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Facts of Japan - Geisha

Updated on May 5, 2011

Geisha actually means ‘Gei’ which is arts and ‘sha’ which means ‘doer’. The straight translation in English is a performing artist. Geiko is also a name used for Geisha which refers to the geisha from Western Japan.

And there are apprentice Geisha. They are called as Maiko which means Dance Child. They are also known as Hangyoko or Half Jewel which means these artist children are paid just half the wages of a full Geisha.

The white make up and the more elaborative Kimono and the hair style of Maiko is the most popular image of a Geisha.  And a female who enters geisha tradition need not start as Maiko. But it is mandatory that a year’s training need to be undergone before becoming a Maiko or Geisha.

Dancing Maiko

Females above 21 years age are not considered for Maiko. While the Tokyo Hangyoku begin at 18 their Kyoto counterparts, used to begin at 15. Historically Geisha get their training as early as 3 or 5 years.

Female entertainers were found in earlier stages of Japan history. Saburuko are wandering girls during 600s and the families of these girls were displaced due to struggling conditions. Saburuko means serving girls. Few of these girls sold sex while the others with decent education lived by entertaining the high class social gathering. It was only after the Imperial court moved to Kyoto the geisha community emerged. And skilled performers strived so well.

The sexual delights were not Shinto Taboo and so the traditional Japanese men embraced it. They were not even constrained to be faithful or dutiful to their wives either. The Confucian custom says love is of secondary importance and so the ideal woman manages home only in those times. In fact, for sexual enjoyment and for romantic attachments men used to go to the courtesans only and not to their wives. During 16th Century walled-in pleasure homes and quarters were built. In 1617, Shogunate designed pleasure quarters and ordered that prostitution out of this place is illegal. In pleasure quarters, Yujo which means ‘play women’ was licensed and so a highest Yujo class, Oiran, the predecessor to Geisha appeared. They were really a combination of the great actress and prostitute. They usually performed erotic dances and this art was called Kabuku.

Geisha putting on face make-up

Slowly those pleasure centers became such a glamorous entertainment and recreation centers. They offered not just sex but more than that. The highly skilled courtesans of these centers entertained their customers with music, dance and singing. Out of them few were really known poets and calligraphers. The Geisha actually appeared at the turn of the 18th century. Truly, the first Geishas were men only. They used o entertain men who wait to see the top Oiran.

Haircut - a master pieces
Haircut - a master pieces
Dancing Geishas
Dancing Geishas

The teenage Odoriko, meaning dancing girls, were the true forerunners of geisha. They entertained mostly private homes and later turned to prostitution. And those who were not really teenagers adopted many other names. And one of them was Geisha. Fukagawa was the first woman Geisha known and she became an immediate success. And from then on, in 1750s, Female Geishas became very popular. During 1760 and 70s Geishas became more popular and became great entertainers and not prostitutes.

Those Geishas who actually worked in the pleasure quarters were not allowed to sell sex. This was done to protect the interests of Oiran. In this period, the Geisha learned to be erudite and entertaining female companions. During 1800, being Geisha became a profession too. Slowly the Oiran, who were gaudy fell out of fashion and geisha emerged victorious.

The ideal Geisha was skilled and carefree. They were allowed to marry their clients but they needed to retire from profession at the same time.

Though geisha system was referred to as pleasure homes, it was actually created for the independency and self-sufficiency of women.


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