Geisha (芸者 “person of the arts”) are traditional Japanese artist-entertainers. Geisha were very common in the 18th and 19th centuries, and are still in existence today, although their numbers are dwindling. “Geisha” is the most familiar term to English speakers, and the most commonly used within Japan as well, but in the Kansai region the terms geigi and, for apprentice geisha, “Maiko” have also been used. The English phrase “geisha girl,” common during the American occupation of Japan, carry connotations of prostitution, as some young women, desperate for money and calling themselves “geisha,” sold themselves to American troops.
The geisha tradition evolved from the taikomochi or hōkan, similar to court jesters. The first geisha were all male; as women began to take the role they were known as onna geisha or “woman artist”. Geisha today are exclusively female, aside from the Taikomochi. Taikomochi are exceedingly rare. Only three are currently registered in Japan. The Odoriko in particular influenced geisha to include dance as part of their artistic repertoire.
Geisha were traditionally trained from young childhood. Geisha houses often bought young girls from poor families, and took responsibility for raising and training them. During their childhood, apprentice geisha worked first as maids, then as assistants to the house’s senior geisha as part of their training and to contribute to the costs of their upkeep and education. This long-held tradition of training still exists in Japan, where a student lives at the home of a master of some art, starting out doing general housework and observing and assisting the master, and eventually moving up to become a master in her own right (irezumi). This training often lasts for many years.
The course of study traditionally starts from a young age and encompasses a wide variety of arts, including Japanese musical instruments (shamisen) and traditional forms of singing, traditional dance, tea ceremony, flower arranging (ikebana), poetry and literature. By watching and assisting senior geisha, they became skilled in the complex traditions surrounding selecting, matching, and wearing precious kimono, and in various games and the art of conversation, and also in dealing with clients.
Once a woman became an apprentice geisha (a maiko) she would begin to accompany senior geisha to the tea houses, parties and banquets that constitute a geisha’s work environment. To some extent, this traditional method of training persists, though it is of necessity foreshortened. Modern geisha are no longer bought by or brought into geisha houses as children. Becoming a geisha is now entirely voluntary. Most geisha now begin their training in their late teens.
Are Geisha Prostitutes?
Strictly speaking, geisha are not prostitutes. Because they entertain men behind closed doors in an exclusive manner, there has been much speculation about the underpinnings of their profession. The confusion that surrounds this issue has been complicated by Japanese prostitutes who wish to co-opt the prestige of the geisha image, and by inaccurate depictions of geisha in Western popular culture. Although a geisha may choose to engage in intimate relations with one of her patrons.
The first geisha was indeed a courtesan named Kako. Over time, she discovered that she had no need to engage in the red-light district. Kako was directly or indirectly to heir to many schools of Japanese art. She called herself a geisha (“arts-person”) and confined herself to giving artistic performances.
Occasionally, a geisha may choose to take a danna (an old fashioned word for husband), which is typically a wealthy man who has the means to support a geisha mistress. Although a geisha may fall in love with her danna, the affair is customarily contingent upon the danna’s ability to financially support the geisha’s lifestyle. The traditional conventions and values within such a relationship are very intricate and not well understood, even by many Japanese. Because of this, the true intimate role of the geisha remains the object of much speculation, and often misinterpretation, in Japan as well as abroad.