Geishas Of Japan - A Snapshot

by Nabanita Dutt, May 1, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo
A Geisha at Sanja Matsuri, one of Tokyo’s liveliest and most widely-attended festivals

A Geisha at Sanja Matsuri, one of Tokyo’s liveliest and most widely-attended festivals

A Geisha at Sanja Matsuri, one of Tokyo’s liveliest and most widely-attended festivals

Japanese people, I am told, do not like talking about their geisha. The few I dared to ask, seemed visibly affronted by this line of questioning. While one half of them consider geisha a shameful reminder of centuries of decadence in Japanese society, the other half sincerely know nothing about these inhabitants of the `flower and willow world'. Many haven't even seen a real geisha in their lives.

The ambivalence/ignorance seems strange when you consider the disproportionate curiosity of the western world about this strange breed of exotic creatures, whose appearance and activities are quite beyond the pale of their own cultures. With the release of the Hollywood film, Memoirs of a Geisha, which may yet be directed by Steven Spielberg, this curiosity will surely treble.

The mystery and secrecy which cloaked the world of the geisha for hundreds of years has given rise to a number of false notions about this class of women. Most foreigners, for example, imagine that geisha are experts in the erotic arts. Not true. That role was played out by women known as yujos, who worked as prostitutes in the pleasure quarters. With their dance, music, poetry and art of conversation, geisha had a lot more to offer - to exclusive patrons at wildly expensive prices. They did not routinely sell their body for money. If a geisha chose to dispense sexual favours, well, that was her personal business.

Entertainment in the early history of the island country, which had shunned all foreign influences, was hard to come by. The only places where a Japanese man of some standing could party or just relax and have fun in the evenings were the tea houses in the hanamachis (geisha districts). The tea houses were run by mistresses, ex-geisha mostly, and they would call upon as many geisha for the night as the customer wanted.

A respectable woman, in those days, rarely ventured beyond her own neighbourhood. She tended to the home and hearth, and no man worth his manhood would indulge in a romantic relationship with his wife. The wives, on their part, were happy to see their husbands off to the pleasure quarters, and the presence of a mistress or two would hardly ever upset a traditional Japanese household.

The situation, thus, was ideal for the geisha class to multiply, and in the 1920s, there were as many as 80,000 working geisha all over the country. They were concentrated in urban pockets, such as Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka. The best geisha came from the five geisha districts in Kyoto, particularly Gion.

Hierarchy was important in this small exclusive society of women. Geisha from Kyoto were top of the heap. The provincial geisha, especially those working in the hot spring resorts, were considered bottom-rung and of easy virtue, and there were several classes of middling status sandwiched in between.

High-ranking geisha took great pride in their gei (arts). They were well read in literature and poetry, and could hold their own in any intelligent debate with the ministers and statesmen who comprised a substantial section of their clientele. Their discretion could be taken for granted, and sensitive political issues were discussed openly in front of them.

Unlike in other glamour businesses, careers in the `flower and willow world' did not end once youth had given way to advancing age. Geisha, in their 60s and 70s, were in fact quite sought-after at zashikis (tea house dos), for the old biddies could keep a whole party entertained with their whacky humour and witty recounting of experiences from their youth.

The life of a well-established geisha at the peak of her career was one of luxury and fame. Poets would write reams extolling their beauty, artists would capture them in various poses in wood block paintings, the general public would gather in hordes during the spring festivals to watch them dance and youthful customers would break their hearts on the doorsteps of the tea houses.

But the initiation into the `flower and willow world' and the inevitable leave-taking once their market value had waned, was fraught with difficulties and uncertainties. Geisha, who had no regular family structure, often had to spend her last years in penury if she had not used her money well.

Early Years

No woman became a geisha out of choice. Pimps (zegens) would scour the countryside and buy little girls from impoverished farmers, who could use the few thousand yens to purchase new ploughing equipment or to feed the rest of the family.

If the girls were dull and unattractive, they were brought to the cities and sold to brothels. If they showed signs of beauty or talent, they were taken to the geisha quarters where `mothers' of the geisha houses would size up the wares. After lengthy negotiations, money would change hands and the girls would join the house. Each geisha house (okiya) had a `mother' (okasan) and 2 or 3 senior geisha in residence.

The young girl, usually no more than 11 years, spent the first few years as a maid. She was expected to help in the kitchen and with the household work. She would assist the geisha dress in the evenings, and run errands for the okasan.

Early life for geisha was harsh, without a friend or a kind word, the fear of provoking the okasan's wrath constantly hanging over their heads. If she chose, the okasan could refuse to sponsor their training as a geisha, in which case the girls would have to live out the rest of their lives in the servant's quarter.

Running away didn't help. There was no place to hide. The okasan would send out people who would locate them and bring them back. Parents refused to give shelter, as that would amount to a breach of promise. One way or another, the girls always returned to the okiya, after which the ill-treatment would go up several notches.



