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Profile of geiko Kimiha from Miyagawacho, wearing a formal kimono (tomesode) and a Shimada-styled nihongami wig. Her obi is tied in the "taiko" (drum) style. All these are details that clearly distinguish her from a maiko (an apprentice).

Geisha (芸者) (/ˈɡʃə/; Japanese: [ɡeːɕa]),[1][2] geiko (芸子), or geigi (芸妓) are Japanese women who entertain through performing the ancient traditions of art, dance and singing, and are distinctively characterized by their wearing of kimono and oshiroi makeup.

Contrary to popular belief, geisha are not the Eastern equivalent of a prostitute, a misconception originating in the West due to interactions with Japanese oiran (courtesans), whose traditional attire is similar to that of geisha.


Typical nape make-up on a maiko (Note the red collar)
Maiko Tomitsuyu playing the game "Konpira Fune Fune" with a female patron

The word geisha consists of two kanji, (Gei) meaning "art" and (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),[3] 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).[4] 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 grace.[5]



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.[6] Skilled female performers, such as Shirabyōshi dancers, thrived.

Traditional Japan embraced sexual delights and men were not constrained to be faithful to their wives.[7] 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,[8] and in 1617 the shogunate designated "pleasure quarters", outside of which prostitution would be illegal,[9] 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.[9]

18th-century emergence of the geisha[edit]

Ukiyoe depicting a Gion geisha, from between 1800 and 1833
Ukiyoe print by Yamaguchi Soken of a Kyoto geisha

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).[9]

The forerunners of the female geisha were the teenage odoriko ("dancing girls"):[10] expensively trained as chaste dancers-for-hire. In the 1680s, they were popular paid entertainers in the private homes of upper-class samurai,[11] though many had turned to prostitution by the early 18th century. Those who were no longer teenagers (and could no longer style themselves odoriko[12]) 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.[13] She was a skilled singer and shamisen player named Kikuya who was an immediate success, making female geisha extremely popular in 1750s Fukagawa.[14] 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.[15]

Geisha in the 19th century to present day[edit]

Tokyo geisha with shamisen, circa 1870s

The geisha who worked within the pleasure quarters were strictly forbidden from selling sex in order to protect the business of the oiran who held high status in society at the time. Geisha were forbidden from wearing particularly flashy hairpins or kimono, and if an oiran accused a geisha of stealing her customers and business, an official enquiry would be opened and an investigation held.[16]. At times, geisha found themselves affected by various pleasure quarter reforms that confined them to various areas in society, such as Shimabara in Tokyo, though this was not constant.

By 1800, being a geisha was understood to be a female occupation (though a handful of male geisha still work today). Whilst licensed courtesans existed to meet the sexual needs of men, machi geisha (town geisha) began to carve out a separate niche as artists and erudite, worldly female companions. The introduction of various edicts on dress in the 1720s onwards, coupled with the rise of iki saw geisha enjoy a rise in popularity. Eventually, the gaudy oiran began to fall out of fashion, becoming less popular than the chic modern geisha;[9] this was a trend that continued until the eradication of legal prostitution in Japan.

By the 1830s, geisha were considered some of the leaders of fashion and style in Japanese society, and were emulated by women at the time.[17] Many trends that geisha started became widely popular and continue to this day; the wearing of haori by women, for example, was begun by geisha in the Tokyo hanamachi of Fukugawa in the early 1800s.

There were many different classifications and ranks of geisha, not all of them formally recognised. Some geisha would have sex with their male customers, whereas others would not. Various terms arose to describe the distinctions; kuruwa geisha, for example, described geisha who slept with customers as well as entertaining with their skills in the performing arts. This differed from yujō (prostitute) and jorō (whore), who only slept with customers, and from machi geisha, who were exclusively entertainers (though some machi geisha still slept with the men they entertained).[18]

Pre-war and wartime geisha[edit]

Prostitution in Japan was legal until the 1957 Prohibition of Prostitution Law (売春防止法, Baishun Bōshi Hō) was passed, and so was practiced legally throughout Japan until this point, though various edicts up until this point had gradually restricted and changed the way that prostitution was legally conducted and regulated.

