Japanese Geisha and Maiko: From Past to Present

Japanese Geisha and Maiko: From Past to Present

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Geisha and Maiko
Picture: Kyodo News Service / Getty Images
Dispelling some of the myths around traditional geisha and maiko, and understanding the training, history, and evolution of geisha from the past to today.

With their colorful kimono, exotic makeup, and extravagant hair ornaments, geisha women are regarded as a beautiful, living remnant of traditional Japanese culture. But like many things in history, Japanese geisha were much different from the image many people have today.

Japanese Geisha: A History

The term “geisha” is originally a gender-less word. In the beginning, it simply meant “entertainer” or “person of the arts.” In fact, the first traditional geisha were all male performers. And contrary to popular belief, female geisha were not prostitutes or sex workers.

Early Japan was also a time of turmoil and upheaval. War and disaster tore families apart, leaving many children on their own. There were not a lot of job options for women at the time, let alone for young girls without family to support them.

Many became “saburuko,” or wandering “service girls.” The job did indeed often involve sexual services. However, girls from a “better background” found they could sell their services at high-class events as entertainers rather than prostitutes. It was these more advantaged young women who would start the movement of the traditional female Japanese geisha.

Setting the Stage For Japanese Geisha

In the late 700s, Kyoto (then Heian-kyo) became the imperial capital of Japan. At the same time, Kyoto flourished as a center of culture and art. With this new artistic boom came a new appreciation – or obsession – for the beautiful. And elite young women, many talented performers, flourished as well.

By the 1600s, the shogunate established the “pleasure quarters.” Prostitution was legal here. Common courtesans made their living as professional sex workers. However, some of these women developed their skills as well.

These women became “yujo” – officially licensed, performing prostitutes. Their job was a combination of acting, dancing, and sexual services. The dances they performed, called “kabuku,” often involved some essence of eroticism. It was these women, along with their male geisha counterparts, who were the predecessors to kabuki theater.


An Emphasis on Modesty

Eventually, people started to distinguish between elegant performances and pure pleasure. Elites began to focus more on skill and talent. Chaste female performers who worked outside of the sex industry were glamorized. Patrons paid a pretty penny for performances by the most skilled, most beautiful, and most modest young women.

This created a split between female entertainers. Skilled women who continued to sell sexual services became “oiran,” or skilled courtesans. Those who did not became “odoriko,” or dancing girls. These odoriko were the predecessors to female Japanese geisha.

Odoriko were modest, young, virgin girls who were personally hired by the wealthy elite. Odoriko peaked as a profession in the late 1600s. However, as the years went on, the original odoriko grew old. Because the profession only accepted young women, mostly in their teens, older performers needed something to do. While some turned towards prostitution, many still held great pride in their talents and sought to continue performing.

These older former dancers needed a new name for themselves. They began to call themselves geisha, after their original male counterparts.


The First Female Japanese Geisha

While Japanese geisha were not prostitutes, the very first female geisha did come from a background of sex work. However, she was also a highly skilled shamisen player, and a great singer. In the 1750s, she became a great success, paving the way for women considered geisha as a new female-friendly profession.

They were mature, fashionable trend-setters. Many modern Japanese styles you see today have their roots in Japanese geisha fashion. By the 1830s, geisha dominated the scene, and oiran fell out of style.

Becoming a Geisha

Geisha in Kyoto
Japanese Geisha in Kyoto. (Picture: Shutterstock)

While almost any young girl could start training to become a geisha, not everyone could join the elite. A ranking system was established, along with a rigid training protocol. Many factors determined how high a woman could rise in the ranks, as well as how much money she could make.

Japanese Geisha in Training

Training began at a very young age. The youngest aspiring geisha entered the okiya, or geisha house, at around age 6. The okiya became their new home, and training became their entire life.

It was very expensive to become a geisha. Once an apprentice joined a particular house, she became bound by contract. These expenses included all training and necessities, which they would eventually pay off with her individual income. This meant that a working geisha usually didn’t see any of her earnings for quite a while. The less-expensive option was to be born into it. Daughters of elder geisha were often trained as heiresses to the position.

A woman would continue to work under contract to her okiya even after completing training, to continue paying her debt. When she finally settled her debt, she became a full-fledged geisha, and could leave the home.

JP Link: Geisha, Geiko, and Maiko: Differences, History, and Where to See Them!

Minarai: Watch and Learn

Training started with “minarai,” (literally, “learning by watching.”) Minarai would help around the house and attend to older, more established geisha. Established geisha acted as mentors, and minarai students often accompanied their seniors to observe. Some also worked at teahouses and learned informally through the shop owner, who acted as a mother figure.

Girls graduated from minarai with “misedashi.” This ceremony marked her official beginning as a maiko, or apprentice geisha.

Maiko: Hands-On Apprenticeship

There were three main elements of a maiko’s formal training: arts, entertainment, and social etiquette. Here, the senior geisha fully took on the role of an older sister. Through schooling and mentorship, maiko developed a well-rounded skill set and prepared for their debut as an official geisha.

The mizuage was a Japanese geisha ceremony that marked a maiko’s advancement to senior rank. The term literally means “raising water,” and referred to the unloading of a ship’s cargo. (A second meaning meant “to profit in the entertainment industry.”) The ceremony traditionally involved a simple upgrade in hairstyle and wardrobe. However, eventually, a third, less modest element found its way into the ceremony.

