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An okiya (置屋) is the lodging house/drinking establishment to which a maiko or geisha is affiliated with during her career in the karyūkai ("flower and willow world": the traditional name describing the geisha profession) (Japanese: 花柳界).
The okiya funds the training of affiliates under certain ochaya (teahouses), and has its own 'branch' of names that link them together - for instance, many geisha trained at the Dai-Ichi teahouse in Pontochō have names that begin with Ichi-. The mother of the house (the 'okā-san') handles a young geisha's engagements, supports her training and helps her develop her skills through arranging lessons in dancing, singing, musical instruments and tea ceremony. A geisha is legally required  to be affiliated with an okiya in order to be registered in their local hanamachi (geisha community) (Japanese: 花街), though she may not actually live there.
Many geisha live in the okiya they are affiliated with, though in modern times it has become more common for geisha to live independently. As Kyoto holds more strictly to tradition in the karyūkai, it is more likely that a Kyoto geisha (geiko in the Kyoto dialect) will live in her okiya, instead of commuting in from an apartment. A geisha will keep her kimono at the okiya, as this is where she dresses for the evening before going to engagements. There may be more than one geisha or maiko living in an okiya at any given point, and it is possible for the mother of the house to still be an active geisha, though there are no requirements for a house to have any geisha at all in order to keep its license.[note 1]
Depending on financial arrangement, a geisha may start by loaning everything from the okiya - room, board and kimono - and slowly pay this back over time. Under this system, until she has paid off everything, all her tips and wages go to the okiya, though she is given an allowance by the mother of the house. This generally takes over two years, requires a geisha to have an external guarantor and the mother to keep detailed records. Some mothers will not take geisha on under this arrangement, as it may be too much hassle.[note 2]
Instead, a geisha may be independent from the start - buy her own kimono, choose to live outside the okiya if she wishes, and only pay for the fee of affiliation. This is referred to as being jimae ("oneself in front") (Japanese: 自前). Dependent geisha who have paid off all of their debts are also referred to as being jimae.[note 3]
Succession of owners
Okiya are usually required to be owned and run by women, who are referred to as 'mother' by the geisha and maiko affiliated to the house. These women are often ex-geisha themselves. When the mother dies or retires, she may name one of her natural daughters as the heir to the house, as daughters of geisha and their patrons are often raised inside the community by the mother herself. Failing this, she may name one of her geisha as heir (atotori), and adopt her as her daughter (musume). Under this arrangement, the geisha's debts are absorbed by the okiya, and all money she earns goes to the establishment directly, her being the new owner of the okiya.
- "At the time I questioned Mr. Watanabe [1974-5], the administrator of the Akasaka kenban, 158 licensed okiya were doing business in [the area]...some [okiya] has four or five geisha, some only one, and a few were holding onto their registration but currently had no geisha at all."
- "Oyumi [then-Vice President of the Shimbashi Geisha Association, Tokyo] did not take girls under this arrangement because it was too much bother. She was too busy to keep track of all the necessary calculations. The old system of forced debt...is illegal, but geisha houses are very sensitive to charges of that kind; they must therefore keep careful, detailed records of...the week-to-week monetary transactions [of a new geisha]. For its own protection, the okiya will usually require a girl to have an outside guarantor before it will accept her".
- "The other arrangement was to be an independent (jimae) geisha from the beginning. [A geisha] buys her own kimono and pays a fee to the okiya only for the privilege of affiliation. To live in the [okiya] or not is a separate decision, and she can simply pay room and board there if she does...A geisha could expect to make about 200,000 yen [in Shimbashi, Tokyo in 1974-5] a month...although for the first few years not much would be left over after expenses were met".
- The Kamishichiken district's official site
- The Ponto-cho hanamachi
- The Miyako Odori's official site
- The Nagoya Odori's official site