|The white, alabaster face, cherry red lips, ebony hair—a geisha’s face has been a fascinating icon of ancient Japanese tradition and beauty for more than a century. Their porcelain visage dominates the international landscape—in paintings, books, and high-fashion shirts.
While tracing the development of this classic Japanese archetype, we will school you in how a naïve ingénue can blossom into a gorgeous, astute geisha, giving you a glimpse into the karyukai, “the flower and willow world.” We will disprove the common misconception that geisha are simply high-class courtesans. In fact, geisha were a unique social class able to exercise a degree of independence denied to other Japanese women.
During the 17th century, “pleasure quarters” popped up throughout Japan. These areas played host to raucous parties with song, dance, and jokes. Some of these festivities had ring masters, known as taikomochi, who would make sure that fun and games continued. Taikomochi, a job taken by males, acted like a court jester—singing, dancing, or telling stories and jokes. Often, if a group of men went out drinking, they’d hire one for entertainment. Eventually, these entertainers/artists took on the name gei-sha, which literally translates to “arts person.”
The first known woman to employ the geisha moniker emerged during a time when prostitutes and courtesans were gaining patronage. In 1750, a prostitute named Kikuya was developing a following for her talent for singing and playing a shamisen, a Japanese three-string guitar. She decided to become an entertainer only. Soon, other women who held jobs like tea-brewer, drum-bearer, or dancer began referring to themselves as geisha or real artists. By the 1800s, the term geisha became associated with artistically-inclined women, who were surpassing courtesans in popularity.
Until WWII, geisha thrived in dozens of teahouses around Japan’s Kyoto region. However, becoming a geisha was like studying a vocation while being an indentured servant. Girls learning about all the work beyond the painted smile often had no choice. Many destitute families from the countryside sold their young daughters to geisha houses. These houses were run by okasan, or den mothers, who saw to a girl’s geisha training. Taking in a girl was like making an investment and a geisha mother was entitled to any future dividends.
To help pay for her education, room, and board, a geisha-to-be had to work as a household maid. And starting geisha training at age six or seven wasn’t unusual. Even a little girl was expected to complete numerous chores, household errands and assist the geisha, maiko (apprentice geisha), and okasan living with her. She generally dressed in a yukata, an ankle-length, kimono-like garment which wraps around the knees like a bandage. Her obi also is constructed to stretch from the neckline to the back of the knees, unlike a maiko’s which reaches the ground.
Meanwhile, these girls also attended classes in musical instruments, singing, traditional dance, the tea ceremony, and the art of conversation. She also learned geisha vocabulary and to speak with the regional accent of the geisha district. Furthermore, mastering etiquette was, and still is, essential to building a geisha appearance. A girl needed to know how to properly bow, greet patrons and friends, and speak in a high-pitched, girlish voice. She’d also have to memorize the names and ranks of everyone in any known social hierarchy of her geisha district.
The first milestone on the path to geisha-hood was when a girl became a maiko. At times, girls becoming a maiko had to meet a Hollywood-starlet standard; she should have an attractive face and be robust and healthy enough for the intense commitment and long hours of education. In the past, maiko status usually came at age 11. Besides a new professional name, which reflected which geisha household she was tied to, a maiko also donned a new hairstyle, ware-shinobu, which means young and cute. Keeping hair in tact wasn’t easy. Girls usually were forced to sleep on a lacquered, wooden pillow—padded on the top for the neck. Den mothers sometimes put brown flaky rice husks under the pillow. Hence, if a girl woke up with rice in her hair, the mother would know she had let her head slip.
Another significant event was choosing a geisha to serve as an older sister. Generally, the more beautiful and popular a geisha was, the luckier her maiko would be. For, a truly adored geisha could get her “little sister” into the best tea houses, introduce important people, and perhaps even lend her a little glory.
Once a maiko and geisha paired up, they united in a special ceremony, san-san-kudo. Associated with weddings, san-san-kudo translates to mean “three times three, nine times,” referring to the act of a bride and groom each taking three sips from three different-sized, lacquer sake cups. In this case, the sharing of sake symbolizes the new bond between a geisha apprentice and a more experienced geisha. With this ceremony, they are now seen to have a special sister connection, en musubi, which cannot easily break. Away from the pomp and circumstance, the senior geisha would take an active role in her maiko’s education. She’d oversee her progress in comprehending the geisha lifestyle and conduct, dancing, and music. The pressure intensified also because an older geisha had to take the blame for any mistakes made by her maiko.