Before this time, World War II had brought a huge decline in the number of practicing geisha. In the years leading up to 1944, geisha had seen a decline in customers and income due to the war effort, though they themselves had contributed through the efforts of the various Geisha Associations throughout the country. In 1944, all geisha districts were closed, and geisha themselves conscripted into the war effort proper. Many geisha found themselves working in factories, or found work elsewhere through customers and patrons.

During and post-war, the geisha name lost some status, as some prostitutes began referring to themselves as "geisha girls" to members of the American military occupying Japan.[16][further explanation needed]

Post-war geisha to present day[edit]

In 1945, the geisha world, including the teahouses, bars and geisha houses, were allowed to open. Many geisha did not return to the hanamachi post-war, having found stable work in other locations; however, geisha numbers began to pick up quickly. Pre-war, geisha had been arbiters at the forefront of fashion, and as such, debate had abounded as to whether or not they should adapt to Western dress and entertainment, and adopt it as part of their profession. Post-war, geisha decided to reject Western influence on the profession, and revert to the 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."[16]

The image of "modern" pre-war geisha, some of whom wore Western dress and experimented with modern dancing and serving cocktails, had been viewed by some as unprofessional, or a betrayal of the image of geisha. The geisha who returned to the hanamachi post-war brought back traditional standards partly in response to this, though with new and increased rights for geisha:

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?[19]

Though illegal post-war, pre-war Japan saw at least some occasions of a maiko's virginity being auctioned to a patron - a practice referred to as mizuage.[16] However, post-war Japan saw the ending of this practice, and the misconception that mizu-age was (and still is) a widely conducted practice stems from a conflation of maiko with the apprentices of prostitutes and courtesans.[20]

In 1959, UPI reported a story about the plight of modern-day geisha that was culled from an article written for the magazine Bungei Shunju by Japanese businessman and social activist Tsûsai Sugawara, whose campaign against the “three vices” of prostitution, venereal disease, and narcotics abuse helped lead to the nation’s criminalization of prostitution, which took effect in 1958.[21] He asserted that an estimated 27 percent of Japanese geisha were engaging in prostitution (and a third of those living in Tokyo) as a consequence of rising expenses associated with the lifestyle. He cited the diminishing number and advancing average age of geisha in Japan as a result of newer, more easily attained service-industry positions, stating that girls now “prefer[red] to become dancers, models, and cabaret and bar hostesses rather than start [the] training in music and dancing at the age of seven or eight” necessary to become a full geisha by 18 or 19 years old.[22]

Compulsory education laws passed in the 1960s made traditional geisha apprenticeships difficult to conduct, as formal training generally began around the ages of 13 to 16; this also led to a decline in women entering the profession.[23] In the present day, maiko begin their training aged 18, though a trainee entering the profession will commonly have at least some background in the arts before this. In Kyoto, maiko are allowed to begin the profession aged 17.[citation needed]


Though regional hanamachi usually are not large enough to be seen as having a hierarchy, in Kyoto, the differing hanamachi - known as the Gokagai (lit. "five hanamachi") - are unofficially ranked within Kyoto's karuykai. Gion Kobu, Pontochō and Kamishichiken are seen as having the highest prestige,[24] with Gion Kobu being placed at the top; below these three are Gion Higashi and Miyagawa-cho.[25] The more prestigious hanamachi are frequented by powerful businessmen and politicians.[9]

In the 1970s, Kyoto was described as having rokkagai (lit. "six hanamachi"), as the district of Shimabara was still active as a geisha district. However, no geisha are active in Shimabara in the 21st century, and it now hosts tayū re-enactors instead.[26]

Regional geisha districts are seen as having less prestige than those in Kyoto, viewed as being the pinnacle of tradition in the karyukai. Geisha in onsen towns such as Atami may also be seen as less prestigious, as instead of being called upon specially by customers already acquainted, they are instead employed by hotels who organise parties and banquets for travellers and holidaymakers who do not know them. Nevertheless, all geisha, regardless of region or district, are trained in the traditional arts, making the distinction of prestige one of history and tradition.

