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This article is about the female Japanese entertainer. For the Chinese elm variety, see Ulmus parvifolia 'Geisha'.
"Geiko" redirects here. For the insurance company, see GEICO.

Typical nape make-up on a Maiko (Note the red collar)

Geisha (芸者?), Geiko (芸子) or Geigi (芸妓) are traditional, female Japanese entertainers whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music and dance.


Geisha (pronounced /ˈɡeɪʃə/), like all Japanese nouns, has no distinct singular or plural variants. The word consists of two kanji, (gei) meaning "art" and (sha) meaning "person" or "doer". The most literal translation of geisha into English would be "artist" or "performing artist". Another name for geisha used in Japan is geiko, which is usually used to refer to geisha from Western Japan, including Kyoto.

Apprentice geisha are called maiko (舞子 or 舞妓), literally "dance child") or hangyoku (半玉), "half-jewel" (meaning that they are paid half the wage of a full geisha),[1] or by the more generic term o-shaku (御酌), literally "one who pours (alcohol)". The white make-up and elaborate kimono and hair of a maiko is the popular image held of geisha. A woman entering the geisha community does not have to start out as a maiko, having the opportunity to begin her career as a full geisha. Either way, however, usually a year's training is involved before debuting either as a maiko or as a geisha. A woman above 21 is considered too old to be a maiko and becomes a full geisha upon her initiation into the geisha community. However, those who do go through the maiko stage can enjoy more prestige later in their professional lives.

The only modern hangyoku that can apprentice before the age of eighteen are in Kyoto.[2] So on average, Tokyo hangyoku (who typically begin at 18) are slightly older than their Kyoto counterparts (who usually start at 15).[3] Historically, geisha often began the earliest stages of their training at a very young age, sometimes as early as at 3 or 5 years. The early shikomi (servant) and minarai (watching apprentice) stages of geisha training lasted years, which is significantly longer than in contemporary times.

It is still said that geisha inhabit a separate reality which they call the karyūkai or "the flower and willow world." Before they disappeared the courtesans were the colorful "flowers" and the geisha are the "willows" because of their subtlety, strength, and grace.[4]



In the early stages of Japanese history there were female entertainers: saburuko (serving girls) were mostly wandering girls whose families were displaced from struggles in the late 600’s.[5] Some of these saburuko girls sold their bodies, while others with a better education made a living by entertaining at high-class social gatherings. After the imperial court moved the capital to Heian-kyō (Kyoto) in 794 the conditions that would form Japanese Geisha culture began to emerge, as it became the home of a beauty-obsessed elite.[5] Skilled female performers, such as Shirabyōshi dancers, thrived.

Traditional Japan embraced sexual delights (it is not a Shinto taboo) and men were not constrained to be faithful to their wives. The ideal wife was a modest mother and manager of the home, by Confucian custom love had secondary importance. For sexual enjoyment and romantic attachment, men did not go to their wives, but to courtesans. Walled-in pleasure quarters were built in the 16th century,[6] and in 1617 the shogunate designated "pleasure quarters", outside of which prostitution would be illegal,[7] and within which "yūjo" ("play women") would be classified and licensed. The highest yūjo class was the Geisha's predecessor, called "Oiran", a combination of actress and prostitute, originally playing on stages set in the dry Kamo riverbed in Kyoto. They performed erotic dances and skits, and this new art was dubbed kabuku, meaning "to be wild and outrageous". The dances were called "kabuki," and this was the beginning of kabuki theater.[7]

18th century emergence of the "geisha"

These pleasure quarters quickly became glamorous entertainment centers, offering more than sex. The highly accomplished courtesans of these districts entertained their clients by dancing, singing, and playing music. Some were renowned poets and calligraphers. Gradually, they all became specialized and the new profession, purely of entertainment, arose. It was near the turn of the eighteenth century that the first entertainers of the pleasure quarters, called geisha, appeared. The very first geishas were men, entertaining customers waiting to see the most popular and gifted courtesans (oiran).[7]

The forerunners of the female geisha were the teenage odoriko ("dancing girls"):[8] expensively-trained as chaste dancers-for-hire. In the 1680s, they were popular paid entertainers in the private homes of upper-class samurai,[9] though many had turned to prostitution by the early 18th century. Those who were no longer teenagers (and could no longer style themselves odoriko[10]) adopted other names —one being "geisha", after the male entertainers. The first women known to have called herself geisha was a Fukagawa prostitute, in about 1750.[11] She was a skilled singer and shamisen-player named Kikuya who was an immediate success, making female geisha extremely popular in 1750s Fukagawa.[12] As they became more widespread throughout the 1760s and 1770s, many began working only as entertainers (rather than prostitutes) often in the same establishments as male geisha.[13]

Rise of the geisha

File:Tokyo Geisha with Shamisen c1870s,.jpg

Tokyo Geisha with Shamisen, circa 1870s

The geisha who worked within the pleasure quarters were essentially imprisoned and strictly forbidden to sell sex in order to protect the business of the Oiran. While licensed courtesans existed to meet men's sexual needs, machi geisha carved out a separate niche as artists and erudite female companions.[14]

By 1800, being a geisha was considered a female occupation (though there are still a handful of male geisha working today). Eventually, the gaudy Oiran began to fall out of fashion, becoming less popular than the chic, "iki", and modern geisha.[7] By the 1830s, the evolving geisha style was emulated by fashionable women throughout society.[15] There were many different classifications and ranks of geisha. Some women would have sex with their male customers, whereas others would entertain strictly with their art forms.[16] Prostitution was legal up until the 1900s, so it was practiced in many quarters throughout Japan.