The sensible course of action was to live out the first few years without inciting any controversy, the okasan's displeasure or the resident geisha's jealousy. Once training started, the girls would spend most of their time in the geisha schools, learning the complicated art of tea ceremony, music, dance and playing the shamisen (a three-string wooden instrument covered with tautly-stretched cat or dog skin).

The period of minarai or `learning by observation' also began then. How to walk on the tatami mats, how to kneel down and rise gracefully, how to slide open paper doors of the tea houses - the young apprentices had to pick up every nuance of the geisha's movements by watching the senior resident geisha. A ritual among the apprentices, which the okasans enforced gleefully, was the hours of shamisen practice outdoors in the biting cold of a harsh Japanese winter. Hardship, it was believed, enhanced knowledge in every art, so in addition to the rigorous training, the apprentices had to do much of the household work as well.

This period of training lasted several years, before an apprentice could formally become a `maiko'. Maikos, in effect, were junior geisha. They were not required to do more than look beautiful and perhaps play the shamisen for customers during a zashiki, or party at the tea houses. The business of serious entertainment was left to the senior geisha and the maikos were expected to continue their minarai, or learning by observation, at these tea parties.

The maiko's appearance, thus, had to be glamorous enough to catch the customer's eye. The geisha photographs we see of white-faced, exotic creatures in exquisite kimonos and elaborate hair-dos are in fact those of the maikos. Geisha, all over Japan, have a more subdued dress code to denote their maturity.

Every maiko had an `older sister' in the form of a senior geisha, who introduced her to the mistresses of the tea houses and to the customers, requesting their patronage on behalf of the newcomer. The choice of the `older sister' was mostly left to the okasan, and a ritual of mutual partaking of sake from the same cup (quite like that of a traditional marriage ceremony) bound the two sisters together. This was also when the young maiko would give up her own name to take on a professional one, which sounded similar to that of her `older sister' -- Mameo, for example, if the older sister was called Mameko.

Once an apprentice became a maiko, she needed a complete wardrobe of heavily-embroidered silk and cotton kimono. Geisha had to wear different kinds of kimono for different seasons and different ones for different occasions. Kimonos were prohibitively expensive even in those days, and they were used by the okasan to bind a maiko to the okiya. The okasan would rent out the house's own stock at enormous hiring charges, which would be added to the debts the girls had already incurred in their training years. No geisha could break away from the okiya unless she had paid off her dues, and the price of kimonos was one factor which kept a lot of geisha in the okiyas during their entire professional careers.

Hairstyling was equally important, and a number of salons specialized in the different styles of maiko hairdressing in the geisha quarters. A maiko had to change the way she wore her hair at least three times, to denote the different stages of her development. Ware Shinobu -- the most gorgeous, with ribbons, ornaments and a bagel-shaped roll of hair on the top of her head, was worn by debutants. Ofuku - a toned down version with the knot worn lower, signified the maiko's loss of virginity. Sakko - this again was a very ornate style, worn during the last few months of maikohood.

Most maikos would develop a perfectly round bald patch where the hair was pulled to make the central knot. This bald spot was worn proudly by the maikos in their later years to signify the hardships they had to undergo during their initiation.

Make-up was another art young maikos had to master by watching senior geisha applying theirs. In the old days, the white paint used to cover the entire face was made of white lead, which had disastrous effects, even leading to skin cancer. The make-up used these days is a gentler blend of cosmetic products, but geisha swear by the precious nightingale droppings (still sold in bottles in some parts of Japan), which provided a smooth, even cover. While painting the face, a strip of skin near the hairline was left bare, which was considered very erotic by the Japanese. The back of the maiko's neck would also show a perfect V of bare skin, which hinted at a woman's private parts. Eyebrows and small pouting lips would be drawn in, the eyes would be circled in red. After the application of make-up, which took hours, the male dressers would come in to put on the kimono and tie the obi (a large embroidered silk sash tied in a complicated bow at the back of the kimono). The maiko would then slip into white socks and wooden clogs, and be ready to face a night of tea-house-hopping.



With the mizuage, or ceremonial deflowering, a maiko would finally metamorphose into a geisha. The okasan, again, would choose a suitable mizuage patron for the maiko - usually an older man who could pay for the privilege. Mizuage was sometimes an elaborate process, spread over 7 days, when the patron would open out the passage with his fingers, inch by inch, till the maiko was finally ready for intercourse. He would then divest the girl of her virginity on a night deemed auspicious, and after the event, the maiko could `turn her collar' -- from maiko's red to the white worn by the geisha. Mizuage was not a secret ceremony, and a group of maikos often shared the same mizuage patron. It was something to be celebrated, and the maiko, with her hair done in the ofuku style, would distribute gifts and sweets to her tea house mistresses and teachers.



