The term geisha evokes the image of a woman dressed in bright, elaborate costumes, hairstyle and makeup. While many are familiar with the term, few know and tend to look beyond the surface of the centuries-old geisha culture of Japan. Most associate and misunderstand geishas to be prostitutes or belonging to the sex industry, a concept that took root post- World War II when American soldiers were stationed in Japan. Besides the actual truth, the intense training, commitment, sacrifice and dedication to perfect the art became lost in this misguided concept.
The origin of geisha culture
The origin of geishas will require you to temporarily erase the image of a woman in makeup and costume, because the first geishas were men. They dominated the culture during the 1730s. They were entertainers- dancers, singers and musicians. It was only two decades later that women began taking over the profession. By the 1780s, they were running the industry.
Oirans and geishas
The geishas originally worked for the oirans. Oirans were very rich, high-class courtesans who resided in the pleasure houses called yuukaku, Shimabara in Kyoto, Shinmachi in Osaka, and Yoshiwara in Tokyo (then known as Edo.)
The oirans provided entertainment to customers in the form of dance, music and songs. And while it’s not sure if they engaged in sexual activities with the customers, they were indeed skilfully trained in the various performing arts. While there were many similarities between an oiran and a geisha, there were differences too. For example, one way of telling them apart was by their footwear. While both wear geta (traditional Japanese wooden footwear), geishas’ geta are low and closer to the ground and worn with white socks. The oirans, on the other hand, wear geta with at least 8 inches of heals, with no socks.
There were differences in their kimonos too. The geishas’ kimonos, despite being elegant, were modest and subdued. The oirans were adorned in brighter colours and designs, and their kimonos were always heavily layered, no matter what the season. Other differences included the ornaments worn and their hairstyles.
So what exactly was the role of the geisha in a yuukaku? There are a lot of differences between the ancient and modern culture. While geishas today provide artistic entertainment, the role of the geisha then was to be an assistant to the oirans. The oirans feared that geishas would prove to be more popular than themselves and steal customers, so any close or personal interaction between geishas and customers were forbidden.
However, the oirans proved to be a lot more expensive in their days, and soon, the rich customers who engaged their services began to radiate towards the less expensive and more accessible geishas. Soon, geishas began replacing the oirans. The oirans were gradually wiped out as the geishas began to enjoy more popularity, and by the 1800s, the geishas dominated the culture. During the Meiji Period (1868- 1912), geishas were a prominent part of society as their hospitality and entertainment were engaged by large companies and government officials.
Fall of the geisha empire
World War II proved to be a game changer for most countries, and Japan’s geisha culture took a bad fall. The war left the country ravaged. People had neither the time nor the money to appoint geishas or entertain guests. The hanamachi where the geishas worked could hardly stay open. During the post- war period, few places reopened. And while as many as 80, 000 geishas entertained guests during the peak period, today no more than 1000 geishas exist in Japan, performing in tea houses and expensive restaurants. Plenty of hanamachi can be spotted all over Japan till date, but none in their former glory.
Geishas and the sex industry
Even during the pre-war period, nightclub hostesses and prostitutes would don the elegant attire of a geisha to entice men. These women took up sexual activities, and the line between an actual geisha and a prostitute became blurred.
After the war ended, the country was struggling to get back on its feet. The economy greatly suffered. Desperate times demanded desperate measures, so many women took jobs in factories and industries to survive, while others employed different tactics. One such tactic was to dress up in an elaborate kimono, make-up, hairstyle and ornaments to provide services to the countless American soldiers stationed in Japan. These women masqueraded around the country as geishas, and while the original geishas provided artistic entertainment, these women sold their bodies to survive the effects of the war. The soldiers knew nothing of the origin and history of geishas, and mistook these women to be actual geishas. And hence, geishas came to be mistaken for prostitutes and associated with the sex industry.
Process of becoming a geisha
While the number of geishas and cities where they render their services have significantly declined over the centuries, the culture is still rampant in few select cities of Japan. One such city is the former capital of the country, Kyoto. What a geisha represents now is Japan’s century’s old preserved culture and traditional arts.
What does it take to become a professional geisha? Well, it’s the equivalent of the time taken to complete medical school. There are many stages to it over the years, and each stage has its uniqueness.