World War II brought a huge decline in the geisha arts because most women had to go to factories or other places to work for Japan. The geisha name also lost some status during this time because prostitutes began referring to themselves as "geisha girls" to American military men.[17] In 1944, everything in the geisha's world, including teahouses, bars, and houses, was forced to shut down, and all employees were put to work in factories. About a year later, they were allowed to reopen. The very few women who returned to the geisha areas decided to reject Western influence and revert back to traditional ways of entertainment and life. "The image of the geisha was formed during Japan's feudal past, and this is now the image they must keep in order to remain geisha".[17] It was up to the these returning geisha to bring back traditional standards in the profession, though with increased rights for the geisha:

There is no doubt that coerced sex and bidding on a new geisha's virginity occurred in the period before WWII... After Japan lost the war, geisha dispersed and the profession was in shambles. When they regrouped during the Occupation and began to flourish in the 1960s during Japan's postwar economic boom, the geisha world changed. In modern Japan, girls are not sold into indentured service, nor are they coerced into sexual relations. Nowadays, a geisha’s sex life is her private affair

Liza DalbyDo They or Don't They[18]

Before the war, a maiko's virginity would be auctioned (the original "mizuage")[19][20] —this was outlawed in 1959,[21] but has been reported as relatively normal in the 1990s,[22] and happening "on a limited basis" in 2001.[23]

In her book, Geisha, a Life, Mineko Iwasaki said, "I lived in the karyukai during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when Japan was undergoing the radical transformation from a post-feudal to a modern society. But I existed in a world apart, a special realm whose mission and identity depended on preserving the time-honored traditions of the past."[24]


At the pinnacle of the complex geisha ranking system are the grand dowagers of Kyoto. The gokagai of Kyoto are its five geisha districts,[25] also known as hanamachi ("flower towns"). Gion Kōbu, Pontochō and Kamishichiken have the highest status;[26] they are very expensive,[27] and are frequented by powerful businessmen and politicians[7] (Gion Kōbu is sometimes seen as having the very highest ranking).[28] Geikos from the other two hanamachi (Gion Higashi and Miyagawa-cho[29]) have high prestige but are considered to be one rank lower.

At the opposite end of spectrum are the hot-spring geisha. These geisha work in the spa resorts and are viewed by most Japanese as no better than a common prostitute. They normally cater to far less exclusive patrons, and are much less expensive. If their income is supplemented by selling sex, they remain distinct from regular prostitutes; Like all geisha, they are trained in the art of Japanese dance and music. Even so, hanamachi geisha might be horrified if categorized with hot-spring geisha.[7]

Stages of training

Traditionally, Geisha began their training at a very young age. Some girls were bonded to geisha houses (okiya) as children. These girls were referred to as hangyoku and were as young as nine years old. This was not a common practice in reputable districts and disappeared in the 1950s with the outlawing of child labor.[5] Daughters of geisha were often brought up as geisha themselves, usually as the successor (atotori, meaning "heiress") or daughter-role (musume-bun) to the okiya.

A maiko is essentially an apprentice and is therefore bonded under a contract to her okiya. The okiya supplies her with food, board, kimonos, obis, and other tools of her trade. Her training is very expensive,[30] and her debt must be repaid to the okiya with the earnings she makes. This repayment may continue after the maiko becomes a full-fledged geisha and only when her debts are settled is she permitted to move out to live and work independently.[5]

A maiko will start her formal training on the job as a minarai, which literally means "learning by watching". Before she can do this she must find an onee-san ("older sister": an older geisha acting as her mentor). It is the onee-san's responsibility to bring her to the ozashiki, to sit and observe as the onee-san is at work. This is a way in which she will gain insights of the job, and seek out potential clients. Although minarai attend ozashiki (banquets in which guests are attended by geisha), they do not participate at an advanced level. Their kimono, more elaborate than a maiko's, are intended to do the talking for them. Minarai can be hired for parties but are usually uninvited (yet welcomed) guests at parties that their onee-san attends. They only charge a third of the usual fee. Minarai generally work with a particular tea house (minarai-jaya) learning from the okaa-san (literally "mother," the proprietress of the house). From her, they would learn techniques such as conversation and gaming, which would not be taught to them in school. This stage lasts only about a month or so.[31]

After a short period the final stage of training begins, and the students are called "maiko". Maiko (literally "dance girl") are apprentice geisha, and this stage can last for years. Maiko learn from their senior geisha mentor and follow them to all their engagements. The onee-san and imouto-san (senior/junior, literally "older sister/younger sister") relationship is important. The onee-san teaches her maiko everything about working in the hanamachi. The onee-san will teach her proper ways of serving tea, playing shamisen, dancing, casual conversation and more. The onee-san will even help pick the maiko's new professional name with kanji or symbols related to her name.

There are three major elements of a maiko's training. The first is the formal arts training. This takes place in special geisha schools which are found in every hanamachi. The second element is the entertainment training which the maiko learns at various teahouses and parties by observing her onee-san. The third is the social skill of navigating the complex social web of the hanamachi. This is done on the streets. Formal greetings, gifts, and visits are key parts of any social structure in Japan and for a maiko, they are crucial for her to build the support network she needs to survive as a geisha.[5]

Maiko are considered one of the great sights of Japanese tourism, and look very different from fully-qualified Geisha. They are at the peak of traditional Japanese femininity. The scarlet fringed collar of a maiko's kimono hangs very loosely in the back to accentuate the nape of the neck which is considered a primary erotic area in Japanese sexuality. She wears the same white makeup for her face on her nape, leaving two or sometimes three stripes of bare skin exposed. Her kimono is bright and colorful with an elaborately tied obi hanging down to her ankles. She takes very small steps and wears traditional wooden shoes called okobo which stand nearly ten centimeters high.[5] There are 5 different hairstyles that a maiko wears, that mark the different stages of her apprenticeship. The "Nihongami" hairstyle with "kanzashi" hair-ornamentation strips is most closely associated with maiko,[32] who spend hours each week at the hairdresser and sleep on holed-pillows to preserve the elaborate styling.[33] Maiko can develop a bald spot on their crown caused by rubbing from Kanzashi strips and tugging in hairdressing. This was associated with the maiko's womanhood, as it came from a pulled knot in the ofuku hairstyle that a maiko would wear after her mizuage or first sexual experience (before which, the maiden wareshinobu style was worn).[34]

Around the age of 20-22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha in a ceremony called erikae (turning of the collar)[35][36]. This could happen after two to five years of her life as a maiko or hangyoku, depending on at what age she debuted. She now charges full price for her time. Geisha remain as such until they retire.

