Japanese Geisha



Japanese Geisha in the news

Japanese embrace 'Letters' 

Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune - Jan 11 12:10 PM
Hollywood's recent attempts to tell stories set in Japan have produced some odd Asian-fusion fare. "The Last Samurai" from 2003 gave us Tom Cruise as an American Civil War veteran who mastered traditional warrior skills in a matter of months and delivered an inspiring lecture to Emperor Meiji on being Japanese. More recently, "Memoirs of a Geisha" cast three of China's top actresses in lead ...
Fast-Paised review: 'Letters from Iwo Jima' 
Metromix.com - Jan 11 12:38 PM
With "Flags of Our Fathers," director Clint Eastwood approached WWII's Battle of Iwo Jima from the American perspective. He chronicles the same time from the Japanese perspective in "Letters from Iwo Jima," featuring Ken Watanabe ("Memoirs of a Geisha," "The Last Samurai").

Letters From Iwo Jima 
KING 5 Seattle - 1 hour, 43 minutes ago
The skinny on Letters From Iwo Jima is that it's a big American World War II movie spoken in the Japanese language, and told from the Japanese perspective. The marvel is that you'll quickly stop thinking about these facts in the face of Letters' broad-shouldered humanism and finely etched drama of men who are almost certain they're going to die.

Turning Japanese 
Escape.com.au - Jan 11 5:57 PM
BARRY Dick bypasses the big smoke on a whirlwind trip to Japan, where 128 million people live with what seems like a vending machine each.

- Japanes Geisha

Here is an article on Japanese Geisha.

Women dressed up as maiko (geisha apprentices), Kyoto, Japan wearing traditional kimono and okobo.

Geisha (芸者?) are Japanees Geisha female Japanese entertainers whose profession includes music, dancing, and communication.


  • 1 Terms
  • 2 History Japnese Geisha and Jappanese Geisha evolution
  • 3 Stages of Training
  • 4 Modern geisha
  • 5 Geisha and prostitution
    • 5.1 Oiran Japanse Geisha and Japannese Geisha "Hotspring Geisha"
    • 5.2 Personal relationships and Danna
  • 6 Appearance
    • 6.1 Makeup
  • 7 Dress
  • 8 Hairstyles
  • 9 Geisha Japanee Geisha in Apanese Geisha popular culture
    • 9.1 Films featuring geisha
    • 9.2 Music Japaese Geisha featuring geisha
  • 10 References
  • 11 See also
  • 12 External links


"Geisha," pronounced /ˈgeɪ ʃa/, is the most Jpanese Geisha familiar term to English speakers. Like all Japanese nouns, there are no distinct singular or plural variants of the term. The word consists of two kanji, 芸 (gei) meaning "art" and 者 (sha) meaning "person" or "doer." The most direct translation of geisha into English would be "artist" or "arts person."

Another term used in Japan is geiko (芸妓), a word from the Kyoto dialect. Full-fledged geisha in Kyoto hanamachi are called geiko. This term is also commonly used in the Kansai region to distinguish geisha practiced in traditional arts from onsen geisha (see below), who are prostitutes that have co-opted the term geisha. Prostitutes wear their bow, or obi, in the front of their kimono, but geisha wear their obi in the back. True geisha usually had the luxury of a professional aid to help them in the difficult process of wearing dressing; their clothing is made up of several layers of kimono and undergarments, and an obi is more than a simple band of cloth. Dressing could take over an hour, even with professional help. Prostitutes, however, had to take off their obi several times a day, so theirs were far less complex, and tied in the front for ease of removal and replacement.

Apprentice geisha are called maiko (舞子 or 舞妓). This word is made of the kanji 舞 (mai) meaning "dancing" and 子 or 妓 (ko) meaning "child" or "young girl." It is the maiko, with her white make-up and elaborate kimono and wigs, that has become the stereotype of a "geisha" to Westerners, rather than the more demure true geisha.

History and evolution

Shows such as the Gion Corner in Kyoto include actors impersonating geiko and maiko.