The training of a geisha typically begins by the age of 14 or 15. These girls enter special training schools. The new girls or apprentices move into a women- only lodging house known as an okiya. These okiya are owned and run by a female proprietor referred to as okāsan, which literally means mother. When the geisha- to- be enters the okiya, all of her expenses- boarding, food, training, costumes, makeup, ornaments and make- up- are paid for by the okāsan. This means that the geisha will be in debt to her by okāsan, the time her entire training comes to an end. The money, which will amount to a very large sum, is to be paid once the geisha starts working. Till the debt is paid, the geisha is bound to the okāsan by contract and only when it is paid, can the geisha work independently.
The girls live with other apprentices. The okiya and the tea houses known as ochaya where geishas work are located in the hanamachi. Hanamachi, with the literal meaning of flower town, are districts designated exclusively for geishas.
The Shikomi training period
When the apprentice is undergoing her training at the okiya, she is known as a shikomi-san. Her training period is occupied by attending classes, acting as an assistant to other geishas and doing the chores to maintain the okiya. When she isn’t in class, her time will be taken up by learning the proper etiquette and demeanour of a geisha, which includes how to speak to elders and guests. The training goes on for around four years.
The apprentice will attend nykoba, the vocational schools for the geishas- to- be. Here, they are taught and trained in the traditional Japanese performing arts and how to entertain their guests. The performing arts include a number of musical instruments, like the kotsuzumi, which is a small drum held on the shoulder played with the hand, shimedaiko, which is a small standing drum played with sticks, shamisen, which is a three-stringed instrument played with a plectrum called a bachi, and fue which is a flute made from a single piece of bamboo. The intricate dance movements that she will learn will be a reservoir of symbolism.
The Minarai stage and the mentor geisha
After the first four years of the formal shikomi training, the apprentice enters the minarai stage, and is called a minarai. The term minarai literally means learning by watching. While the shikomi stage consists of formal training, the minarai stage is of more real experiences. The young girl has to find a mentor geisha, a geiko. This mentor will be called onēsan, meaning big sister. The apprentice accompanies her mentor to events and tea houses to see how a geisha treats her guests and performs the arts.
The minarai training will start a month before her official debut as a geisha. The geisha apprentices who make their official debut are known as maiko. But her official debut does not mean the end of her formal training or her minarai training. Even after the debut, she is required to attend classes at the nykoba and accompany her mentor to events.
While undergoing the minarai training, the apprentice will wear similar but not identical clothes to the maiko. She will wear white- faced makeup, colourful clothes and a han-dara obi, a half- length sash.
The misedashi ceremony and the maiko
After her shikomi and minarai training is completed, it is time for the geisha- to- be to step out into the world. The official debut is known as misedashi, for which she’ll be adorned in a black kimono called kuromontsuki. There will be three pointed white makeup on the back of her neck. She will fasten kanzashi (ornate silver hair pins shaped as fans) on her hair called ogi. A pair of gold and silver hair ornaments called miokuri will be pinned on her topknot.
On the day of her debut, the okiya will be decorated with red and white paper, along with auspicious images. The apprentice, along with her mentor, will visit numerous dance teachers and tea houses in the hanamachi. During the ceremony, there is a ritual called sansankudo which the geisha- to- be must undergo. The ritual is a three- times, three- exchange of cups where the she will exchange cups with her mentor, the geiko and a senior maiko. After the completion of the ritual, the girl is officially a maiko. Being a maiko can last for several years and she is still considered to be under training.
Hair, clothes and makeup
A maiko will wear white- faced makeup accompanied with bright red lips. The makeup can take hours to complete. As for her clothes, they will be bright and colourful, along with a lengthy sash. She will wear shoes known as okobo, which are almost 10 cm high. A large turtle- shaped hairpin adorns her hair.
A maiko will have her hair done much like that of a geisha. But instead of using a wig like the geishas, she will style her natural hair. The hair is done into an elaborate bun by inserting two red silk pads called kanako. This hairstyle is called wareshinobu. To maintain this hairstyle, the maiko must sleep on a special pillow called a takamakura and will go to a hairstylist every week. If the hairstyle is not maintained, punishment will be given. It is only many years after being a maiko that a woman ‘graduates’ into a geisha.
Geishas today are a walking embodiment of Japan’s deep-rooted culture. Most of them work in Kyoto. While the number of geishas has dwindled, interacting with one will take you to Japan’s history and you an idea of Japan’s concept of hospitality.