The Geisha of Japan

Written by Leanna Serras

The Geisha is a symbol of Japan’s culture and tradition. From their appearance to their arts, Geisha have been fascinating the Japanese as well as people around the world for more than 400 years.

What are Geisha?

The word Geisha translates loosely to “person of the art” in Japanese. They are entertainers who spend a considerable amount of time honing their craft. Many people mistakenly think that Geisha are prostitutes. High-class courtesans known as the oiran in the Edo period could be confused with Geisha as they had similar makeup and hairstyles. While it’s true that Geisha partly grew out of the oiran, genuine Geisha are not courtesans. They are employed for their skills in traditional Japanese musical instruments, dancing, singing, tea ceremonies, and literature.

History of Geisha

Geisha tradition evolved from the taikomochi culture where males acted as court jesters. During the 1700s, women began to entertain as well. By 1780, there were more females than males. Soon, male Geisha died out almost completely. Geisha then nearly took over the Pleasure Quarter. By the 1920s, there were more than 80,000 Geisha. The downward spiral started when Japan turned its back on its traditions. Geisha houses ( okiya) were closed down for quite awhile but reopened fairly recently and the art is popular again.

The Geisha Make-up and Clothing

Makeup and clothing is very important to a Geisha. They use a thick white compound called bintsuke-abura for their face paint. Geisha always paint their lips vivid red. Eyebrows are lined in red and black. They wear traditional kimonos depending on the season. Apprentice geishas known as maikos wear 12 to 15 layer kimonos. When they go out, Geisha wear flat soled-sandals or clogs called getas. Sometimes, they wear perfumes for performances

How a Girl Becomes a Geisha

To become a Geisha, a girl undergoes training which usually begins around the time she turns 16. She moves into a Geisha house and goes through various “stages” of training. First, she is a shikomi, then a minarai. As she progresses, she becomes a maiko and finally, a full Geisha. This typically takes about six years.

Geisha Training

Geisha training is very complex. The girls must learn how to dance and speak, entertain a room of customers, dress perfectly, and how to perform elaborate ceremonies perfectly. As a shikomi, a girl takes dance lessons for six months. A minarai spends most of her time observing the Geisha and learning from them. She learns to apply white makeup. Once this period is over, a large ceremony known as the misedashi takes place where the girl is debuted as a maiko. This stage can last many years. During this time, she begins going out to tea houses and practicing everything she has learned. When a maiko reaches 20 or 22, she is then promoted to a full Geisha with an erikae ceremony because her training is considered complete.

As long as there is an appreciative audience, the Geisha of Japan will continue to charm the world with their mystery and art.