of pillows, so they could keep their hairstyle perfect. To reinforce this habit, their
mentors would pour rice around the base of the support. If the geisha's head rolled off the support while she
slept, rice would stick to the pomade in her hair. The geisha would thus have to repeat the tiresome process
of having her hair elaborately styled. Without this happening, a geisha will have her hair styled every week
or so.
Many modern geisha use wigs in their professional lives, while maiko use their natural hair. However,
either one 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.
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In China and Japan, responses were sometimes very negative due to various controversies that arose from
the film's casting and its relationship to history.
Lead roles did not go to Japanese actresses. Zhang Ziyi (Sayuri) and Gong Li (Hatsumomo) are both
Chinese, whereas Michelle Yeoh (Mameha) is an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. More notable is the fact
that all three were already prominent fixtures in Chinese cinema.
The film was made by a Japanese-owned company, and that Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi outgross any
Japanese actress even in the Japanese box office.
The film received some hostile responses in China, including its banning by the Chinese government. It is
important to note the modern political context between China and Japan when Memoirs of a Geisha
debuted in 2005. Relations between the two nations were particularly tense due to three main factors:
1. Japan had recently revised its history textbooks, which downplayed its wartime atrocities against
2. Secondly, Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a number of visits to Yasukuni Shrine,
which honors all Japan's war dead, including some who were convicted war criminals, which was
denounced by China’s foreign ministry as honoring them;
3. Lastly, China helped to ensure Japan did not receive a seat on the UN Security Council.[17] Female
writer Hong Ying argued that “Art should be above national politics”; [18]. Nevertheless, the release
of Memoirs of a Geisha into this politically charged situation added to cultural conflict within and
between China and Japan.
The film is set in Japan during World War Two, when the Second Sino-Japanese War was taking place.
During this time, Japan captured and forced Chinese women as “comfort women” for their men.[20]
Controversy arose in China from an apparent confusion of equating geisha with prostitution, and thus the
connection with, and reminder of, comfort women being used in Japan at that time, especially the use of
Chinese women as forced sex workers.
Zhang Ziyi honored by Geisha at Premiere
On a visit to Tokyo to promote the film, Zhang Ziyi received a mysterious parcel and letter, revealed to
have been sent by an elderly Japanese woman who had once worked as a geisha. In her letter, the woman
stated that she had been touched by the trailer of the film and expected the movie to bring back fond
memories for her and her friends. Inside the parcel were several exquisitely worked antique kimono. Zhang
Ziyi was moved to tears by the gesture and sent the woman an invitation to the film's Japanese premiere.
She also promised to wear one of the kimono to the event as a sign of her gratitude.
Geisha Author Sued in Court
After the Japanese edition of Memoirs of a Geisha was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of
contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for
background information while writing the novel. The plaintiff asserted that Golden had agreed to protect
her anonymity, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients, if she told him about her life as a
geisha. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to
face a serious backlash. She even received death threats.[1] In his behalf, Arthur Golden countered that he
had tapes of his conversations with Iwasaki.[2] Eventually, in 2003, Golden's publisher settled with Iwasaki
out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.
Iwasaki later went on to write her own autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentiethcentury geisha than the one shown in Golden's novel. The book was published as Geisha, a Life in the U.S.
and Geisha of Gion in the UK.
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