By the time a maiko was finally ready to make her debut as a full-fledged geisha, she was expected to have mastered all the arts, specializing in any one of them. Classes, however, did not end and the geisha would continue their training throughout their careers.

The next few years were definitely the best time in a geisha's life, when she had a measure of independence and money to splurge on herself. They were not allowed to marry, so they were always on the lookout for a danna. The role of a danna was quite akin to that of a husband and even included a formal union ceremony.

Dannas, like mizuage patrons, were always older men who could afford this status. The union ceremony required a number of expensive gifts to be given to his geisha of choice as well as the okasan, the tea house mistresses etc. He would have to buy a certain number of kimonos for his woman and sponsor her dance and shamisen classes.

Love didn't always come into the picture - for the geisha at least. They didn't expect their dannas to be strapping young men, who would sweep them off their feet. They prayed instead that their dannas were kind and generous, who would, in their later years, provide them with enough money to start a tea house of their own. If a geisha was lucky to have a danna who truly cared for her, he would pay off her debts to the okiya and set her up in a house of her own. Children born out of such union were not considered illegitimate in the geisha districts. They were the norm.

A strange custom, under the circumstances, was that if a danna invited his own geisha to play hostess at his party, he would have to pay her `flower money' as he would the other geisha working at the same zashiki.

No customer directly paid the geisha at the end of the party. It was considered crass to talk of money when a celebration was in progress. At most, the host would slip her an envelope, which contained a hefty tip, delicately called `flower money'. The real payments were made months later, when the tea house mistress would post him the bill. This was really the reason why walk-ins were not entertained in the tea houses. There would be no guarantee that they would pay up afterwards.

A geisha would stop by at several parties in one night and payment was fixed by the hour. Incense sticks were used instead of clocks to measure the amount of time a geisha spent at a particular party. One incense stick meant one hour's pay, and the geisha was paid by the number of sticks that had been burnt.

Her time was money, and stories abound in Japan of men who casually indulged in a friendly conversation with geisha on the road or on a train, only to be presented with a whopping bill afterwards.

The inhabitants of the `flower and willow world' were all rich women. They earned enough to maintain an expensive lifestyle with no concerns beyond their art and their appearance. Geisha always traveled first class, ate (with customers) at the best of restaurants and received expensive gifts. They had enough time on their hands to experiment with fashion, and indeed there was a time when geisha were the trendsetters in Japanese society. While giving them a wide berth in their day-to-day existence, respectable women would keep a keen eye on what the geisha in the major hanamachis were wearing that season and strive to copy the same styles.

The ultimate goal of high-class geisha was to be considered iki (chic), and they competed amongst themselves to be ikier than the rest.

Geisha took themselves very seriously and customers had to know just how to conduct themselves in their company. Geisha, for instance, would never actually serve guests at a party. They would of course do oshaku (pour sake) and conduct the tea ceremony, but these were more rituals than service.

Their knowledge of literature and the arts, and their years of training, gave them an insight into the male psyche which no other class of Japanese women could hope to possess. They knew how to pander to the male ego, how to make pleasing conversation loaded with double entendre, how to draw out the most reticent customer into sharing his deepest secrets. Throughout the exchanges, the men would be deeply conscious of the geisha's physical appeal, and as there was no guarantee of sex at the end of the party, these little periods of intimacy became all the more poignant.

Modern Day Geisha


Geisha today have depleted drastically in numbers, and there can't be more than a handful surviving in all of Japan.

Modern Japanese men have no time for such entertainment. They neither understand nor care for the geisha's musical talents. They find their appearance abnormal and their conversation boring. Most cannot imagine an evening spent in a traditional tea house. They would sooner go to the western-style pubs and bars and be entertained by the bar girls and hostesses there.

With big corporations replacing family-owned businesses in Japan, unaccounted money is not that plentiful. Executives on expense accounts don't make dannas, and without the danna's sponsorship, the profession is no longer profitable.

The geisha who are still working bear little resemblance to the geisha of the yesteryears. Maikos spend no more than a few months in training, and in some districts, they bypass the training stage altogether. They wear western clothes and spend their free time in nightclubs and discotheques. Many haven't touched a shamisen or sung a kouta in their lives. They live in their own apartments in high-rise residential complexes, and do not kow-tow to the tea house mistresses. On the contrary, the mistresses go to great lengths to keep them happy and on those rare occasions when a new maiko joins the community, it is time to rejoice.

American and European tourists are the main customers these days, who pay good money to be allowed entry into a `real' tea house and watch the perplexing sight of kimonoed women with their obi, zori, fan and clogs, perform the tea ceremony and pour sake.

To further strip the geisha of their mystery, a number of holiday resorts offer geisha tours at reasonable rates, and one can dress up like a maiko in photo studios and have her picture taken.

It's no wonder then that many Japanese haven't seen a real geisha in their lives. `Real' geisha, outside wood-block paintings and pages of literature, do not exist any more.

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