World of the Geisha, Japan’s Enigmatic Entertainers
Japan is a nation rich in history and old, venerated traditions. The enigmatic geisha are considered as one of the cornerstones of that iconic Japanese tradition, and are certainly admired all over the world. The geisha can trace their origins way back in time, and were initially male entertainers. The role changed over time, and was eventually reserved only for ladies. Devoted young women would train patiently to master the skills of high social etiquette, dancing, singing, and playing instruments. These skilled geisha were admired and highly sought after in Japan’s highest social circles. A young girl desiring to become a beautiful geisha would have to devote years of her life to achieve that goal. In recent times, the geisha received a somewhat skewed portrayal in western society, even though their esteemed role has been unchanged for centuries. Who are these enigmatic female entertainers, and how has history shaped their role in society?
How Did the Geisha Come to Be?
The geisha is a woman surrounded in mystery. In Japan’s history, they were always the heart and soul of every high-ranking social gathering - and that was the very role for which they were trained. Their skills are both outward and inward.
On the outside, they are admired for their elaborate traditional Japanese costumes, which are often multi-layered, intricately patterned, and quite heavy. They also wear heavy makeup that is supposed to accentuate their beauty even further, alongside unique hairstyles and realistic wigs. On the inside however, lies the true skill of the geisha. She is the master of social etiquette and many artistic skills.
Profile of Miyagawa-chō geiko (geisha) Kimiha wearing a formal black kimono (kurotomesode) and a chū taka shimada-style nihongami wig. (Japanexperterna/CC BY-SA 3.0)
As in many other parts of the world, Japan too placed high emphasis on distinguished social gatherings. When samurais, shoguns, and other high-ranking individuals gathered for a traditional “party”, the geisha was there to entertain them, to become the heart and soul of the gathering. She’d liven up the meeting with entertaining conversations, she’d engage every person and amuse even the most serious guests. Also, the geisha was the master player of shamisen, the enigmatic Japanese traditional instrument. Every woman wanted to be as elegant and skilled as a geisha. To be a beautiful master of complex Japanese social skills and traditions was a mastery reserved only for the select women.
Tokyo geisha with shamisen. (Public Domain)
Until the Second World War, the practices surrounding geisha training were still pretty much unchanged after centuries. Poor peasants would often send their young daughters - some as young as nine - to be trained in the ways of geisha, simply because they could not afford to care for them. Nowadays, girls can begin this training once they are at least fifteen.
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Either way, the training is a path of devotion, sacrifice, and can last a lifetime. Many girls that begin this path simply cannot endure it - the dropout rate is extremely high. In the 21st century, being a geisha is a difficult task. A girl becomes deeply connected with her geisha “mother” (teacher), and the particular house she serves. During her career, a geisha can incur high debts - paying off her training and investing into elaborate new kimono dresses that she needs to wear.
An Entertainer, Trendsetter, and a Custodian of Traditions
Explaining the role of the geisha is no easy task. In simplest terms, this elegant woman is a hostess, an entertainer, a lady, and a custodian of Japan’s oldest traditions. During her lengthy training, a geisha becomes a master of many traditional performances that are deeply steeped in classical Japanese art. Being involved in the highest social circles - in the past these were the elite samurai and the shogun lords - the geisha is exposed to many sensitive secrets: she is expected to maintain strict confidentiality.
But one of the most important roles of the geisha - and one that led to many misconceptions - is her connection with men. The geisha were often the heart and soul of parties attended solely by high-ranking men. However, she was not alike other women - she was a woman in control, a powerful source of beauty that dazzled and inspired.
But for the men gathered around her, the geisha was a way to experience a more personal, private environment that was non-existent on the “outside”. In the complex ways of Japanese society, emotions are not displayed freely in the outside world, i.e. in regular society. Even in the family household, a sense of strict rules is followed. However, in the private atmosphere created by the geisha, and thanks to her strict confidentiality, the male attendees would be able to display their emotions - a version of themselves which did not exist outside the geisha house.
Geishas dancing the Kappore. (Archivist /Adobe Stock)
Originally, around the 6th century AD, the geisha (lit. “entertainer”) were usually male artists and companions. However, during the defining Heian Period in Japan’s history, which lasted from 794 to 1185 AD, the female identity of the geisha was formed. Originally, some young women were known as saburuko (serving girls). They were typically wanderers from families affected by war. The poorer girls usually offered sexual intercourse in exchange for goods, while those that were more educated acquired a social entertainer role similar to the geisha. It is likely that this was a foundation from which geisha emerged.
The Embodiment of All that is Beautiful
In time, and especially during the flourishing Heian period, the geisha became established at the Japanese Imperial court. A great emphasis was placed on beauty, and the geisha were the embodiment of that concept. However, it is important to understand the Japanese concept of “beauty”.
It is found in simple and subtle things, in elegance and peace, in tranquility and simple nature. Thus, the geisha is elegant, she does things slowly and measuredly, she is poignant and peaceful. During the medieval and early modern periods, the geisha displayed every aspect of what was considered beauty. Outwardly, this was characterized by heavy makeup: aristocracy and the geisha had heavily powdered white faces, bright lipstick, and pitch black teeth.