Stages of training[edit]

Geiko Fumikazu with her minarai imōto Momokazu, and a shikomi from the Odamoto okiya

Traditionally, 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.[6][note 1][note 2]

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.[29]

Maiko Katsumi and Mameteru performing the Gion Kouta.

After a minarai period of about a month, a girl will make her official debut (misedashi) and officially become a maiko. Maiko (literally "dance girl") are apprentice geisha, and this stage can last for up to 5 years. 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 and more.

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 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.[6] 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,[30] who spend hours each week at the hairdresser and sleep on holed-pillows to preserve the elaborate styling.[31] 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).[32][33] 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[edit]

The biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured pearls, or manufacturing transistor radios or cameras. It is entertainment.

— Boye De Mente, Some Prefer Geisha[34]

The term geisha roughly 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[35]

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 them financially.

There is currently no western equivalent for a geisha—they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art.

— Kenneth Champeon, The Floating World[36]

Relationships with male guests[edit]

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.[37]

Geisha as a women-centered society[edit]

Women in the geisha society are some of the most successful businesswomen in Japan. In the geisha society, women run everything, for example they teach and train the new Geisha, they arrange the business to the Geisha as the role of okasan (mother) in the Geisha house.[38][39] 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,[40] dressers (dressing a maiko requires considerable strength) and accountants,[16] 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.

The majority of women were wives who did not work outside of their familial duties. The young geiko (Geisha) could repay her investment, become independent and move out on her own once she makes her debut, so becoming a geisha was a way for women to support themselves without becoming a wife.[42] 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, moreover the geiko (Geisha) who has been chosen as an atotori (heir) of the Geisha house, she would live there and run the business throughout her career until the next generation, that is the cycle of the Geisha business.[43] The only major role men play in geisha society is that of guest, though women sometimes take that role as well.[40]

Historically, Japanese feminists have seen geisha as exploited women, but some modern geisha see themselves as liberated feminists:[44] "We find our own way, without doing family responsibilities. Isn't that what feminists are?"[16]

Modern geisha[edit]

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 willow world").

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.[45]

Geisha still study traditional instruments: the shamisen, shakuhachi, and drums, as well as learn games,[46] traditional songs, calligraphy,[47] Japanese traditional dances (in the nihonbuyō style), tea ceremony, literature, and poetry.[48][49]

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.[50][51]

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,[52][53] but today, there are far fewer. Most common sightings are of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed up as a maiko.[54]

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.[55] However, the flower and willow world has seen a resurgence in new members over the last 10 years[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

Entrance to Ichiriki Ochaya, one of the most famous tea houses where geiko entertain in Gion Kobu

Geisha are often hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at ochaya (お茶屋, literally "tea houses") or at traditional Japanese restaurants (ryōtei).[51] The charge for a geisha's time, which used to be determined by measuring a 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.

Non-Japanese geisha[edit]

Since the 1970s, non-Japanese have also become geisha. 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.[56][57] The traditionalist district of Gion, Kyoto does not accept non-Japanese nationals to train nor work as geisha.[citation needed]

Other foreign nationals who have completed training and worked as geisha in Japan include the following:

  • Kimicho - (Sydney Stephens), an American national who worked as a geisha in the Shinagawa district of Tokyo. Stephens debuted in August of 2015, but left the profession in 2017 for personal reasons.[58]
  • Fukutarō — (Isabella), a Romanian national worked in the Izu-Nagaoka district of Shizuoka Prefecture. She began her apprenticeship in April 2010 and debuted a year later in 2011.[59]
  • Ibu — (Eve), a geiko of Ukrainian descent working in Anjō district of Aichi Prefecture, who first became interested in being a geisha in 2000, after visiting Japan for a year to study traditional dance.[60]
  • Juri — (Maria), a Peruvian geiko working in the resort town of Yugawara in Kanagawa Prefecture.[61]
  • Rinka - (Zhang Xue), a Chinese national from Shenyang, who became a geisha in Shimoda in Shizuoka Prefecture in September 2011. [62]
  • Sayuki — Sayuki (Fiona Graham) is an Australian geisha who debuted in the Asakusa district of Tokyo in 2007.[63] In February 2011, she left the Asakusa Geisha Association, and is currently working in the Fukagawa district.[64][65]

Public performances[edit]

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 connections.