Female dominance in geisha society

“The biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured pearls, or manufacturing transistor radios or cameras. It is entertainment”.[37] The term geisha literally translates to mean “entertainer.” Around the world, the term geisha has many different connotations; some western countries think that geishas are high-class prostitutes or escorts. Even some Japanese citizens see geisha in that way because of the lower class geisha who do sell their bodies and work as prostitutes. The biggest misconception of geisha is that they have sex with their customers; the most exclusive modern geisha do not. Their sex and love lives are usually distinct from their professional life. A successful geisha can entrance her male customers with music, dance, and conversation. “Geisha are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan, and traditionally have been so”.[24]

There is currently no western equivalent for a geisha - they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art.

—Kenneth Champeon, The Floating World[38]

Geisha learn the traditional skills of dance and instruments, and hold high social status. Geisha are single women, though they may have lovers or boyfriends whom they have personally picked, who support them financially.

Relationships with male guests

The appeal of a high-ranking geisha to her typical male guest has historically been very different from that of his wife. The ideal geisha showed her skill, while the ideal wife was modest. The ideal geisha seemed carefree, the ideal wife somber and responsible. Geisha do sometimes marry their clients but they must then retire; there can never be a married geisha.

Geisha may gracefully flirt with their (often infatuated) guests,[39] but they will always remain in control of the hospitality. Over their years of apprenticeship they learn to adapt to different situations and personalities, mastering the art of the hostess.

Matriarchal society

Women in the geisha society are some of the most successful businesswomen in Japan. In the geisha society, women run everything. Without the impeccable business skills of the female teahouse owners, the world of geisha would cease to exist. The teahouse owners are entrepreneurs, whose service to the geisha is highly necessary for the society to run smoothly. Infrequently, men take contingent positions such as hair stylists,[39] dressers (dressing a maiko requires considerable strength) and accountants,[17] but men have a limited role in geisha society.

The geisha system was founded, actually, to promote the independence and economic self-sufficiency of women. And that was its stated purpose, and it actually accomplished that quite admirably in Japanese society, where there were very few routes for women to achieve that sort of independence.

Mineko Iwasaki (reportedly the most successful geisha of all time) in interview, Boston Phoenix[40]

The majority of women were wives who didn’t work outside of their familial duties. Becoming a geisha was a way for women to support themselves without submitting to becoming a wife. The geisha women live in a strictly matriarchal society. Women dominate. Women run the geisha houses, they are teachers, they run the teahouses, they recruit aspiring geisha, and they keep track of geishas’ finances. The only major role men play in geisha society is that of guest, though women sometimes take that role as well.[39]

Historically, Japanese feminists have seen geisha as exploited women but some modern geisha see themselves as liberated feminists.[41] "We find our own way, without doing family responsibilities. Isn't that what feminists are?”.[17] These women leave their families at a young age to immerse themselves in their art. They believe that men can make a life for themselves, always being in control, so why can't women? Also, they "have grown adept at using their silken charms to wind their men around their little fingers... [to] manipulate the dumb, unsuspecting male of the species... to make a man think that he is the one who has the brilliant ideas".[42] Not all geisha identify themselves with feminism, and there is a concern that the geisha tradition holds back progress for Japanese women.[39]


There are many misconceptions over what a geisha truly is because the tumultuous past of artisans, prostitutes, and pleasure quarters in Japan. “The world of the geisha, the "flower and willow" world, are very separate societies that are shrouded in mystery. The myths that have been created by outsiders about the environment and the lifestyle of the geisha world have, for the most part, been able to grow unchecked. And because it is a very private, elite world, most people would be uncomfortable speaking about it”.[40]

Prostitution was legal in Japan until the turn of the twentieth century, which is another reason that people may be misinformed about geishas not offering sex to customers.[17] The two became especially confused after many of the professional prostitutes who catered to the occupying soldiers after World War II styled themselves as "geisha"; at a time when few true geisha were able to work the counterfeit geisha usurped the meaning of the word in the eyes of many foreigners.[43]

Modern geisha

File:Geisha Kyoto Gion.jpg

A geiko entertaining a guest in Gion (Kyoto)

File:Japan Kyoto Gion DSC00827.jpg

The Gion geiko district (hanamachi) of Kyoto, Japan

Modern geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya in areas called hanamachi (花街 "flower towns"), particularly during their apprenticeship. Many experienced geisha are successful enough to choose to live independently. The elegant, high-culture world that geisha are a part of is called karyūkai (花柳界 "the flower and willow world").

Before the twentieth century, geisha training began when a girl was around the age of four. Now, girls usually go to school until they are teenagers and then make the personal decision to train to become a geisha. Young women who wish to become geisha now most often begin their training after completing middle school, high school, or even college. Many women begin their careers in adulthood.[44]

Geisha still study traditional instruments: the shamisen, shakuhachi, and drums, as well as learning games,[45] traditional songs, calligraphy,[46] Japanese traditional dances, tea ceremony, literature, and poetry.[47][48] Women dancers drawing their art from butō (a classical Japanese dance) were trained by the Hanayagi school, whose top dancers performed internationally. Ichinohe Sachiko choreographed and performed traditional dances in Heian court costumes, characterized by the slow, formal, and elegant motions of this classical age of Japanese culture in which geisha are trained.[47]

By watching other geisha, and with the assistance of the owner of the geisha house, apprentices also become skilled dealing with clients and in the complex traditions surrounding selecting and wearing kimono, a floor length silk robe embroidered with intricate designs which is held together by a sash at the waist which is called an obi.[49][50]

Kyoto is considered by many to be where the geisha tradition is the strongest today, including Gion Kobu. The geisha in these districts are known as geiko. The Tokyo hanamachi of Shimbashi, Asakusa and Kagurazaka are also well known.

In modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight outside hanamachi. In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan,[51][52] but today, there are far fewer. The exact number is unknown to outsiders and is estimated to be from 1,000 to 2,000, mostly in the resort town of Atami. Most common are sightings of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed up as a maiko.[53]

A sluggish economy, declining interest in the traditional arts, the exclusive nature of the flower and willow world, and the expense of being entertained by geisha have all contributed to the tradition's decline.[54]

Geisha are often hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at tea houses (茶屋, Chashitsu|ochaya) or at traditional Japanese restaurants (ryōtei)[50]. The charge for a geisha's time (measured by burning incense stick) is called senkōdai (線香代, "incense stick fee") or gyokudai (玉代 "jewel fee"). In Kyoto, the terms ohana (お花) and hanadai (花代), meaning "flower fees", are preferred. The customer makes arrangements through the geisha union office (検番 kenban), which keeps each geisha's schedule and makes her appointments both for entertaining and for training.

In 2007, the first Caucasian geisha debuted under the name of "Sayuki", in the Asakusa district of Tokyo.[55][56]


Geisha begin their study of music and dance when they are very young and continue it throughout their lives. Geisha can work into their eighties and nineties,[2] and are expected to train every day even after seventy years of experience.[57]

The word geisha literally means "artist" and late in the eighteenth century this could have described an array of Japanese women artists: Shiro, purely an entertainer; kerobi, a tumbling geisha; kido, a geisha who stood at the entrance to carnivals; or joro, a prostitute and the type of woman that professional geishas have been wrongly mistaken as for many years.[7]

The dance of the geisha has evolved from the dance performed on the kabuki stage. The "wild and outrageous" dances transformed into a more subtle, stylized, and controlled form of dance. It is extremely disciplined, similar to tai chi. Every dance uses gestures to tell a story and only a connoisseur can understand the subdued symbolism. For example, a tiny hand gesture represents reading a love letter, holding the corner of a handkerchief in the mouth represents coquetry and the long sleeves of the elaborate kimono are often used to symbolize dabbing tears.[7]

The dances are accompanied by traditional Japanese music. The primary instrument is the shamisen. The shamisen was introduced to the geisha culture in 1750 and has been mastered by female Japanese artists for years [58]. This shamisen, originating in Okinawa, is a banjo-like three-stringed instrument that is played with a plectrum. It has a very distinct, melancholy sound that is often accompanied by flute. The instrument is described as "melancholy" because traditional shamisen music uses only minor thirds and sixths.[58] All geisha must learn shamisen-playing, though it takes years to master. Along with the shamisen and the flute, geisha also learned to play a ko-tsuzumi, a small, hourglass-shaped shoulder drum, and a large floor taiko (drum). Some geisha would not only dance and play music, but would write beautiful, melancholy poems. Others painted pictures or composed music.[7]

Geisha and prostitution

There remains some confusion about the nature of the geisha profession. Geisha are regarded as prostitutes by many non-Japanese.[59] However, legitimate geisha do not engage in paid sex with clients. Their purpose is to entertain their customer, be it by dancing, reciting verse, playing musical instruments, or engaging in light conversation. Geisha engagements may include flirting with men and playful innuendos; however, clients know that nothing more can be expected. In a social style that is common in Japan, men are amused by the illusion of that which is never to be.[60]

Geisha have been confused with the Edo period's high-class courtesans known as oiran, from whom they evolved. Like geisha, oiran wore elaborate hairstyles and white makeup, but oiran knotted their obi in the front. It has been commonly thought the obi was tied that way for easy removal, though anthropologist Liza Dalby has suggested that it was because it was the practice of married women at the time.[citation needed]

During the Edo period, prostitution was legal. Prostitutes such as the oiran worked within walled-in districts licensed by the government. In the late eighteenth century, dancing women called "odoriko" and newly popular female geisha began entertaining men at banquets in unlicensed districts. Some were apprehended for illegal prostitution and sent to the licensed quarters, where there was a strict distinction between geisha and prostitutes, and the former were forbidden to sell sex. In contrast, "machi geisha", who worked outside the licensed districts, often engaged in illegal prostitution.[61]

In 1872, shortly after the Meiji Restoration, the new government passed a law liberating "prostitutes (shōgi) and geisha (geigi)". The wording of this statute was the subject of controversy. Some officials thought that prostitutes and geisha worked at different ends of the same profession—selling sex— and that all prostitutes should henceforth be called "geisha". In the end, the government decided to maintain a line between the two groups, arguing that geisha were more refined and should not be soiled by association with prostitutes.[62]

Also, geisha working in onsen towns such as Atami are dubbed onsen geisha. Onsen geisha have been given a bad reputation due to the prevalence of prostitutes in such towns who market themselves as "geisha," as well as sordid rumors of dance routines like Shallow River (which involves the "dancers" lifting the skirts of their kimono higher and higher). In contrast to these "one-night geisha," the true onsen geisha are in fact competent dancers and musicians. However, the autobiography of Sayo Masuda, an onsen geisha who worked in Nagano Prefecture in the 1930s, reveals that in the past, such women were often under intense pressure to sell sex.[63]

Personal relationships and danna

Geisha are expected to be single women; those who choose to marry must retire from the profession.[64]

It was traditional in the past for established geisha to take a danna, or patron. A danna was typically a wealthy man, sometimes married, who had the means to support the very large expenses related to a geisha's traditional training and other costs. This sometimes occurs today as well, but very rarely. A geisha and her danna may or may not be in love, but intimacy is never viewed as a reward for the danna's financial support. The traditional conventions and values within such a relationship are very intricate and not well understood, even by many Japanese.[65]

While it is true that a geisha is free to pursue personal relationships with men she meets through her work, such relationships are carefully chosen and unlikely to be casual. A hanamachi tends to be a very tight-knit community and a geisha's good reputation is not taken lightly.

