Geisha – Who are they really? History and Curiosities

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Do you know what a geisha is? What’s their story in Japan? Are they really prostitutes? In this article we made a complete guide to explain everything about geisha in a simple and practical way. Read below curiosities, stories and many other information related to the geisha of Japan.

Geisha or Geisha[芸者] are Japanese women studying the ancient tradition of art, dance and singing. In Japan, being geisha is a cultural, symbolic and full condition of status, delicacy and tradition.

The geisha [芸者] name itself can be literally translated as art (gei – 芸) and person” or “practitioner” (sha – 者), that is, an artist. Geishas can also be called Geiko [芸妓] or Gueigi.

To facilitate navigation in this article, we have prepared a summary:

What’s a geisha? What do they do?

They live in neighborhoods known as hanamachi [花街] meaning Flower City. Their rooms are called okyia where they feed, receive advice, kimono, obis and other special tools and treatments during their geisha contract called nenki.

Geisha - Who are they really? History and Curiosities

They work in places called Ochaya, which are the tea houses where they offer entertainment consisting of conversations, flirtation, drinks, traditional games, musical shows, singing and dancing. Geishas also usually play the traditional shamisen instrument, and also play other instruments such as flute, koto, ko-tsuzumi and taiko.

In addition, they write poems, paint images and compose songs. They learn conversation techniques and also games to entertain guests. They also need to learn shodo calligraphy and tea ceremony. It is not necessary to be beautiful to become a geisha, just have these skills.

Geisha - Who are they really? History and Curiosities

The geishas are also quite mysterious, they tried to be as anonymous as possible, using artistic names that gave an air of mysterious and fascinated even more customers. Everything in the geishas are quite worked and delicate, from her fully complex hairstyle, her kimono, and her white makeup.

It is believed that a geisha takes about 2 to 3 hours just to get ready. Currently, most of the clients of a geisha are older or richer men who have great admiration for Japanese culture. They convey the idea of a perfect woman, and make their customers feel valued and attractive.

Geisha - Who are they really? History and Curiosities

Are geishas prostitutes?

Many Westerners believe that geisha are prostitutes, a completely erroneous idea. On the contrary, the Geisha were created for entertainment without sex, they were forbidden to sell sex. Geisha customers sometimes fall in love and are deluded, but need to fall into the reality that they will never have a geisha in their arms.

Geisha were forbidden to relate, because at the time prostitutes in Japan were licensed and known as Oiran courtesans. Thus, the geisha routine was completely supervised, they did not have the freedom to do what they well understand, prostitution could hinder the Oiran business.

Geisha - Who are they really? History and Curiosities - gueixa cerveja 1

Some came to this conclusion, because in the early stages of Japanese history, there were artists called saburuko, many were without families, and ended up prostitution or earned their lives entertaining high class in social meetings.

With time came the division between those who did sexual favors and those who worked entertaining people with dance, art, games and music (geishas).

We didn’t blame westerners for creating these confusions, both Geishas, Orians, Saburuko and other classifications of girls who worked in the leisure districts, wore a similar clothing and makeup. Another reason for this conclusion is that really, some women who became Geisha, have been prostitutes.

To get an idea, the first Geishas were actually men entertaining clients who expected the courtesans, they were known as “Taikomochi” or “Houkan”. Becoming geisha was a way for girls to get out of the world of prostitution and go into the art world.

Geisha - Who are they really? History and Curiosities

Geishas can’t have relationships

Geisha also could not get involved in serious relationships. If they decided to get married for example, the geisha would be forced to permanently retire from the profession.

We can compare geishas with the current Japanese Idols, if there appears some scandal of them leaving or relating to someone, this can spoil their career and affect the fans who are passionate about them, similarly, geishas avoid so much relationships such as prostitution.

Despite all this, there was a practice at the ceremony called Mizuage, where a Maiko (Apprentice) becomes Geisha. At that ceremony, his virginity was auctioned and the money was used to promote his debut. Fortunately this practice became illegal in 1959.

Anyway it is undeniable that people used to look for these places for entertainment. So much so that they were known as “Pleasure Blocks” (yuukaku –

It was in these places that many current things from Japanese culture emerged, such as the Kabuki that is currently a theater performed by men, but that was once a sensual dance.

Geisha - Who are they really? History and Curiosities

What happened to the Geisha?

The Geisha were quite popular in Japan, so much so that it turned to a female occupation. They were known as elegant, high-class women. Being a geisha was honorable and glamorous, many of them began their training from a young age of 3 to 5, with an average of 9 years.

The Geisha have declined considerably around World War II, because tea houses, bars and geisha houses were forced to close, and all employees were placed to work on factories for war. The country considered training since the childhood of geisha as child labor.

The name geisha also lost its meaning, because prostitutes began to refer as geisha for American military. After a while the geisha houses were allowed to be opened, the few women who returned decided to reject Western influence and resume traditional forms of entertainment and life.

Geisha - Who are they really? History and Curiosities

Currently there are few geisha in Japan compared to the old days, they can be found in hanamachi geisha districts in cities like Kyoto.

Entering a tea house or restaurant that has geishas today is something luxurious and very expensive, being geisha is a very profitable profession, but complicated and demanding. 

In 1920 there were about 80,000 geishas. In 1970 about 17,000. And nowadays, it is estimated about a thousand traditional geishas

Classifications and Formations of the Geisha

Children or daughters who were trained as geisha were known as hangyoku. At the time it required a long training to become geisha and they went through the following stages:

  • Shikomi – It means “servant”.
  • Minarai – It means “learning by watching”.
  • Hangyuku – It means half-jewel – they get half the salary of a geisha. (Maiko)
  • Maiko – Final stage of the formation means “the girl who dances”.
Geisha - Who are they really? History and Curiosities - gueixa geisha japonesa 2

Currently women can directly become geisha or maiko. A woman over the age of 21 is too old to become maiko, so she already becomes Geisha.

Girls can become apprentices (Maiko) before they were 18. They do and learn everything from their onee-san an experienced geisha that serves as a tutor. Being Maiko has its advantages and prestiges, they are at the height of femininity. After 5 years like Maiko, or at the age they become Geisha and profit much more.

The geishas were allowed to have a danna, a rich man who was in charge of the costs of his training. There was no exchange of sexual favors, but in some cases there could be a forbidden romance between the two.

Should a geisha decide to marry, she participated in a Ceremony Hiki Iwai (commemoration of separation), so she ceased to be a geisha and sometimes found a danna protector who supported her.

Geisha - Who are they really? History and Curiosities

Differentiating Geisha from Maiko

To differentiate a geisha from a Maiko, just look at your collar. A Maiko usually wears kimonos with strong colors and a red collar. While a Geisha usually wears soft colors and a white collar.

There are many details about the geisha that have not been cited. That’s a lot of information for just one article, so let’s finish around here. We recommend that you also read other related articles:

Unfortunately we know few animes or stories that have geishas or maiko as protagonists, but let’s try to mention some below:

  • Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu;
  • We also recommend the film memories of a geisha.
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