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 Kyoto hanamachi hold these annually (mostly in spring, with one exclusively in autumn), dating to the Kyoto exhibition of 1872,[66] 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 performance;[67] see Kyoto hanamachi and Kanazawa hanamachi for a detailed listing. Other hanamachi also hold public dances, including some in Tokyo, but have fewer performances.[67]

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.[68][69] As of 2010, these geishas also serve beer in a beer garden at Kamishichiken Kaburenjo Theatre during summer months (July to early September);[70][71][72] another geisha beer garden is available at the Gion Shinmonso ryokan in the Gion district.[70] These beer gardens also feature traditional dances by the geishas in the evenings.


Geisha are skilled artists, trained in and performing music and dance.
Geisha Komomo and Mameyoshi from Gion Kobu playing shamisen

Pre-WW2, geisha began their formal study of music and dance very young, having typically joined an okiya aged 11-13 years old. In the present day, labour laws stipulate that that apprentices only join an okiya aged 18; Kyoto is legally allowed to take on recruits at a younger age, 15-17.[73]

Before this time, new recruits are expected to have some interested and experience in the arts, but this now relies on the individual in question, rather than being a strict prerequisite. Some okiya will take on recruits with no previous experience, and some young geisha will be expected to start lessons from the very beginning.[74]

Geisha can and do work into their eighties and nineties,[73] and are still expected to train regularly, even after seventy years of experience,[75] though lessons may only be put on a few times a month.

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.[9]

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.[76] 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.[76] 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 music.[9]

Geisha and prostitution[edit]

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".[77] 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 be."[78] They are comparable to the concept of an 'accomplished woman' in Regency era England.

In 1872, shortly after the Meiji Restoration, the new government passed a law liberating "prostitutes (shōgi) and geisha (geigi)". These terms were a subject of controversy because the difference between geisha and prostitutes remained ambiguous.[79] 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.[80]

Also, geisha working in onsen towns such as Atami are dubbed onsen geisha. 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.[3]

Personal relationships and danna partnership[edit]

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.[citation needed]

"Geisha (Gee-sha) girls"[edit]

During the period of the Allied occupation of Japan, local women called "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).[81][82] 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.[81] Shortly after their arrival in 1945, some occupying American GIs are said to have congregated in Ginza and shouted, "We want geesha girls!"[83]

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.[81]

Geisha girls are speculated by researchers to be largely responsible for the continuing misconception in the West that all geisha are engaged in prostitution.[81]


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.[81] 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 Japanese customers.[84]

Mizuage literally means "raising the waters" and originally meant unloading a ship's cargo of fish.[85] Over time, the word came to represent money earned in the entertainment business.[6]


A geisha wearing a plain pink kimono with no white face makeup stood to the right of a maiko in full makeup wearing a heavily-decorated black kimono
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).

A geisha's appearance will change throughout her career, from the girlish appearance of being a maiko to the more sombre appearance of a senior geisha. Different hairstyles and hairpins signify different stages of apprenticeship and training, as does the makeup - especially on maiko.


A maiko wearing a purple kimono and a long green hair ornament on her left side
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.

The makeup of maiko and geisha is one of their most recognisable characteristics.

The traditional makeup of a maiko features a base of white foundation with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows. First-year maiko will only paint their lower lip with lipstick, and wear less black on the eyebrows and eyes than senior maiko. A junior maiko will paint her eyebrows shorter than a senior maiko will.[86] Maiko will also wear tonoko (a kind of blusher) on the face, usually around the eyes.[87] Young maiko often have the mother of the house or her "older sister" mentor to help apply this makeup.

