What you did not know about Geisha (芸者)

Which three words come into your mind immediately when you think of Geisha? For me, beauty, mystery, and grace come to mind, as does Kyoto.
Geisha and Kyoto are practically synonymous. Although there are/were some in Tokyo as well, the very concept of these mysterious women with their almost ethereal white-painted faces comes from Japan’s ancient (former) capital city.

Most of you out there in the cybersphere have probably seen the always stunning looking Geisha in pictures, or in a certain controversial Hollywood movie starring Zhang Ziyi.
With their truly unique appearance and mysterious aura, Geisha are inseparable from Japanese society and mythology; but what exactly is a Geisha? Are they artists, courtesans, a mixture of both, or perhaps neither?


Made up of the two Kanji for Art (芸) and Person or “doer” (者), these artisans can trace the origins of their craft all the way back to the 7th century. Still called Saburuko (serving girls) at the time, there were two factions so to speak: While some sold sexual services, others with a better education made a living by entertaining at high-class social gatherings.

Eventually, the nighttime entertainment trade became quite popular in the capital city (Kyoto at the time), so the Saburuko eventually became the Geisha’s distant predecessor, called “Tayuu” – a combination of actress and prostitute, originally playing on stages set in the dry Kamo riverbed in Kyoto. Since in ancient Japan, having a courtesan on the side was quite normal for most wealthy men, the Shogunate in 1617 built walled-in pleasure quarters within which prostitution was legal. These quarters became an enclosed fantasy world of hedonistic pleasures, and were enjoyed by many “businessmen”. The courtesans in these pleasure districts over time evolved into the aforementioned Tayuu.

As these quarters became more and more glamorous entertainment hubs, certain artistic specialisations emerged, and the women who could entertain their clientele by singing, dancing, and playing music, thrived. They were known as Odoriko (dancing girls). As the entertainment became more sophisticated, the Geisha, who are not in any way related to the prostitution industry, emerged.
As a matter of fact, the Geisha were strictly forbidden to sell sex.
It was quite the opposite for these high-class artisans, in fact; a true Geisha’s sex and love life is usually very distinct from her professional life.

There are many rules, traditions, and a clear hierarchy in their world. First, there is a significant difference between Geisha and Maiko (舞妓 apprentice geisha). The white make-up, elaborate kimono and hair of a Maiko is actually the popular image most people have when thinking of Geisha.

Historically, Geisha often began the earliest stages of their training at a very young age, sometimes as early as 3 or 5 years of age. With the promise of a free, high-class education, the girls were bonded to their Geisha houses called Okiya. The Okiya would supply the girls with a roof over their heads, food, kimono (plural), training, and all the other necessities of the trade. In exchange, the Maiko (and eventually Geisha) would have to pay back this “debt” over time through a percentage of her earnings.
The clothes and ornamentation they wear daily bear a hefty price tag.
Some items, such as the brooches they wear, can cost up to ¥4,000,000!!!

At the early stages, the girls are called Minarai, which translates to “learn by watching”. You can pretty much guess what their job duties are – attend events to sit and observe the Maiko and Geisha and their interactions with customers.
After a few years of this, they graduate to become a Maiko, or apprentice Geisha. At this stage, their Job consists of performing songs, dances, and playing the shamisen or koto for visitors during traditional feasts.
Maiko are usually quite young (between 15-20 years old), and advance to full Geisha after that.

At one time in history, there were thousands of Maiko and Geisha (Geiko in Kyoto) in Japan, but due to the arduous training, and the war, that number severely declined, leaving only very few to carry on the tradition.

The decline of the geisha dramatically increased during World War 2. Girls and women had to perform other jobs to aid Japan’s war effort. After the war, many prostitutes began to refer to themselves as ‘geisha girls’ to american military soldiers and thus, the term Geisha lost popularity for males as the traditional Geishas reputation was lost.

Common Misconceptions

Even though most people, or rather almost everyone has probably seen a Geisha at least in pictures, some common misconceptions about Geisha/Maiko persist:

  • There’s only one style / type of Geisha.
    There were / are actually quite a few distinct “types” or ranks of Geisha, as you just read above.
  • There are still lots of Geisha in Kyoto / Japan
    As much as we wish the mystery and elegance of the days of yore was still in clear abundance, the trade of Geisha was hit hard after WWII, and now there are only around 1,000 left in Japan. During their heyday, there were around 80,000.
  • Geisha were/are only in Japan.
    Although usually associated exclusively with Japan, Geisha have and occasionally still do actually travel abroad for some special performances.
  • It’s easy to see Geisha in Japan – especially while you’re visiting Kyoto.
    Popular movies or misconceptions about Japan would have you believe that they are quite common and that anybody can see a Geisha/Geiko/Maiko performance in the land of the rising sun. That’s a nice dream, but the reality is quite different. Given that there aren’t that many Geisha still around (number), and the fact that they almost exclusively perform in private, members-only teahouses, makes seeing a performance extremely difficult and thus rare even for most Japanese to see. Recently, to appeal to the influx of tourists, some Ryokan have started allowing people and guests to attend a special Maiko / Geisha show, however.
  • Only women can be called Geisha.
    While that’s certainly true today, here’s something you definitely did not know: the very first Geisha were men!!!
    Similar to an opening band, the first Geisha were men, who’s job was to entertain customers waiting to see the most popular and gifted courtesans (oiran) in ancient Kyoto.
  • Geisha can relax completely and be “normal” after finishing their shift.
    It’s actually rather difficult for Geisha to completely relax – even at home. For a Geisha there’s a rule for everything from standing the correct way to sitting the correct way, so slouching on your couch with some popcorn while watching a movie is a big no-no.
  • If you’d like to experience a Geisha performance for yourself, arguably one of the best places is Gion Hatanaka – an excellent Ryokan, where you can not only relax in a traditional style, but also experience and participate in a Geisha performance

So if you happen to find yourself wandering the streets of Kyoto and happen to be near Gion, make sure not to miss this very rare opportunity.  It really is a truly special experience that should not be misse, no matter if you’re just visiting Japan, or have lived here for a while.