What Is a Geisha? The Complete History - Just About Japan (2024)

What Is a Geisha? The Complete History - Just About Japan (1)

What is a geisha?

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A geisha is a traditional Japanese entertainer who performs arts such as singing and dancing. They start training from a young age in the art of entertaining and often wear elaborate kimonos and makeup.

The word “geisha” means “art person,” and these women were once considered some of the most refined and cultured people in Japanese society. Are you ready to learn the complete geisha history and look inside their lives? Keep reading!

What Is a Geisha: Answered

What is a geisha?You know they’re entertainers, but when exactly did they start to appear?

Geishas first appeared in the late 1600s, although they were not as familiar or respected as they would become in later years. In the 1800s, geishas became increasingly popular, particularly in the large cities of Kyoto and Tokyo. At this time, there were many more women than men in Japan, and geishas were often hired to entertain at parties and other gatherings.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), the role of geishas began to change. Many Japanese people became interested in Western culture, and the traditional arts of the geishas were not as popular as they once were. In addition, the Meiji government passed a law that prohibited women from selling sex, which further changed the Geisha’s role in society.

Despite these changes, some geishas continued to work throughout the Meiji period and into the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, a renewed interest in traditional Japanese culture arose, and geishas again became popular (see also ‘Who Are The Most Famous Geisha In History?‘).

Today, there are still a few hundred geishas working in Japan (see also ‘15 Interesting Facts About Geisha‘). They typically work in the larger cities of Kyoto and Tokyo and often entertain at private parties and other events. While their role has changed over the years, geishas are still considered some of the most refined and cultured people in Japanese society.

Famous Geishas

Hatsumomo was one of the most famous geishas of her time. She was popular for her beauty, skill as an entertainer, and notoriously sharp tongue. Hatsumomo was also infamous for her jealous and manipulative nature, which often got her into trouble.

There was also Sayuri. Shewas a geisha who lived in Japan during the first half of the 20th century.

As a child, she had to overcome slavery. But eventually rose to become one of the most successful geishas in Japan. Sayuri’s story is prevalent in the novel and film Memoirs of a Geisha.

Geishas in Popular Culture

Geishas are often seen as a symbol of traditional Japanese culture and beauty. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in geishas in Japan and abroad.

This renewed interest is obvious in popular culture, with several recent films and books about geishas gaining popularity. In addition to Memoirs of a Geisha, other popular books include Snow Falling on Cedars and Sayonara. The book was later adapted into a film starring Marlon Brando.

Geishas and Japanese Art Throughout History

Geishas are also popular historically in Japanese art, with many famous painters and photographers depicting these intriguing women in their work. The Geisha is also on display in several traditional Japanese woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e. These prints often show geishas engaged in everyday activities, such as eating and drinkingor playing musical instruments.

Uncovering Geisha Myths

Geishas have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, often shrouded in mystery. In the Western world, the word “geisha” is often used interchangeably with “prostitute,” but this is a very offensive misconception.

Geishas are not prostitutes; they are highly skilled entertainers who provide companionship and perform traditional Japanese dances and music. Although geishas may sometimes engage in sexual relationships, this is not their primary purpose.

The vast majority of geishas are women, but there are also male geishas known as “taikomochi.” If you ever find yourself in Japan, be sure to treat the geishas with respect – you wouldn’t want to offend them!

Years of Training

Geishas are renowned for their grace, beauty, and skills in traditional Japanese arts. But many people don’t realize that becoming a geisha is a years-long rigorous training process.

In order to achieve the level of perfection that is expected of them, geishas must learn how to play a variety of traditional instruments, sing, dance, and engage in conversation. They also undergo strict etiquette training so that they always know the proper way to behave in any situation.

All of this training takes years to complete, but the results are truly stunning. When you see a geisha perform, you are witnessing the result of centuries of tradition and artistry.

Where Can You See Geishas?

If you’re interested in seeing geishas, there are a few ways to do so. The easiest way is to visit large cities like Kyoto or Tokyo. There you can find geishas working in the traditional entertainment districts.

You can also sometimes see Geisha at public events, such as festivals or parades. However, it’s important to remember that geishas are not public figures, and they should not be photographed or disturbed without their permission.

The best way to see geishas is to attend a traditional Japanese tea ceremony or another event where they are performing. This will allow you to see them up close and appreciate their artistry.