"Geisha girls"

"Geisha girls"[66] were Japanese women who worked as prostitutes during the period of the Allied Occupation of Japan. They almost exclusively serviced American GIs stationed in the country, who referred to them as "Geesha girls" (a mispronunciation).[66][67]

These women dressed in kimono and imitated the look of geisha. Americans unfamiliar with the Japanese culture could not tell the difference between legitimate geisha and these costumed prostitutes.[66] Shortly after their arrival in 1945, occupying American GIs are said to have congregated on the Ginza and shouted in unison, "We want geesha girls!"[68]

Eventually, the term "geisha girl" became a general word for any female Japanese prostitute or worker in the mizu shobai and included bar hostesses and streetwalkers.[66]

Geisha girls are speculated by researchers to be largely responsible for the continuing misconception in the West that all geisha engaged in prostitution.[66]


Main article: Mizuage

Mizuage (水揚げ) was a ceremony undergone by a maiko (apprentice geisha) to signify her coming of age. Mizuage literally means "raising the waters" and originally meant unloading a ship's cargo of fish.[69] Over time, the word came to represent money earned in the entertainment business.[5] This transition usually occurs around the age of twenty. After that a geisha must be able to stand on the strength of her own artistic accomplishments and leaves her "Older sister".[70]

During the Edo period, courtesans' undergoing mizuage were sponsored by a patron who had the right of taking their virginity.[71] This practice became illegal in 1959.[36] All maikos had to go through this ceremony in order to become a full fledged geisha. Once the mizuage patron's function was served (of deflowering the young maiko) he was to have no further relations with the girl.[72]

The money acquired for a maiko’s mizuage was a great sum and it was used to promote her debut as a geisha.[73] The ceremonial deflowering of the Geisha was not only a commercial transaction, but was a rite of passage:[5] A fully fledged geisha is a sophisticated "professional woman" expected to have worldly knowledge of the opposite sex.[69]

mizuage is technically illegal. Yet it is one of those things that while officially denied, still undoubtedly occurs sub rosa. Since apprentice maiko are now all over the age of consent anyway, they currently have a say in whether they have a mizuage or not, and it is no longer mandatory to be deflowered in order to come of age as a geisha.

—Liza Dalby, East Wind Melts the Ice[69]



Women posing as maiko (geisha apprentices), Kyoto, Japan, wearing traditional furisode and okobo

A geisha's appearance changes throughout her career, from the girlish, heavily made-up maiko, to the more sombre appearance of an older established geisha. Different hairstyles and hairpins signify different stages of a young girl’s development and even a detail as minute as the length of one’s eyebrows is significant. Short eyebrows are for the young and long eyebrows display maturity.[66]


Today, the traditional makeup of the apprentice geisha is one of their most recognizable characteristics, though established geisha generally only wear full white face makeup characteristic of maiko during special performances.

The traditional makeup of an apprentice geisha features a thick white base with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows. Originally, the white base mask was made with lead, but after the discovery that it poisoned the skin and caused terrible skin and back problems for the older geisha towards the end of the Meiji Era, it was replaced with rice powder.

The application of makeup is hard to perfect and is a time-consuming process. Makeup is applied before dressing to avoid dirtying the kimono. First, a wax or oil substance, called bintsuke-abura, is applied to the skin. Next, white powder is mixed with water into a paste and applied with a bamboo brush starting from the neck and working upwards. The white makeup covers the face, neck, and chest, with two or three unwhitened areas (forming a W or V shape, usually a traditional W shape) left on the nape, to accentuate this traditionally erotic area, and a line of bare skin around the hairline, which creates the illusion of a mask.

After the foundation layer is applied, a sponge is patted all over the face, throat, chest, the nape and neck to remove excess moisture and to blend the foundation. Next the eyes and eyebrows are drawn in. Traditionally, charcoal was used, but today, modern cosmetics are used. The eyebrows and edges of the eyes are colored black with a thin charcoal; a maiko also applies red around her eyes.

The lips are filled in using a small brush. The color comes in a small stick, which is melted in water. Crystallized sugar is then added to give the lips lustre. Rarely will a geisha color in both lips fully in the Western style, as white creates optical illusions and colouring the lips fully would make them appear overly large. The lower lip is colored in partially and the upper lip left white for maiko in her first year, after which the upper lip is also colored. Newly full-fledged geisha will color in only the top lip fully. Most geisha wear the top lip colored in fully or stylized, and the bottom lip in a curved stripe that does not follow the shape of the lip. Geisha round the bottom lips to create the illusion of a flower bud.

Maiko who are in their last stage of training sometimes color their teeth black for a brief period. This practice used to be common among married women in Japan and, earlier, at the imperial court, but survives only in some districts. It is done partly because uncoloured teeth seem very yellow in contrast to white face makeup; colouring the teeth black means that they seem to "disappear" in the darkness of the open mouth. This illusion is of course more pronounced at a distance.

For the first three years, a maiko wears this heavy makeup almost constantly. During her initiation, the maiko is helped with her makeup either by her onee-san, or "older sister" (an experienced geisha who is her mentor), or by the okaa-san, or "mother" of her geisha house. After this, she applies the makeup herself.

After a maiko has been working for three years, she changes her make-up to a more subdued style. The reason for this is that she has now become mature, and the simpler style shows her own natural beauty. For formal occasions, the mature geisha will still apply white make-up. For geisha over thirty, the heavy white make-up is only worn during those special dances that require it.


