In Japan the beautiful and enigmatic Geisha represents one of the most iconic traditions in the country. The role of Geisha has been established as early as 600 A.D. where initially men served as entertainers and companions. However the image of what is commonly perceived as a geisha today first became prominent in the 18th Century. Trained in fine arts such as dance, singing, playing the shamisen (a most distinctive Japanese musical instrument), dining etiquette and friendly conversation, the Geisha has become an icon of Japanese culture.
Why is the role of Geisha so unique, existing no where else in all the world
Geisha continued to evolve as occupation, but the role of geisha has fundamentally remained unchanged for many years – to entertain their customers. These women are unique in the sense that they are true masters of hospitality. They are skilled in various traditional performances of art and they know how to entertain a guest and at the same time maintain the strictest confidentiality of anything deemed private.
Due to this total confidentiality maintained within any relationship with a geisha, the Japanese male can display their emotions; emotions that would be unheard of in the outside world. For the Japanese the outside world is about the collective and not the individual where personal needs and desires are totally overridden by societal requirements of homogeneity and harmony. This even extends to one’s own wife and family where a level of decorum must always be maintained. This concept of the hidden that is inside, and the face presented to the outer world has made the role of geisha both essential and unique.
The History and Culture of Geisha
The origins of this unique tradition can be seen across the pond in China. During Japan’s Heian Period (794 to 1185 A.D.) Chinese culture, including beauty trends and practices, was hugely influential in Japan and the role of geisha was formed during this time in the Japanese Imperial Court. The culture of this time was obsessed with beauty, it being considered an integral part of what constituted a “good person”. During this time the aristocracy wore white powdered faces and blackened teeth. Women wore small red painted lips while eyebrows were plunked out or shaved and re-drawn higher.
The geisha emerged from the courtesans of the “Pleasure Centres” of the Imperial City. The most renowned courtesan entertainers were those accomplished in dancing, singing, playing music, poetry and calligraphy. The first geisha were actually men who entertained people while they waited to see the sexually desirable female courtesan entertainers.
Female geisha became prominent in the 18th Century in Japan with their style having a massive influence on many fashionable women in society. Though geisha may have a sexual relationship with their danna (their benefactor), geisha was not readily available for sex and distinguished themselves from ordinary courtesans with their strong artistic skills and abilities. Geisha was considered an official occupation for women by the year1800.
During the Edo era most girls arrived to the okiyas (a geisha house) after being sold by their parents. They were usually daughters of peasants or fishermen from Japanese provinces who were so poverty-stricken that they decided to sell their most precious treasure in order to survive. Geishas lived in a completely matriarchal society. The highest figure in an okiya was the okaa-san (which means “mother”). She was the one that purchased the girls, nurtured them and trained them. All of this would build up and become a debt that the girl would have to repay later on.
Many years of training would be required for a girl to become geisha. Upon their arrival to their new home, they became responsible for the household chores and were called shinkomis. During that time they also started to receive lessons on all the arts they had to learn. Only when “mother” thought a girl was ready to become a maiko (a geisha’s apprentice) was she taken under the care of an ‘older sister’ that they called onee-san. This transition was commemorated with a ceremony where the mother, the older sister and the new maiko exchanged sake cups and sipped liquor from each one of the cups in the presence of five witnesses.
The older sister, who was an experienced geisha, was in charge of teaching the girl everything she may need to know: from sitting to bowing with graceful and elegant gestures and movements. This older sister would take the maiko to all the events she attended, watching her onee-san closely and learning the art of conversation and storytelling. She was introduced to potential clients, so when she gave her first artistic performance, the most high-ranking people would be part of the audience. Maiko and onee-san were also expected to become inseparable and forge a special bond.
When the maiko turned 15 years old following many years of training, she had to go through a very special transition called mizuage, meaning that her virginity would be auctioned. This event was carried out in the most discreet and ceremonious manner. The onee-san chose the potential bidders, men that not only would pay the highest price, but also be prestigious, honourable and hopefully gentle. The Mother received all the bids and selected the highest, as this ritual could also settle a significant part of the maiko’s debt. The following ceremony was the erikae (“turning of the collar”). The maiko, who was now officially a woman, started to wear white kimono collars instead of red, and finally became a true geisha.
The districts where geisha work were called hanamachi (flower cities). Okiyas were usually found outside the “pleasure quarters” where prostitution was openly practiced. Maiko and geisha dedicated themselves to entertain and capture the guests’ attention through their many skills in serving tea, reciting poetry, playing instruments, dancing and singing. It was common to find many geishas in the same events. Sometimes guests also wished to enjoy a geisha’s company alone, but such cases the company of a chaperone was necessary to avoid gossip that would damage the geisha’s reputation. The amount of time spent in a specific place was measured by the senkodai, a flower incense that would last a whole session. Once burned out, the session would come to an end.
Who were these geisha clients that paid huge amounts of money just to be in the company of these mysterious women? Most of them were successful businessman, high-ranking military officers or influential political figures. In the past most marriages in Japan were arranged, so men were often unhappy and emotionally unfulfilled and thus resorted to the services of geisha.
When a man fell under the spell of a geisha’s beauty and grace, he would offer to become her danna, a word that meant “husband” but actually made him her lover and sponsor. A geisha could have only one danna at a time, and the more powerful the man the luckier the geisha. With the help of such a man a geisha had the possibility to settle her debt as well as receive expensive gifts and go to luxurious events. If the danna could no longer cover the expenses or decided to end the relationship the geisha could look for a new one.
Across all eras geisha have been an unmistakable sign of elegance. Through their makeup, kimonos, elaborate hairstyles, alluring song and spellbinding poetry they convey a mysterious and magical aura.
Common misconceptions about geisha
A long-standing stigma has been placed on Japanese geisha girls. When someone thinks of a geisha, they think of a glorified prostitute or call girl, and this is far from the truth. So to clear the air before we dive in a little deeper, the misconception that geishas are the equivalent to prostitutes should be immediately thrown out.
When the culture first came into existence in the Edo period, women in “pleasure quarters” called themselves geisha, but those behaviours are no longer practiced – this includes the concept of selling one’s virginity for a maiko’s mizuage that is mentioned earlier.
Today, the number of geisha has dropped to only a few hundred located in Kyoto as a consequence of the Second World War. When American troops invaded Japan many okiya were destroyed, so geisha fled and searched for different occupations. Since this tradition wasn’t controlled anymore, women from the pleasure quarters again saw an opportunity to pass themselves off as geishas by imitating the makeup and attire. Such fake geisha started to provide services for the soldiers, which created the wrong impression of the real geisha and their tradition.
Yet, the tradition managed to endure and now women are free to choose if they want to take on this profession or not, whether it is due to admiration or cultural heritage. Practice like the mizuna mentioned repeatedly above are now buried in the past, and they can still have a danna (sponsor or patron) if they want to. They lead normal lifestyles; they can go to school, get married, have children, and take on other jobs. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the mystery. Geisha still learn the art of seduction, which is quite different from the western conceptions: it is based on fascination and pleasure through conversation, arts and mysticism, and they still play the role of emotional confidante.
The experience of geisha as seen through Japanese eyes is as follows: “One after another they round the corner and shuttle into the room swiftly and quietly, only creating the slightest of sound as their tiny steps meet the tatami mat. The moment they enter, the atmosphere changes; their presence raises hairs on arms, and everyone immediately goes quiet, in awe of the beauty that has just arrived.”
Next time, I will talk about where you find geisha including dinner with them and other options to experience the geisha culture.