Special Banquets and Festivals

What type of banquets do geishas entertain at? These can be private parties or more public gatherings, such as festivals or parades.

At a banquet, geishas typically serve tea and light snacks to the guests. They may also perform traditional Japanese dances or music.

Geisha Japanese Fashion

Geisha Japanese fashion is all about tradition and color. Geishas typically wear distinctive white face makeup and brightly colored kimonos. The colors and patterns of their kimonos often indicate their rank and experience level.

For example, a maiko ( apprentice geisha) will usually wear a colorful kimono with an elaborate pattern, while an experienced geisha will typically opt for a more subdued look.

In addition to their kimonos, geishas also wore stylish obi (sashes), zori (sandals), and geta (wooden clogs). Today, geishas continue to dress in traditional clothing when they perform at banquets and other events.

However, they also have the option of wearing more modern attire when they are not working. Regardless of what they are wearing, geishas always strive to look their best and exude an air of refinement and grace.

Geisha Lifestyle and Customs

The geisha lifestyle involves following a strict code of conduct that prohibits them from engaging in sexual relationships. One of the most important rules for Geisha is that they cannot have children. This is because having children would interfere with their ability to work and entertain.

As a result, Geisha typically adopt daughters who will carry on the tradition. While the life of a geisha may seem restrictive, it is also a unique and fascinating way of life. However, it should be noted that not all women who enter the geisha lifestyle do so of their own free will.

In the past, some women were sold into geishas by their families as a way to make money. Thankfully, this is no longer common practice. Geishas today choose to enter the profession voluntarily.

Most FascinatingGeisha Traditions

There are many different aspects of geisha culture that have fascinated people for centuries. Here are some of the most intriguing traditions that continue to captivate audiences worldwide.

For instance, ichisumi is the art of tattooing. In traditional geisha culture, it was customary for young girls to receive tattooing on their necks and chests.

The traditional tattoos serve as a sign of their membership in the geisha community. While this practice is no longer as common, it is still considered to be an important part of the geisha tradition.

Miyabi is the traditional quest for beauty. Geishas are popular for their dedication to beauty and elegance.

They spend hours perfecting their skills in makeup, hairstyling, and clothing. This attention to detail is what sets them apart from other members of Japanese society.

Okiya are traditionally responsible for training new geishas, providing them with lodging and clothing, and introducing them to potential clients. It’s an honorable position to hold and maintain. The relationship between an okiya and its geishas is one of great trust and respect.

Finally, shikomi is the apprenticeship process. To become a geisha, girls must undergo a rigorous apprenticeship process known as Nishikori. This training can last for several years and includes everything from learning proper etiquette to mastering the traditional arts of dance and music.

Expanding Your World

What is a geisha? Now you know!

Take the top thing you had fun learning from this article and share it with a friend. Expanding your world helps expand the world of those around you!

You can also have fun exploring more of this website and learning more fascinating facts about Japan. We have an entire travel section, too, so you can make all of your traveling dreams come true.

If you want to keep learning about Japan’s fascinating culture, you’re in the right place. Enjoy our site!

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What Is a Geisha? The Complete History - Just About Japan (2024)


What Is a Geisha? The Complete History - Just About Japan? ›

Often assumed to be courtesans, geisha are actually quite different as “gei” means art and “sha” means someone who does. Basically, they are more like private entertainers and purveyors of Japanese traditions; they sing, dance, play instruments, converse, and perform other arts for their audiences.

What is the real history of geisha? ›

History of the Geisha

Traditionally, geishas were assistants to the oiran, the collective name for Japan's highest-ranking courtesans and elite prostitutes during the Edo period (also a time in history when prostitution was legal in Japan).

What exactly does a geisha do? ›

Geisha (芸者) (/ˈɡeɪʃə/; Japanese: [ɡeːɕa]), also known as geiko (芸子) (in Kyoto and Kanazawa) or geigi (芸妓), are female Japanese performing artists and entertainers trained in traditional Japanese performing arts styles, such as dance, music and singing, as well as being proficient conversationalists and hosts.

What does a Japanese geisha symbolize? ›

A romantic symbol of classical Japan, geisha are traditionally shown as enigmatic, elegant, powerful, sexual and even lonely figures who have become a shadow of their former selves in the modern day.