Geisha originated as skilled professional entertainers; originally most were male. Geisha used their skills in traditional Japanese arts, music, dance, and storytelling. Town (machi) geisha worked freelance at parties outside the various pleasure quarters, while quarter (kuruwa) geisha entertained at parties within the pleasure quarters. As the artistic skills of high-ranking courtesans declined, the skills of the geisha, who were both male and female, became more in demand.

The geisha tradition takes many of its mannerisms from Kabuki. Male geisha, both past and present, tended to take on the sexual humor of Kabuki, carefully balancing their appeal as to not intimidate their male customers. Male geisha (taikomochi) were usually ugly, previously wealthy men who spent so much money on geishas that they had to turn professional. Popular geisha and Kabuki actors have generally been mutually supportive. The early predecessors of geisha were the female Kabuki actors. Geisha tradition is also connected with Noh, primarily in the Kyoto geisha's dance styles.

Male geisha (sometimes known as hōkan, more commonly known as taikomochi) gradually began to decline, and by 1800 female geisha (originally known as onna geisha, literally "woman geisha") outnumbered them by three to one, and the term "geisha" came to be understood as referring to skilled female entertainers, as it does today.

As a profession, they are entertainers and conversationalists, much like professional ballet dancers, classical musicians, or party emcees. They do give public concerts, but the majority of their business is in private engagements. Depending on what hanamachi they work in, their "gei" specialty differs. There are geisha who dance, geisha who play shamisen, and geisha who do both. Their clientele are most often businessmen, those with an appreciation for the classical arts and with money enough to pay for the expensive fees.

Stages of Training

Traditionally, they began their training at a very young age. Most girls were sold to geisha houses ("okiya") as children, and began their training in various traditional arts almost immediately. The only exception were the daughters of geisha, who were brought up as geisha themselves, usually as the successor ("atotori" or "musume-bun") to the okiya.

The first stage of training was called shikomi. When girls first arrived at the okiya, they would be put to work as maids. The work was difficult with the intent to "make" and "break" the new girls. The most junior shikomi of the house would have to wait late into the night for the senior geisha to return from engagements, sometimes as late as two or three in the morning. During this stage of training, the shikomi would go to classes at the hanamachi's geisha school. In modern times, this stage still exists, mostly to accustom the girls to the traditional dialect, traditions and dress of the "karyūkai".

Once the recruit became proficient with the geisha arts, and passed a final, nerve-wracking dance exam, she would be promoted to the second stage of training: minarai. Minarai do not do any housework; they can be hired for parties, but at significantly reduced fees. Minarai generally work closely with a particular tea house, learning from the "okaa-san" (the "mother" figure of their house) the techniques not taught in school, such as conversation and games. This stage lasts only about a month.

After a short period of time, the third (and most famous) stage of training began, called maiko. Maiko are apprentice geisha, and this stage can last for years. Maiko learn from their senior geisha mentor ("onee-san" meaning "older sister") and follow them around to all their engagements. The onee-san/imoto-san (junior) relationship is extremely important. Since the onee-san teaches her maiko everything about working in the hanamachi, her teaching is vital. She will teach her proper ways of serving tea, playing shamisen, and dancing, the casual talk of conversation, which is also important of a maiko to learn for future invitations to more teahouses and gatherings. One would suggest that geisha are prone to "flirt", but it is only their nature to seem demure and innocent. The onee-san will even help pick the maiko's new professional name, which is only one word, similar to raqs sharqi that while have one kanji or symbol related to her own name. Maiko are the flamboyantly dressed geisha most pictures of hanamachi show.

After a period as short as six months (in Tokyo) or as long as five years (in Kyoto), the maiko is promoted to geiko, which is a full-fledged geisha. Geiko charge full price for their time. Geisha remain geiko until they retire.

Modern geisha

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 who are successful enough 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").