File:Minarai back (1).jpg

Rear view of a minarai in a teahouse, her richly embroidered obi clearly visible

Geisha always wear kimono. Apprentice geisha wear highly colorful kimono with extravagant obi. Always, the obi is brighter than the kimono she is wearing to give a certain exotic balance. Maiko wear the obi tied in a style called "darari" (dangling obi). Older geisha wear more subdued patterns and styles (most notably the obi tied in a simpler knot utilized by married women known as the "taiko musubi" (太鼓結び), or "drum knot").

An apprentice geisha's kimono will have, in addition to the heavy dangling obi, pocketed sleeves called "furi" that dangle all the way to the ground. During a dance or performance, an apprentice must wrap the pocketed sleeves around her arms many times to avoid tripping.

The color, pattern, and style of kimono is dependent on the season and the event the geisha is attending. In winter, geisha can be seen wearing a three-quarter length haori lined with hand-painted silk over their kimono. Lined kimono are worn during colder seasons, and unlined kimono during the summer. A kimono can take from two to three years to complete, due to painting and embroidering.

Geiko wear red or pink nagajuban, or under-kimono. A maiko wears red with white printed patterns. The junior maiko's collar is predominantly red with white, silver, or gold embroidery. Two to three years into her apprenticeship, the red collar will be entirely embroidered in white (when viewed from the front) to show her seniority. At around age 20, her collar will turn from red to white.

Geisha wear a flat-soled sandal, zori, outdoors, and wear only tabi (white split-toed socks) indoors. In inclement weather geisha wear raised wooden clogs, called geta. Maiko wear a special wooden clog known as okobo.

Under modern labor laws, girls cannot begin apprenticeship in the geisha world until they are eighteen (with an exception for Kyoto,[2] where fifteen year girls can become full-time apprentice maiko[74][75]) but they used to enter at age eleven or twelve and be full geisha by eighteen. Mineko Iwasaki, the inspirational character for Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha explains, "The whole idea is perfection. That’s why we need so much training. We can’t charge guests to look at imperfection. It has to be perfect."[66]


File:Maiko in Gion.jpg

The maiko Mamechiho in the Gion district of Kyoto. Notice the green pin on the mid-left called tsunagi-dango: this identifies her as a maiko of Gion kobu.

The hairstyles of geisha have varied through history. In the past, it has been common for women to wear their hair down in some periods, but up in others. During the 17th century, women began putting all their hair up again, and it is during this time that the traditional shimada hairstyle, a type of traditional chignon worn by most established geisha, developed.

There are four major types of the shimada: the taka shimada, a high chignon usually worn by young, single women; the tsubushi shimada, a more flattened chignon generally worn by older women; the uiwata, a chignon that is usually bound up with a piece of colored cotton crepe; and a style that resembles a divided peach, which is worn only by maiko. This is sometimes called "Momoware", or "split peach". Additional hairstyles: Ofuku, Katsuyama, Yakko-shimada, and Sakko. Maiko of Miyagawa-chō and Pontochō will wear an additional six hairstyles leading up to the Sakko, including Umemodoki, Oshidori no Hina, Kikugasane, and Osafune.

These hairstyles are decorated with elaborate hair-combs and hairpins (kanzashi). In the seventeenth century and after the Meiji Restoration period, hair-combs were large and conspicuous, generally more ornate for higher-class women. Following the Meiji Restoration and into the modern era, smaller and less conspicuous hair-combs became more popular.

Geisha sleep with their necks on small supports (takamakura), instead of pillows, so they could keep their hairstyle perfect.[39] To reinforce this habit, their mentors would pour rice around the base of the support. If the geisha's head rolled off the support while she slept, rice would stick to the pomade in her hair. Even if there are no accidents, a maiko will need her hair styled every week. Many modern geisha use wigs in their professional lives, while maiko use their natural hair.[76] Either must be regularly tended by highly skilled artisans. Traditional hairstyling is a slowly dying art. Over time, the hairstyle can cause balding on the top of the head.

In popular culture

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The growing interest in geisha and their exotic appearance have spawned various popular culture phenomena both in Japan and in the West. Western interest in geisha increased with the 1997 novel and 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha and the autobiography of former geisha Iwasaki Mineko, titled Geisha of Gion.

Geisha photography

  • A girl inherited Maiko (apprentice geisha) life (2007) by Naoyuki Ogino at the Canon Gallery, Japan
  • A Geisha's Journey (2008) Photographs by Naoyuki Ogino, text by Komomo, ISBN 9784770030672, Kodansha International [3]
  • Geisha of Pontocho (1954) by P.D. Perkins. Photographs by Francis Haar. Published by Tokyo News Service.

In film

  • Sisters of the Gion (1936) - Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Geisha Girl (1952) - Dir. George P. Breakston
  • The Life of Oharu (西鶴一代女 Saikaku Ichidai Onna) (1952) - Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • A Geisha (祇園囃子, Gion bayashi) (1953) - Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) - Dir. Daniel Mann
  • The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) - Dir. John Huston
  • The Geisha Boy (1958) - Dir. Frank Tashlin
  • Late Chrysanthemums (Bangiku) (1958) - Dir. Mikio Naruse
  • My Geisha (1962) - Dir. Jack Cardiff
  • The Wolves (1971) - Dir. Hideo Gosha
  • The World of Geisha (1973) - Dir. Tatsumi Kumashiro‎
  • In the Realm of the Senses (1976) - Dir. Nagisa Oshima
  • Yokiro(The Geisha) (1983) - Dir. Hideo Gosha
  • American Geisha (1986) - Dir. Lee Philips
  • Ihara Saikaku Koshoku Ichidai Otoko (1991) - Dir. Yukio Abe
  • The Geisha House (1999) - Dir. Kinji Fukasaku
  • The Sea is Watching (2002) - Dir. Kei Kumai
  • Zatoichi (2003) - Dir. Takeshi Kitano
  • Fighter in the Wind (2004) - Dir. Yang Yun-ho
  • Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) - Dir. Rob Marshall
  • Wakeful Nights (2005) - Dir. Masahiko Tsugawa
  • DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) - Dir. Cory Yuen
  • Maiko Haaaan!!! (2007) - Dir. Nobuo Mizuta