What happens when geishas get old? ›

For the rest who chose to be a geisha it is a lifetime profession though so many geisha eventually quit in their thirties and forties and become housewives. If they don't quit, most geisha become an okiya owner or inherit the okiya they are affiliated and run a geisha house.

Why do geishas have white faces? ›

The white face makeup customary to geisha and maiko originated in China. At that time, they wore thick white makeup because it looked better in the light, particularly if they were to perform to or entertain nobles. In the dim candlelight, wearing thick white makeup created a porcelain look.

Do geishas still exist today? ›

Nowadays, there are just 1,000 geisha left in Japan, most of whom live and work predominantly in Tokyo and Kyoto. These modern geisha tend to remain within their district, where they're treated with the utmost respect by Japanese locals, and not approached for photos or conversation.

How did geishas sleep? ›

It is therefore in everyone's interest to keep the hair in immaculate condition. For this reason, a Geisha sleeps with her neck on a small wooden support or takamakura. This can cause crippling pain and sleep deprivation, and keeping the head balanced on the stand is a difficult skill to master.

What happens in a geisha house? ›

The okiya are lodging houses where the fully trained and in-training geisha stay together. They live their daily lives and work within the house. Some okiya are structures equipped to entertain and may have a tea house. These amenities would allow the ability to show their skills to clients.

Is a geisha a concubine? ›

Geisha were entertainers who were indentured to geisha houses through a contract system, whereas concubines had a 'stable, ongoing sexual relationship' with a man of the household but occupied a position below the wife. In Japan, concubines were registered as part of the household until 1882.

Do geisha get paid? ›

Hori estimates that a two-hour session commonly costs the customer around 50,000 yen (about US$450). That impressive sum pays not only the geisha's salary, but it also goes toward the expensive, resplendent kimono and hairstyle that she wears. Sessions also require full makeup.

What is the geisha seduction? ›

For five years the geisha is rigorously trained in the most sensual traditional arts but it's through the smallest movements that she bewitches. As shown so brilliantly in the movie 'Memoirs of a Geisha': a good geisha can bring a man to his knees by merely exposing her wrist when she pours him tea.

Why are geishas so respected? ›

Geisha were created to pamper men—but they were also the freest women in old Japan, and masters of the arts of calligraphy, flower arranging, music, dance, and drama. Here, a present-day geisha in Gion, one of Kyoto's historic quarters.

Can geisha have boyfriends? ›

Geisha aren't allowed to have a boyfriend. But in the course of work, of entertaining patrons with Japan's highest forms of cultural entertainment, a patron may become fond of a particular geisha.

What do geishas do when they retire? ›

When a geisha marries, she retires from the profession. If she does not marry, she usually retires as a restaurant owner, teacher of music or dance, or trainer of young geisha. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by J.E. Luebering.

Why can't geishas marry? ›

This strict rule is only enforced because a geisha is expected to be married to her work, and a husband could distract her. However, Kyoto women can enter civil unions and raise children without giving up their careers. Outside of Kyoto, geisha have been known to get married, start a family, and continue working.

Was Memoirs of a Geisha a true story? ›

No, it is not based on a true story. However, a real geisha, named Mineko Iwasaki, sued the author of the book because of defamation. Surprisingly, not the plot, but some characters in the book resembled some of the real characters in Mineko Iwasaki's life that she shared with the author in a private conversation.

What is the story of a geisha girl? ›

Memoirs of a Geisha is a historical fiction novel by American author Arthur Golden, published in 1997. The novel, told in first person perspective, tells the story of Nitta Sayuri and the many trials she faces on the path to becoming and working as a geisha in Kyoto, Japan, before, during and after World War II.

What happened to geishas during WWII? ›

During World War II, many geisha were sent to factories to participate in the war effort. Meanwhile, prostitutes were inspired by the geisha style and emulated them in order to win favor with American soldiers. The latter, very fond of those they called "geisha girls" helped propagate this idea.

Who is the most famous geisha in history? ›

Kiharu Nakamura, Sada Yacco, and Mineko Iwasaki are historical figures in geisha history who have impacted Japanese culture and entertainment. These talented artists have captivated audiences with exceptional skills, mesmerizing performances, and unwavering dedication.

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