Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Geisha

The Geisha (or Geiko or Geigi) are traditional, female Japanese entertainers whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music and dance. Geisha have their roots in female entertainers such as the Saburuko of the 7th century and the Shirabyoshi, who emerged around the early 13th century. They would perform for the nobility and some even became concubines to the emperor. It was in the late 16th century that the first walled-in pleasure quarters were built in Japan. Like so many aspects of Japanese culture, they were modelled after those of Ming Dynasty China.
The word consists of two kanji (gei) meaning "art" and 者 (sha) meaning "person" or "doer". The most literal translation of geisha into English would be "artist" or "performing artist".
Apprentice geisha are called maiko(舞子, lit. "dance child") or hangyoku (半玉), "half-jewel" (meaning that they are paid half the wage as opposed to a full geisha), or by the more generic term o-shaku (御酌), literally "one who pours (alcohol)". Traditionally, Geisha began their training at a very young age. Although some girls were bonded to geisha houses (okiya) as children, this was not a common practice in reputable districts. 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 will start her formal training on the job as a minarai. 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.
After a short period of time the final of training begins. Maiko are apprentice geisha, and this stage can last for years. Maiko learns from their senior geisha mentor and follows them around to all their engagements. The onee-san and imouto-san (senior/junior, literally "older sister/younger sister") relationship is important. Since the onee-san teaches her maiko everything about working in the hanamachi, her teaching is vital. There are 5 different hairstyles that the maiko wear, that mark the different stages of her apprenticeship. She 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. When a girl is around 20-22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha in a ceremony called erikae (turning of the collar). 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.
There remains some confusion, even within Japan, about the nature of the geisha profession. Geisha are regarded as prostitutes by many Westerners. 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.
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.
Geisha are expected to be single women; those who choose to marry must retire from the profession. 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.
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.The geisha round the bottom lips to create the illusion of a flower bud. Maiko who are in their last stage of training will sometimes colour their teeth black for a short period of time. This practice used to be common among married women in Japan and, earlier, at the imperial court, but survives only in some districts, or even families. In contrast to the white makeup, teeth seem very yellow; 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.
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.
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"). The sign of a prosperous okiya is having geisha not wearing a kimono more than once, meaning that those okiya with higher economic status will have "storehouses" of sorts where kimono are stored and interchanged between geisha.
Kimono can be as many as 12 or 15 layers thick for a maiko. An apprentice geisha's kimono will have, in addition to the heavy dangling obi, pocketed sleeves called "furi" which 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 also 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.
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 she slept, rice would stick to the pomade in her hair. The geisha would thus have to repeat the tiresome process of having her hair elaborately styled. Without this happening, a geisha will have her hair styled every week or so. Many modern geisha use wigs in their professional lives, while maiko use their natural hair. However, either one 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.


  1. Those red shoes!!
    How does one walk comfortably in those!?!!

    My my my .. Interesting culture though.

  2. yes, it is! i've always been fascinated by it, hence the post :)