See also


  1. Rowley, G. G. (2005). Autobiography of a Geisha. Columbia University Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0231129510. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "World's oldest geisha looks to future to preserve past". 2007-12-03. Girls in the past could become apprentice geishas from the age of 13, but it is now illegal to become an apprentice before 18 except in Kyoto where a girl can be an apprentice at 15. 
  3. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  4. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Gallagher, John. Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance, and Art. London: PRC, 2003. ISBN 1856486974
  6. "History of geisha". Retrieved 2010-06-18. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 Lesley Downer, "The City Geisha and Their Role in Modern Japan: Anomaly or artistes", in Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon, eds, The Courtesan's Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006; ISBN 0195170288), pp. 223–242.[vague]
  8. Fujimoto, Taizo (1917). The Story of the Geisha Girl. p. 18. ISBN 9781408696842. 
  9. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  10. Fiorillo, J. "Osaka Prints: Glossary". geiko: 'Arts child,' originally dancing girls who were too young to be called geisha but too old (more than twenty years of age) to be called odoriko. Geiko was the pronunciation used in the Kamigata region. Some geiko operated as illegal prostitutes. By the nineteenth century the term became synonymous with geisha. 
  11. Tiefenbrun, S (2003). "Copyright Infringement, Sex Trafficking, and the Fictional Life of a Geisha" (pdf). Michigan Journal of Gender & Law 10: 32. doi:10.2139/ssrn.460747. 
  12. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found. —Gallagher says that "Kiku" from Fukugawa district founded the profession in 1750, and that by 1753 one hundred odoriko were consigned to Yoshiwara, which licensed (female) Geisha in 1761.
  13. Seigle (1931) p. 172-174
  14. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  15. Dalby, L. C. "The paradox of modernity". geisha. p. 74. OCLC 260152400.  External link in |title= (help)
  16. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 Dalby, Liza (1998). Geisha. Berkeley: University of California. 
  18. Dalby, Liza. "Do They or Don't They". Retrieved 12 January 2010. The question always comes up...just how 'available' is a geisha? [...] There is no simple answer. 
  19. Melissa Hope Ditmore (2006). Encyclopedia of prostitution and sex work. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-32969-9. , page 184[1]
  20. Japan encyclopedia. Belknap Pr of Harvard U. 2005. ISBN 0-674-01753-6. page 234
  21. Reynolds, Wayne; Gallagher, John (2003). Geisha : A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance and Art. PRC Publishing. p. 135. ISBN 1-85648-697-4. 
  22. "'Memoirs of a Geisha': From a silken world, feelings of betrayal". 2000. Until about three years ago, there was bidding for mizuage. For an 18-year-old geiko, the average was about 15 million yen," or $143,000, says a young geisha now working in Gion. She claims that men bid for her virginity three years ago. 
  23. Sims, C. (2001-06-19). "ARTS ABROAD; A Geisha, a Successful Novel and a Lawsuit". Retrieved 2010-06-18. Mr. Golden has said in past interviews with other publications that Ms. Iwasaki told him that her mizuage in 1970 set a bidding record, a contention she strongly denies. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 Mineko, Iwasaki; Rande Brown (2003). Geisha, A Life. New York: Washington Square.  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  25. "Kyoto Gokagai". Kyoto Traditional Musical Art Foundation.  —At the time Liza Dalby was studying the Kyoto geiko community (1975) Shimabara was a working hanamachi; it has since become a museum. The total number of Kyoto geisha had declined to 196 by 2007 (and 77 maiko) -see: "Preface “Geisha in the 21st Century” in the 25th anniversary edition of Geisha". 2008. 
  26. DalbyGeisha 2008 p. 17-18
  27. Russell, J. (1995-02-27). "Rebel geisha wanna-bes strike out on their own". Traditionally patronized by the rich, maiko at establishment houses charge $400 to $600 an hour  (This was the half-jewel fee.)
  28. As reported by Dalby (1983) from her impressions in 1975 (Geisha 2008 p.18,77,&148)
  29. In 1975 Liza Dalby's okāsan said "you should know about Miyagawa-chō. There's a word called 'double registration' —that's what many of the geisha in areas like that are." (Geisha 2008 p.6)
  30. Miles, S. "Gion, the Geisha District of Kyoto". The estimated cost for the 5 year apprenticeship, $0.50M US. This may explain that the number of registered Geisha’s in Kyoto is now just 223, less than a 5th of the numbers during the peak of area in the early 1900’s 
  31. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  32. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  33. Layton, J. "Dressing as a Geisha". 
  34. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  35. Melissa Hope Ditmore (2006). Encyclopedia of prostitution and sex work. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-32969-9. , page 184 [2]
  36. 36.0 36.1 Reynolds, Wayne; Gallagher, John (2003). Geisha : A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance and Art. PRC Publishing. ISBN 1-85648-697-4.  page 159
  37. De Mente, Boye (1966). Some Prefer Geisha. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company. 
  38. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 39.3 39.4 McCurry, J. (2005-12-11). "Career geisha outgrow the stereotype". p. 3. Retrieved 2010-06-21. 
  40. 40.0 40.1 Wieder, Tamara (17 October 2002). news_features/qa/documents/02473409.htm "Remaking a memoir" Check |url= value (help). Boston Phoenix. Retrieved 12 January 2010. 
  41. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  42. Hua, Julietta (2009). ""Gucci Geishas" and Post-feminism". Academic Search Premier. 
  43. Busch, N. L. (1947-03-17). "Tokyo Geisha". Life: 61. Girls to whom it ["geisha"] applies only as a euphemism copy the manners and appearance of real geisha 
  44. Jones, N. (2007-04-20). "Japan's geisha hit by poor economy". The Washington Times. now more [university] students are interested in becoming geisha 
  45. Kalman, B. (2008). Japan the Culture. p. 29. ISBN 9780778792987. 
  46. McCurry, J. (2005-12-11). "Career geisha outgrow the stereotype, page 2". The Age. Retrieved 2010-06-21. 
  47. 47.0 47.1 Coutsoukis, Photius (2004-11-10). "Japan Performing Arts". Retrieved 2009-06-02.  Originally from The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook.
  48. Coutsoukis, Photius (2004-11-10). "Japan Dance". Retrieved 2009-06-02.  Originally from The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook.
  49. Tames, Richard (September 1993). A Traveller's History of Japan. Brooklyn, New York: Interlink Books. ISBN 1566561388. 
  50. 50.0 50.1 Kalman, Bobbie (March 1989). Japan the Culture. Stevens Point, Wisconsin: Crabtree Publishing Company. ISBN 0865052069. 
  51. Dougill, John (2006). Kyoto: a cultural history. Oxford University Press. p. 182. ISBN 0195301374. 
  52. Merriam-Webster, Inc (2000). Merriam-Webster's collegiate encyclopedia. Merriam-Webster, Inc. p. 639. ISBN 0877790175. 
  53. Lies, Elaine (2008-04-23). "Modern-day geisha triumphs in closed, traditional world". Reuters. Retrieved 2009-06-02. 
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  55. "Turning Japanese: the first foreign geisha". The Independent. 2008-01-24. Retrieved 2009-06-02. 
  56. Ryall, Julian (2008-01-09). "Westerner inducted into mysteries of geisha". Retrieved 2009-06-02. 
  57. Jones, N. (2007-04-20). "Japan's geisha hit by poor economy". The Washington Times. Even the older sisters who became geisha as teenagers, they are [now] over 80 but still train every day 
  58. 58.0 58.1 Maske, Andrew L. "Geisha Beyond the Painted Smile." Peabody:Peabody Essex Museum, 2004:104
  59. "Selling dreams". 2007. Many foreigners have long assumed geisha are prostitutes because they are paid by predominantly male customers for their company. 
  60. Henshall, K. G., 1999, A History of Japan, Macmillan Press LTD, London, ISBN 0333749405, page 61
  61. Seigle, Cecilia Segawa (1993). Yoshiwara: the glittering world of the Japanese courtesan. [Honolulu]: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1488-6.  pages 170-175.
  62. Matsugu, Miho, 2006, "In the Service of the Nation: Geisha and Kawabata Yasunari's "Snow Country"", in Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon, ed. The Courtesan's Arts, Oxford University Press, London, ISBN 0195170288, page 244
  63. Masuda, Sayo, 2003, Autobiography of a Geisha, trans. G.G. Rowley, Columbia University Press, New York ISBN 0231129513
  64. Though all geisha have been unmarried, married women, like Sada Yacco, have been described as geisha after having retired, for example see: Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  65. Some geisha say that a man will always be in a sexual relationship with a geisha before he will sponsor her: Graham, K. (2006-01-08). "Geisha confidential". The Telegraph. Given that geishas themselves, it seems, can’t agree on what they do or don’t do, it’s not a surprise that outsiders sometimes struggle to get their facts straight. 
  66. 66.0 66.1 66.2 66.3 66.4 66.5 66.6 Sheridan Prasso, The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient PublicAffairs, 2005. ISBN 1586482149 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Prasso" defined multiple times with different content
  67. Ozeki, R. (2005). Inside and other short fiction: Japanese women by Japanese women. Kodansha International. ISBN 4770030061. 
  68. Alan Booth, Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan Kodansha Globe Series, 1995. ISBN 1568361483
  69. 69.0 69.1 69.2 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Citation/CS1/Suggestions' not found.
  70. Mineko Iwasaki. Geisha, A Life. (England: Atria Books, 2003) Pages 324-325 and 393.
  71. Seigle, Cecilia Segawa (1993). Yoshiwara: the glittering world of the Japanese courtesan. [Honolulu]: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1488-6.  page 179.
  72. Liza Crihfield Dalby. Geisha. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998)
  73. Lesley Downer. Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World. (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2000) Pages 256-266.
  74. "Yukina: Japan". BBC. 2005-02-21. At the age of 15, a Japanese girl is allowed by law to become a "maiko" or apprentice geisha 
  75. "Career geisha". 2005. Fifteen-year-old Shinaka [...] has just started her training. 
  76. "A Week in the Life of: Koaki, Apprentice Geisha - Schooled in the arts of pleasure". The Independent. 1998. 