That was the implementation of auctioning off an apprentice’s virginity to the highest bidding patron. However, this practice was different from prostitution and usually occurred amongst “inauthentic”Japanese geisha (such as courtesans and yujo). This topic sparked conversation after a scene in the popular film “Sayuri” (the Japanese version of the popular American film “Memoirs of a Geisha.”) The practice became illegal in the post-war period after the introduction of prostitution laws.

Japanese Geisha Aesthetics

Japanese geisha esthetics: A maiko tunes an instrument
A maiko tuning her instrument. (Picture: Shutterstock)

There were many distinguishing features marking both maiko and full-fledged geisha. Maiko focused more on a youthful appearance, with vibrant colors and heavy makeup. Japanese geisha aesthetics were more elegant and mature.

Maiko wore thick, white face make-up, with vivid colors such as pink and purple accenting her eyes and lips. Only a small patch of skin on the back of her neck was left bare. You could also tell a maiko’s experience level by her make-up. For example, new maiko only wore lipstick on her bottom lip. Both lips colored indicated more experience. Fully-fledged geisha filled in their lips less boldly than maiko, and geisha with only their top lip colored meant they were new graduates. Some older maiko also painted their teeth black with charcoal.

Dress was another indicator. Both maiko and geisha wore kimono. However, maiko dresses were more vibrant and flashy, while geisha were more subdued. Their obi, or belt, were also fastened differently according to rank (as well as season). Both wore raised wooden sandals, though the styles were also different.

Finally is hairstyle. Again, these differed with experience and rank. But they were all very elaborate and required plenty of maintenance. In training, a maiko would sleep with her head on a raised pillow to keep her hair from touching the ground. This was very uncomfortable, as she could not move in her sleep.

To establish discipline, seniors poured rice around the maiko’s pillow at night, which would stick in her hair if her head happened to fall off the pillow. It was a pain to remove, so this ensured that a young maiko would quickly accustom to her new sleeping habits.

Differences between a Geiko (Geisha) and a Maiko (with subtitles) – by KYOTO FAN

Differences between a Geiko (Geisha) and a Maiko (with subtitles) 【HD】

In this video Geiko Miehina and Maiko Fukunae, both from the Miyagawa ward of Kyoto, explain to us the differences between a Geiko (Geisha) and a Maiko (appr…

Life & Interaction with Guests

One of the reasons pleasure women flourished was due to Japan’s cultural lack of monogamous values. While men did indeed marry, marriage was nothing more than a system to keep the bloodline going. There was often nothing romantic about it, and men usually pursued romance outside of the home.

A Pleasure-Seeking Patriarchy

The role of the traditional Japanese wife was to raise children and take care of the home. For romance, men sought out “pleasure women,” such as courtesans and geisha.

Despite the focus on modesty and purity, Japanese geisha had an element of eroticism not seen in most Japanese women. Simply watching geisha entertain was more arousing to men than sitting at home with their wives. (Especially when offered a sneaky glimpse of the bare, white skin of the geisha’s wrist or neck).

Japan has always had a deeply-ingrained patriarchal culture. Before women’s rights and feminism, the idea that a woman’s job was to serve men was the norm. Performances by geisha, and the freedom of the pleasure quarters, were an escape for men from their daily lives. And the geisha themselves didn’t mind being the few elite women allowed to profit from men’s lustful desires.

Marrying into Luxury

Japanese geisha could not marry while in the profession. However, higher-ranked and well-established geisha could marry into retirement.

This was the final step in the career as a geisha, the equivalent of retiring with a loaded 401K. Successful geisha could find a wealthy, upper-class man, to sponsor her retirement. These men, or “danna,” (literally “master,” but also meaning “husband” in modern Japanese) paid off any remaining debt the geisha owed to the okiya, liberating her from the contract and securing her independence.

The danna didn’t always pursue official marriage, though some did. For geisha, marriage wasn’t always about love, either. Though there have been cases involving romance, it was often for financial freedom, the ability to retire and to live in luxury under the patronage of a wealthy man.

War and Changes

Japanese geisha continued to flourish and oiran straggled behind until World War II. Even though Kyoto was not as affected as other parts of Japan by physical damage, nation-wide war efforts brought a decline in business to geisha houses. By 1944, geisha districts were completely shut down, and many women were forced into more laborious jobs.

After the war, many tried to pick back up where they left off, but business wasn’t the same. Prostitutes began to offer themselves to American soldiers as “geisha girls.” Even though prostitution was outlawed in 1945, by the time geisha houses reopened in the same year, their name had already been tarnished. And now, with many turning towards western styles, they were no longer the forerunners of fashion.

Even with their slight recovery in the ’60s with the economic boom, new advancements in the entertainment and pleasure industry (such as the introduction of nightlife and love hotels) only blurred the lines further. Younger people were clearly choosing modernism in favor of tradition.

Modern-Day Japanese Geisha

Existing maiko and geisha are still a part of Japanese society. They still inhabit okiya, and live in traditional towns like Gion in Kyoto. However, unlike days of old, their roles now often involve entertaining tourists. While there are certainly many who enjoy this position, there are a number who also lament the changing times. Many feel pressured by the threat of over-tourism reducing their tradition to a mere attraction.

Some geisha have tried to adapt to the times, incorporating more modern elements into their style. But most see this as a betrayal of tradition. Geisha have become a rare sight outside of the above-mentioned tourist attractions. But one thing is certain. It is this very rarity that makes existing Japanese geisha a beautiful, living relic of traditional Japan.

Other Sources:

Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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