The makeup of geisha does not vary much from this, though geisha will wear less tonoko than maiko. Older geisha will generally only wear full white face makeup during stage performances and special appearances. Both geisha and maiko do not colour both lips in fully, and will instead underpaint both lips, the top moreso than the bottom. The lipstick used comes in a small stick, which is melted in water.

Maiko in their final stage of training sometimes colour their teeth black for a brief period, usually when wearing the sakkō hairstyle. This practice used to be common among married women in Japan and in earlier times at the imperial court; however, it survives only in some districts. It is done partly because uncoloured teeth can appear very yellow in contrast to the oshiroi worn by maiko; from a distance, the teeth seem to disappear.


A maiko (on the left) and a geisha (on the right) facing away from the camera, sat on a tatami mat
A senior maiko (on the left) wearing a long darari obi and a geisha (on the right) wearing an obi in the taiko-musubi style

Geisha always wear kimono, though the type and the style varies based on age, occasion, region and time of year.

Apprentice geisha wear highly colourful long-sleeved kimono with extravagant and very long obi. Whereas maiko in Kyoto wear kimono with relatively large, but sparse, patterns, apprentices in places such as Tokyo wear kimono more similar in appearance to regular furisode - smaller, busier patterns.

Maiko of Kyoto wear their obi in the darari (dangling) style, whereas regional apprentices and Tokyo han-gyoku wear theirs usually tied in the fukura-suzume style, amongst others. Maiko will wear a red han-eri (collar cover) with an increasing quantity of white, gold and silver embroidery as the apprenticeship progresses.

Geisha tend to have a more uniform appearance across region, and wear kimono more subdued in pattern and colour than apprentices. Geisha always wear short-sleeved kimono, regardless of occasion or formality. Geisha wear their obi in the nijuudaiko musubi style - a taiko musubi (drum knot) tied with a fukuro obi; geisha from Tokyo and Kanazawa also wear their obi in the yanagi musubi (willow knot) style and the tsunodashi musubi style. Geisha exclusively wear solid white han-eri.

Both geisha and maiko will wear susohiki (trailing skirt) kimono to formal events, banquets and performances; some regional geisha and maiko may not wear susohiki.

Geisha wear either geta or zōri, while maiko wear either zōri or okobo - a high-heeled type of geta roughly 10-12cm tall. Both will wear tabi, whether wearing shoes or not.


A geisha wearing a pink kimono sat at a black table, whisking a small cup of tea
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, developed.

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. Maiko of Pontocho will 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 through the Meiji Restoration period, hair-combs were large and conspicuous, generally more ornate for higher-class women. Following the 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.[40] 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.[88] 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 their husbands. 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 and elaborate.

In popular culture[edit]

A growing number of geisha have complained to the authorities about being pursued down the street and tugged on the sleeves of their kimono 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 them.[89]

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[edit]

Video games about geisha[edit]

Total War: Shogun 2 (Used as agent to assassinate or seduce enemy clans)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The older system of handling a new geisha's finance was for her to loan everything from the okiya and pay it back over time. Geisha (Dalby 1983) states that "Under this system, all her wages and tips would be taken directly by the okiya until she had...[cleared] these first expenses [in 1974-5]. This process usually took about three years...[an okiya] will usually outside guarantor before it will accept her [under this system]."[27]
  2. ^ For geisha who handled their own finances, and did not loan anything from their okiya, for the first few years "not much would be left over [of about $600/month] after expenses were met". These numbers were calculated roughly by the then-Vice President of the Shimbashi Geisha Association, Oyumi, in Tokyo in 1974-5.[28]


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Further reading[edit]

  • 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. ISBN 1-57687-336-6.
  • Downer, Lesley. Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha. New York: Broadway Books, 2001. ISBN 0-7679-0489-3, ISBN 0-7679-0490-7.
  • Foreman, Kelly. "The Gei of Geisha. Music, Identity, and Meaning." London: Ashgate Press, 2008.
  • Ishihara, Tetsuo. Peter MacIntosh, trans. Nihongami no Sekai: Maiko no 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.

External links[edit]