Culture

Geisha: Symbols of Japanese Refinement


Anyone who has been in touch with Japanese culture knows what a Geisha looks like. But do you really know all the history and traditions of these special ladies ? Unfortunately in the West Geisha are often wrongly confused with prostitutes. Let us discover what really is the job of Geisha in Japan.

History 

The term Geisha (芸者) literally means "person practicing the arts". However in Kyoto they are called Geiko (芸妓) because as Kyoto is the cultural capital of Japan, Geisha/Geiko are part of the DNA of this city which comprises more than 90% of the total number of them. This profession, officially recognized in the second half of the 18th century, refers to women who dedicate their lives to traditional Japanese arts and use their talents to entertain distinguished clients at banquets and shows. Geisha stand out by mastering several types of arts, which are generally traditional Japanese dances (especially those involving the handling of the fan), singing, literature, poetry or floral composition. In addition to entertaining by their artistic talents, Geisha are also versed in the art of conversation and have a great general knowledge. Also apprentice Geisha are called Maiko (舞妓) and their jobs consist of performing songs and dances for visitors during feasts. Maiko are usually aged 15 to 20 years old and become Geisha after a specific training.

Imayobijinzoroi, Kunisada Utagawa, 1863

Geisha have long been the symbol of sophistication and are unquestionably custodians of Japanese culture and traditions. Even today, they are highly respected and branded customers always spend astronomical sums to enjoy their company, most often in tea houses. Their clients are generally businessmen, politicians or rich individuals. Traditionally all wealthy clients could not ask for Geisha services as they wished. It should preferably be recommended, introduced or presented by customers. It is still more or less the case today, even if some Geisha decide to discover some of their art to tourists, through the tea ceremony or at shows for example. It should be noted that the cost of Geisha services is evaluated according to their time of presence. Guests also pay for meals and drinks consumed at the meeting. 

Training

Becoming a Geisha is a long-term job and the consecration of years of hard work. At the beginning of their training, the girls performed mainly household chores and assisted the Geisha on a daily basis; hard and hard work requiring extreme docility.

The girls then begin their arts training and take intensive classes. Over the course of learning, many specialize in one particular art, dance being often considered the most noble. When they start to master the different specialties, Maiko, completed their training by accompanying a Geisha confirmed at his appointments. The two Geisha are linked by the relationship of sisters and the oldest passed on her knowledge to the youngest. When she is ready, she will become a Geisha and lead her own events. Today, the formation of geisha has remained largely the same, although it is probably shorter. In addition, apprentices must embrace this career of their own free will, the apprentices are on average 17 or 18 years old.

Appearance

Makeup : The face is entirely painted with white over a layer of oil. The makeup is spread with a bamboo brush, then the excess is dabbed with a sponge. The older they are, the less Geisha are forced to wear makeup. The idea is to leave room for their natural beauty.

Clothing : They wear exclusively silk kimono, closed by a wide belt tied at the back. The shape of the knot depends on the age of the Geisha and the bright colors are usually worn by the younger ones. The outfit is complemented by white socks and wedge sandals. Putting on a kimono is a complex task and the fabrics are heavy. For this reason a professional dresser who often assists the Geisha when they dress. The kimono are traditionally handmade and are of great value. They often cost several thousand euros.

Hairdressing Geisha wear very traditional buns held by combs. Their hairstyle must be kept intact for several days, so they often have to sleep while resting their necks on a dedicated object so that their head does not touch the ground.

You can find more informations about Japanese Traditional Clothes Guide on this article.

Current situation 

Geisha were counted by thousands in the 18th century, but this is no longer the case today. Fewer than 200 girls are being trained or working in this occupation. The difficulty of learning, the obligation to sacrifice one's youth, the impossibility of starting a family or getting married if one does not leave the job, the lack of privacy are among the deterrents. It is possible to see Geisha in Kyoto in the area called Gion (祇園) located in the city center. But you must always remember that Geisha are highly respected people and showing them your respect will be perceived as someone who really knows and respects Japanese culture and traditions.

If you want to know more about Kyoto please read our article about Kyoto City.