Young women who wish to become geisha now most often begin their training after completing junior high school or even high school or college, with many women beginning their careers in adulthood. Geisha still study traditional instruments like the shamisen, shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and drums, as well as traditional songs, Japanese traditional dance, tea ceremony, literature and poetry. By watching other geisha, and with the assistance of the owner of the geisha house, apprentices also become skilled in the complex traditions surrounding selecting and wearing kimono, and in dealing with clients.

Kyoto is considered by many 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.

A geiko entertains a businessman at a gathering in Gion, Kyoto.

In modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight outside hanamachi. In the 1920s there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today there are far fewer. The exact number is unknown to outsiders, and is estimated to be from 10,000 to 20,000. Rarely will visitors to Kyoto's Gion district catch a glimpse of a maiko on her way to or from an appointment. More common are sightings of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed up as a maiko.

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

Geisha are often hired to attend parties and gatherings, traditionally at tea houses (茶屋, ochaya) or at traditional Japanese restaurants (ryōtei). Their time is measured by the time it takes an incense stick to burn, and 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.

Geisha and prostitution

A Japanese woman dressed as an Oiran, with attendants.

There remains some confusion, particularly outside Japan, about the nature of the geisha profession. Geisha are frequently depicted as expensive prostitutes in Western popular culture, which is incorrect: in fact, geisha have worked under intense restrictions in the past (specific hours and places of work, needing an escort at all times, etc.) because they were not prostitutes and it was believed that they would steal the paying hours of the Oiran's customers.

Oiran and "Hotspring Geisha"

Main article: Oiran

Geisha have been confused with the traditional high-class courtesans called oiran. Like geisha, oiran wear elaborate hairstyles and white makeup. A simple way to distinguish between the two is that oiran, as prostitutes, tie their obi in the front. Geisha tie their obi in the back in the usual manner.

In Japan there is also a modern variety of prostitute known as the Onsen geisha. These women typically work in onsen towns such as Atami and market themselves to tourists as "geisha".

Personal relationships and Danna

Geisha are expected to be single women. Those who choose to marry must retire from the profession. While geisha engagements may include flirting, this is not expected. A true geisha ("Geiko") is not paid for sex, although an individual geisha may choose to pursue sexual relationships with men she meets through her work outside the context of her role as a geisha.

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.

Although a geisha and her danna may be in love, sex is not expected in exchange 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.


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.


Typical nape make-up.

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

The traditional makeup of an apprentice geisha features a thick white base (originally made with lead or rice powder) with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows.

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. The white makeup covers the face, neck, and chest, with two or three unwhitened areas (forming a "W" or "V" 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 and 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 coloured black; a maiko also applies red around her eyes.

The lips are filled in using a small brush. The colour 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. The lower lip is colored in partially and the upper lip left white for maiko, and 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.

Maiko who are in their first stage of training will sometimes color their teeth black for a short period of time. This practice used to be common among many different classes of women in Japan, but survives only in some districts, or even families.

For the first three years, a maiko wears this heavy makeup almost constantly. During her initiation the maiko is helped with her makeup by either her "older sister" (an experienced geisha who is her mentor) or the "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 special dances which require her to wear make-up for her part.

Further information: History of cosmetics


A rare photograph of a maiko turned around in a teahouse; her richly embroidered obi is visible.

Geisha always wear kimono. Apprentice geisha wear highly colourful kimono with extravagant obi. Always, the obi is brighter than the kimono she is wearing to give a certain exotic balance. Older geisha wear more subdued patterns and styles. The sign of a prosperous okiya is having geisha not wearing a kimono more than once, meaning that those okiyas with higher economic status will have "storehouses" of sorts where kimono are stored and interchanged between geisha.

The colour, pattern, and style of kimono is also dependent on the season and the event the geisha is attending. In winter, geisha can be seen wearing a three-quarter length "overcoat" 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 2-3 years to complete, due to painting and embroidering.

Geiko wear fully white nagajuban, or under-kimono. A maiko wears red with white floral patterns. Her kimono collar's silver embroidery progresses further down her nape until the two ends meet; once this happens, her collar "turns" and she becomes a geiko.

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 black lacquered wooden clog, okobo.