A geisha and her client (Katsushika Hokusū / Public Domain)
There is a modern misconception - which began following the Second World War - that geisha are courtesans and sex workers. However, this is far from the truth. As mentioned, before the 7th century AD, the geisha did emerge from courtesans, particularly from the highest ranking ones that were skilled in dance, poetry, social skills, and playing instruments. From there, they acquired the role of the geisha as it is today - which is not connected with sex work. Japan’s society - as any other in the world - did have prostitutes and concubines, but they were not geisha.
On the other hand, the geisha could choose to have a more intimate partner, or patron. This is known as danna partnership, where the geisha may take a patron that would pay her expenses, buy her gifts, and become more personally involved with her. This relationship often involved sex, and was often reserved for the wealthiest and most influential men in Japan’s society. Still, the geisha did so of her own accord and often from personal affection.
It is a sad fact that most geisha in Japan’s medieval period originated from the poorest layers of society. An okiya - the geisha house - often received new initiate girls from families that were forced to sell their daughters due to extreme poverty. This was almost always the last time the girl would see her family.
Geisha Walking through the Snow at Night. Circa 1797. (CC0)
Once in the okiya, the girls would exist in a strictly matriarchal society, without men. The okaa-san, aka the mother of the house, was the matron that oversaw the rigorous training which often lasted for decades. The matron would invest heavily into a potential geisha, and the girl was expected to repay that financial debt later on in her career. That is why many geisha decided to have a benefactor, a danna patron who would pay for some of their expenses.
A Lifetime of Devotion and Rigorous Training
Of course, a potential geisha would have to rise through the ranks. A girl would start as a simple house servant, and could later become an apprentice. Over the years, with plenty of learning, she could rise to the coveted rank of a full-fledged geisha . It was no secret that the newcomer servant girls were often looked down upon or mistreated by the seasoned girls of the household. But there were also many strong bonds and friendships developed in these circles, especially when a girl became an apprentice to a veteran geisha.
Geisha performing together. (Pixabay License)
One crucial step on the girl’s path to becoming a geisha was the ceremony called mizuage. A prestigious and elaborate event, the mizuage was the auctioning of a girl’s virginity. High-ranking, wealthy, and influential men - who had to be honorable and gentle - would offer the highest price to deflower them. The entirety of the money settled would go to the matron of the house and would go towards the repayment of the future geisha’s debt. After prostitution became banned in Japan, the practice stopped.
It wasn’t uncommon for men to have fallen desperately in love with a geisha. She was grace and elegance embodied. In an age when marriages were arranged, men would find themselves unhappy or unsatisfied by their family. Thus, they often sought company of a geisha.
These were usually high-ranking military commanders, wealthy businessmen, or influential political figures. With enough money and prestige, these men could have a one-on-one session with a geisha, which did not involve intimacy. A session would last as long as an incense stick - the senkodai - would burn. Over time, a man that fell under the spell of a graceful geisha could become her patron, the danna - if she agreed.
The danna patron would become the geisha’s benefactor and lover. The more powerful and influential this man was, so would the geisha’s reputation increase. If wealthy enough, her lover could also help repay her large debt, and set her for a life of prestige and influence. A geisha could only have a single danna at a time and could end the relationship if she wished to, and look for a new one.
Even so, she was a standard that many Japanese women yearned to follow and looked up to. With their elaborate makeup, blackened teeth, unique hairstyles, etiquette, and their expensive kimono dresses, the geisha were the trendsetters of their time, dictating the new fashion trends that were to be followed. Of course, due to the sheer cost of these privileges, most of these trends were near-impossible to reach.
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Persevering Through the Ages - As Only a Geisha Knows How
The Second World War had devastating effects on the whole of Japanese culture and its traditions - geisha included. A great portion of Japan’s populace was displaced following the war, and certain age old traditions were quick to die out. At the war’s end, numerous geisha houses were destroyed by the American troops.
The geisha were now finding themselves in a world that struggled to preserve the beauty and find time and effort to enjoy it once again. This forced many veteran geisha to seek other employment. Also, the common sex workers from the pleasure quarters were now able to imitate the geisha, passing themselves as such and providing sexual services for the American troops. This in turn created a widespread misconception that geisha were in fact high-society prostitutes. This is not true.
The war diminished the geisha traditions and their numbers. As a result, only a few hundred real, traditional geisha exist in Japan, mostly in Kyoto. Of course, in modern times, being a geisha is no longer a strict life vocation. Most of these women lead normal lives: they can pursue education, get married, and raise a family.
Nevertheless, the iconic aspects of the geisha are still preserved and honed to a high skill level, continuing that tradition that existed for centuries. And it is the geisha that help preserve Japan’s mystery and its undying traditions.
A modern geisha in in Kyoto, Japan. (eyetronic /Adobe Stock)
Top Image: A geisha. Source: juripozzi / Adobe Stock
By Aleksa Vučković
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