Further reading

  • Aihara, Kyoko. Geisha: A Living Tradition. London: Carlton Books, 2000. ISBN 1858689376, ISBN 1858689708.
  • Ariyoshi Sawako, The Twilight Years. Translated by Mildred Tahara. New York: Kodansha America, 1987.
  • Burns, Stanley B., and Elizabeth A. Burns. Geisha: A Photographic History, 1872–1912. Brooklyn, N.Y.: powerHouse Books, 2006. ISBN 1576873366.
  • Downer, Lesley. Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha. New York: Broadway Books, 2001. ISBN 0767904893, ISBN 0767904907.
  • Ishihara, Tetsuo. Peter MacIntosh, trans. Nihongami no Sekai: Maiko no kamigata (The World of Traditional Japanese Hairstyles: Hairstyles of the Maiko). Kyōtō: Dōhōsha Shuppan, 1993. ISBN 4810412946.
  • Iwasaki, Mineko, with Rande Brown. Geisha, A Life (also known as Geisha of Gion). New York: Atria Books, 2002. ISBN 0743444329, ISBN 0756781612; ISBN 074343059X.
  • Masuda, Sayo. G.G. Rowley, trans. Autobiography of a Geisha. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. ISBN 0231129505. * Masuda, Sayo. G.G. Rowley, trans. Autobiography of a Geisha. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. ISBN 0231129505.
  • Scott, A.C. The Flower and Willow World; The Story of the Geisha. New York: Orion Press, 1960.

External links

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