A Maiko in the Gion district of Kyoto.

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.'

These hairstyles are decorated with elaborate haircombs 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 were trained to sleep with their necks on small supports (takamakura), instead of pillows, so they could keep their hairstyle perfect. 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 they slept, rice would stick to her hair and face. The geisha would thus have to repeat the tiresome process of having her hair elaborately styled.

Many modern geisha use wigs in their professional lives. They must be regularly tended by highly skilled artisans. Traditional hairstyling is a dying art.

Geisha in popular culture

Movie Poster for Memoirs of a Geisha.

The growing interest in geisha and their exotic appearance have spawned various popular culture phenomena both in Japan and in the West, most recently so-called "geisha-inspired" make-up lines promoted in the West after the popularity of the novel and film Memoirs of a Geisha. It should be noted that geisha have a much more significant place in Western imagery of Japan than they do within Japan itself. In reality, geisha are quite small in number and primarily the elite hire them, but their ubiquity in Western writings about Japan belies their true small numbers. It should also be kept in mind that Western fiction about geisha should not be necessarily trusted as a solid source of information.

Films featuring geisha

  • Sisters of the Gion (1936) - Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Geisha Girl (1952) - Dir. George P. Breakston
  • A Geisha (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
  • My Geisha (1962) - Dir. Jack Cardiff
  • The World of Geisha (1972) - Dir. Tatsumi Kumashiro
  • American Geisha (1986) - Dir. Lee Philips
  • The Geisha House (1999) - Dir. Kinji Fukasaku
  • Zatoichi - Dir. Takeshi Kitano
  • Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) - Dir. Rob Marshall

Music featuring geisha

  • "Neo Geisha" by Zeromancer on the album "Eurotrash"


  • Dalby, Liza Crihfield (1983). Geisha. Berkeley, California, United States: University of California Press
  • Foreman, Kelly M. (2002). "The Role of Music in the Lives and Identities of Japanese Geisha." Ph. D. dissertation. Kent, Ohio, United States: Kent State University.
  • Foreman, Kelly M. (2005). 'Bad Girls Confined: Okuni, Geisha, and the Negotiation of Female Performance Space,' in Bad Girls of Japan, edited by Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley. Palgrave MacMillain Press.
  • Manabu Miyazaki (2005). Toppamono: Outlaw. Radical. Suspect. My Life in Japan's Underworld. Kotan Publishing. ISBN 0-9701716-2-5.
  • BBC television documentary Geisha Girl. First shown on UK channel BBC Four in January 2006.
  • Naomi Graham-Diaz. "Make-Up of Geisha and Maiko". Immortal Geisha (2001). link - last accessed on January 19, 2005.
  • Gallagher, John. (2003). Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance and Art. London: PRC Publishing

See also

  • Sing-song girls
  • Kisaeng
  • Tayu
  • Jokyu
  • Liza Dalby
  • Mineko Iwasaki
  • A Geisha (祇園囃子, Gion bayashi) is a 1953 Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. It stars Michiyo Kogure as Miyoharu, the eponymous geisha.
  • Memoirs of a Geisha, a fictional novel and film
  • Japanese tea ceremony
  • Yumi Ishiyama (a character from the French animated television series Code Lyoko, whose Lyoko attire is that of a geisha's)
  • Kanzashi
  • Kimono
  • Oiran, a traditional Japanese prostitute
  • Shirabyoshi
  • Taikomochi

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
  • Graham (Diaz), Naomi, "Immortal Geisha"
  • The flower and willow world "Hanamachi" (German)
  • Cohen, Kathleen, "Geisha History". School of Art and Design. San José State University.
  • Patterson, Sofia, "Karyukai"
  • Japonismo.com Traditional and modern Japanese culture, with a section dedicated to geisha "Geisha, arte y tradición" (Spanish)
  • Dorda, Cristina, "Geigi Gakko" (Spanish)
  • Geisha
  • Geisha Photo Gallery
  • Japanese Geisha Dance
  • Japanese Geisha Dance II
  • Japanese Geisha Dance III
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