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All About Japan - Geisha: Ambassadors of Japanese traditions

story of the geisha

The history of geisha traditions

The term “geisha” means in Japanese: “who practices the arts”. In the past, young girls were forced to be geisha. Sold by their poor families to okiya (geisha houses), they were responsible for raising and educating them. The profession of geisha was officially recognized by the government in 1779.

Ambassadors of Japanese art and refinement, geishas are talented artists whose job is to entertain, accompany and gracefully animate banquets and receptions.

They master both dance, singing, the shamisen (traditional Japanese instrument), floral art and the tea ceremony.

After several years of strict (almost military) training within an okiya, the confirmed geisha masters all the arts that have been taught to her.

Geisha training

Formation de la Geisha

The geisha is trained for nearly 5 years in an okiya (置屋 - geisha house). She was then trained by an okāsan (お母さん - the "mother"), who taught her the arts and discipline.

The maiko (apprentice geisha) will notably learn to master traditional Japanese arts such as dance, song, poetry, literature, flower arrangement, instruments. She must also master dress, make-up and the manners of standing, walking and sitting with grace and refinement. During her training, the maiko generally tends to specialize in an art that she particularly likes.

Geisha Physical Appearance

Apparence physique de la Geisha

The physical appearance of the geisha is paramount. It is rigorous and codified, respecting the smallest detail. Hairstyle, make-up, kimono or shoes help define the age, rank and level of experience of a geisha.

For example, regarding make-up, the maiko often has a more marked make-up. The face is covered with a thick white layer of rice powder, the mouth is tinted red and the eyes black to redraw the eyebrows.

As she gets older, the confirmed geisha (geiko) is less forced to wear makeup. Generally, after 30 years, they give way to their natural beauty and reserve makeup for special occasions.

Daily life of the Geisha

Quotidien de la Geisha

The geisha must respect all the strict rules on the clothes and the make-up that she will put on. She therefore devotes a lot of time to taking care of her appearance, spending several hours each day getting dressed, doing her hair and applying makeup.

She leaves her house at the end of the day, around 5:30 p.m., to go to the meeting place (often ochaya - Japanese tea houses) where parties and receptions are organised.

Her clients are mainly wealthy people, businessmen or politicians, or even tourists, all ready to pay large sums to spend time with her.

Where are the geishas?

Les maisons de Geisha

The geisha often lives in an okiya (geisha house) distributed in neighborhoods called hanamachi (花街 - “flower street”).

Geishas and maiko are therefore found in cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, in the districts of Gion, Pontocho, Miyagawacho, Kamishichiken and Shimabara.

The geisha will generally be discreet, avoid crowded streets and do not stop to chat with passers-by. Indeed, she is paid according to the time spent with her clients and does not waste a minute.

As a tourist, it is recommended to respect the culture and the geisha by avoiding following her or shooting her with photos.

Are geishas prostitutes? Prejudice

Geisha sont-elles des prostituées ?

The profession of geisha is often mistakenly assimilated to prostitution, especially for Western countries. Being accompanied by wealthy clients, the geisha is not going to sell her body. The latter is an ambassador of Japanese art and must keep a good reputation for her okiya. She must therefore only entertain the client with her talent as an artist, her conversation and her good company.

In the past, geishas worked in the same neighborhood as prostitutes, but did not perform the same profession. They even tended to overshadow them.

In addition, the prejudice took hold during the Second World War, when some prostitutes dressed in geisha attire to seduce American soldiers. The latter therefore called them “geisha girls”, an expression which spread this false idea. Finally, the name “boules de geisha” in French is misleading, because it associates the geisha with the idea of sexuality.


Differences between maiko and geiko (geisha)

Differences between maiko et geiko from the front
Differences between maiko et geiko from the back

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