What is a Geisha?

Veronica Kramer
written by Veronica Kramer
first posted on December 28, 2018
last updated on February 8, 2019

Table of Contents

Geisha are traditional female entertainers who specialize in various traditional Japanese arts such as playing the shamisen, singing and dancing.

Geiko in western Japan and Geisha in eastern Japan look similar but there are several differences in their arts.

People usually envision the ideal Japanese woman in traditional Japanese attire – kimono, zori (shoes), painted white faces, lavish hairstyles and ornately detailed hairpins, the whole “she-bang” – a pride and glory of the Japanese, and yet the perception of them is one of pity because people can never get over the idea of geisha being no different from prostitutes with a classy flare.

When I think about what a geisha does for a living, what comes to my mind is a Japanese equivalent of an esteemed performer who is talented in multiple arts, is extremely expensive to hire and, occasionally, might have a patron.

Day To Day Life

Geisha usually live in a traditional Japanese house. These are usually run by an elderly woman or “mother” (okaa-san おかあさん) of the house, most often a retired geisha herself. Their business has a family style hierarchy and is mostly female-run. Geisha are expected to play “older sister” (onee-san お姉さん) to a young maiko. It’s a bond that stays with them for life and is like having an apprentice to guide, show them the ropes. Because of that there is a cycle of interest in the community and newcomers always have a foot in the door. The geisha world is one of the rare areas of Japan where women hold most of the power. Men in the geisha world are usually helpers, make-up artists, teachers, and other artisan specialists. Most of the businesses, particularly the tea-houses, are run solely by women.

I pour some sake, make some small talk and I’m super-nice to some men. They would never try to touch me or propose something indecent.

I provide entertainment. Men enjoy listening to my shamisen tunes and watch the dance – and pay premium for the privilege.

I am the queen of the tea-house.

– anonymous geisha

Geisha under twenty begin their preparation as maiko or hangyoku. It takes years for geisha to perfect the craft of being able to sing, dance, play an instrument like the shamisen and also be able to engage in witty conversation with their clients. A true geisha is required to learn their entire life in order to maintain and improve on her craft.

In Kyoto, maiko, who learned their artistic skills as a child, become geisha around the age of twenty. There is no retirement age for geisha and they are supposed to hone their skills during their entire life. They can quit their job anytime once they have paid back the amount of money their “house” (okiya 置屋) had spent for their training. Paying back completely is called “nenki ga akeru” (年季が明ける). After paying their all dues, they can leave the house and start living on their own. This type of geisha is called “jimae-geiko” (自前芸妓).

Geisha have a world renown white face, as white as snow and as smooth as silk. They look this way not because of putting on a jar of liquid makeup and baby powder. What they use is a compound similar to hair wax, called “bintsuke” (鬢付け). When smoothed on the skin, it becomes a wonderful light colored foundation for the snow-white rice powder they use over it. Geisha traditionally use bird droppings as part of the mixture that makes their skin so white. Well, that’s true! It’s called “uguisu no fun” (鶯の糞), and it’s the droppings of a nightingale, purified and made into a runny paste to mix into geisha face makeup. Keep in mind, geisha don’t use this method anymore!

The geisha plays the perfect woman. A wife is what she is. Her husband comes home and she’s busy and tired and she doesn’t come to the door to entertain him.

But the geisha… will drop whatever she’s doing, she will run, greet him, pour him more sake, and adhere to his every need.

– anonymous geisha

What Does “Geisha” Mean?

The term “geisha” is written with two kanji characters which correspond to gei (芸) “art” and sha (者) “person.” The most literal translation of geisha to English would be “artist”, or “artisan”. In essence, this is what geisha do: they entertain people. Another name for geisha is geiko (芸妓), which translates directly as “a woman of art.”

The way of calling a geisha varies according to areas. In Kyoto, she is called geiko (芸子) or geigi (芸妓), and a trainee is called maiko (舞妓). In Tokyo, she is called geisha (芸者), and a trainee is called hangyoku (半玉).

Are Geisha Prostitutes?

Geisha are commonly mistaken for prostitutes because of the lack of understanding of their profession. As entertainers, they frequent events such as tea ceremonies, important celebrations, and parties where their patrons will pay for their company and performance in one of their specialized talents. Customers never pay for sex.

Geisha have always been completely separate from prostitutes. The confusion comes from yujo (prostitutes of old Japan – the origin of mizuage meiko tradition), and a general “oriental equals sexy” idea. Geisha were always strictly masterful entertainers, and continue to be.

However, in the past, it used to be customary for maiko to auction off their virginity to the highest bidder until the practice was outlawed after prostitution became illegal.

There’s another reason geisha carried connotations to prostitution. During the American occupation of Japan after World War II, some young women desperate for money posed as geisha and sold sexual favors to American troops.

Modern Times

The industry is slowly evolving. Geisha now also cater their services to tourists and women because young people are more interested in karaoke bars, and businessmen have cut down on their expenditures after the bubble burst in the 1990s. In Tokyo itself, only over 300 geisha are left, rumor has it. Geisha are seen publicly more often now, occasionally holding performances for the general audience because of the need to create hype in order for the industry to survive and maintain as much of its traditional authenticity as possible. This was extremely rare in the past.

The traditional Japanese restaurants (ryotei) in which the geisha usually entertain guests have also changed their policy from only allowing in regular customers to allowing in anyone who was willing to pay in order for their business to survive.

However, even with the slowly evolving practices, it can still be said that the geisha is one of the last few professions to uphold old Japanese culture.

Veronica Kramer

Veronica Kramer

Unhype co-founder, entrepreneur, registered nutritionist, traveler, writer, translator, coffee aficionado, yoga buff.

Veronica is keen on exploring the stories that hide in the most unexpected of places. She enjoys thinking about the future we face and has strong opinions about different "isms" and how modern technology influences the globalized world.
Veronica Kramer

Leave a Comment