After a minimum five-year commitment to the maiko lifestyle, a girl—usually by age 15—reaches a pinnacle of her debut, or misedashi. Literally translated to mean “store opening,” the three-day debut of a maiko on the geisha stage is often a regal occasion. Her milestone was highlighted by a collar-changing ceremony, or erikae; a maiko’s thick, red embroidered under-collar was replaced with a geiko’s white one. In addition, her hair was shorn in anticipation of having to don a wig. A geisha could be treated like a celebrity as she became acquainted with people all over the district with photographers chronicling her movement. These three days were filled with socializing and attending evening parties. A newly minted maiko also received monetary gifts from other house mothers that would help fund her debut. Between classes, kimonos, and make-up, a debut was an expensive affair to execute.
One aspect of geisha life that many girls admire is the numerous kimono and obi changes. In the geisha world, kimono couture is as integral as knowing how to sing and manipulate a shamisen. Woven of the smoothest silk, kimonos are typically dyed with designs of landscapes showing palaces, bridges, streams, trees, or birds—all in the colors of fine jewelry. During the cooler months (September thru April), a geisha wears a double-layered awase kimono of thick silk lined with crepe. Summer would allow for lighter, single-layered kimonos. But in July and August, she might wear a silk fine enough to be almost transparent. Traditionally, somber colors and fresher shades are worn in the cooler and hotter months, respectively—for instance, pale green layered on deep purple in January or rose and slate blue in October. And in the spring, she might wear a kimono with cherry blossoms. The flora and fauna on a kimono design usually reflect the season it’s meant to be worn for. In Japanese culture, the more fabric a geisha is swathed in, the more attractive she looks to a man. You can get a sense of the fashion by looking at Mrs. Lin’s elaborate cotton kimonos in our giftware section.
Proper application of makeup makes a geisha transformation complete. In the old days, geisha wore makeup made from white lead, which was ultimately hazardous, leaving skin yellowish and prematurely wrinkled from daily use. Today, geisha can purchase gentler makeup from manufacturers such as Kanebo. After laying white make-up and powder on the face, the eye sockets and sides of the nose are touched with pink. Then the neck and shoulders are painted white. The eyebrows may get shaded in more. The eyes and lips are outlined in red. Finally, a tiny petal of red is painted in the center of the lower lip only; only after a year does a maiko get to paint her upper lip. Some flesh at the nape of the neck is left unpainted; for many Japanese men, this untouched glimpse of skin is sexier than a girl gallivanting around with a bare midriff. Reconstructing the same mask every time a geisha goes out takes a lot of artistic talent.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, a geisha’s main goal was to get some financial semblance and start paying off her debts. The solution was often found in the form of a danna. A danna was a male sponsor whose role, in some ways, was similar to a husband’s. If negotiations worked out between a man and the house mother, a geisha would accept him as her danna. He would dole out a monthly allowance for her rent, living expenses, wardrobe, and tuition fees for classes. In addition, he’d pay an hourly rate for her company. Most importantly, he could make her his concubine. Thus, a geisha would retire from geisha life and say a farewell by handing out dishes of white rice to teachers, seniors, friends, and colleagues. The white rice represented the idea that she would remain with her danna until her hair turned white (However, if she didn’t expect it to be long-term, she might sprinkle a few red azuki beans in the rice to insinuate that the arrangement was only temporary). In the end, many geisha went on to marry, open their own tea houses, or raise daughters who would carry on geisha traditions.
Today, some worry that geisha are an endangered species—a symbol of fading Japanese traditions. In the 1920s, the Kyoto region had an all-time high of 80,000 geisha. In Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, there were 2,500 geisha and 106 maiko. By the end of WWII, only 1,200 women were working as geisha. By 1999, approximately 195 geisha and 55 maiko were entertaining, with 90 geisha and 22 maiko in Gion. However, the positive side of moving into a modern age is that girls now train to be geisha voluntarily. Girls typically enjoy childhood before embarking on geisha studies in their late teens. A girl who commits to being a geisha either wants to pursue more classical arts or fulfill a personal fantasy—not to get out of debt.
The continuing ability of geisha beauty to entrance those in and outside the Land of the Rising Sun has not faded with time. You can preserve your own snapshot of geisha glamour with one of our detailed geisha figurines, complete with kimono and fan. We also have chopsticks, sake ware, tea cups, and paper wallets graced with geisha portraits. All of these items would make fitting gifts for Japanese history buffs or anyone eagerly anticipating Hollywood’s interpretation of geisha life. Keep a piece of enchanting tradition close to you.
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