Geisha: Beyond the Mystique

Japanese culture has fascinated the West for quite a long time. It all began in 1853, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay with an armada of "black ships," forcing the nation to open its ports to the world. For Japan, this was the end of over 300 years of isolation and the beginning of a new era. As trade began to flourish, the influence of Japanese culture on the West became visible. Fashion, furnishings and the artwork of renowned artists started to incorporate Japanese elements. Woodblock prints served as inspiration for painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Gustav Klimt--only to name a few. One facet of traditional Japanese culture for which Western nations have since held a special fascination is the world of geisha.

Vincent van Gogh - Courtesan after Eisen -- Photo from WikimediaCommons

Geisha - Modern Fascination

Arthur Golden's best-selling novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" published in 1997 revived interest in this side of Japanese culture. A film of the same name released in 2005 and more books followed. "Geisha, a Life" by Mineko Iwasaki and "Geisha: The Remarkable Truth Behind the Fiction" by Lesley Downer both focus on the lives of these interesting women.

Memoirs of a Geisha -- Photo from Flickr cc by Leslie E-B

People of the Arts

Even so, most people know rather little about them. Commonly mistaken for the Japanese equivalent of a prostitute, the public image of geisha has been a questionable one. Taking a look at their history, however, reveals that this couldn't be further from the truth. Geisha, or geiko as they are called in Kyoto, first emerged in the mid-18th century. During the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan had a large number of licensed pleasure districts. The most famous were Yoshiwara of Edo (today's Tokyo), Shimabara of Kyoto and Shinmachi of Osaka. Inside, samurai and rich merchants spent their money on prostitutes and courtesans, called yujo. Some of them were skillful entertainers. 

Courtesans admiring a flower arrangement by Shunsho and Shigemasa -- Illustration from The Collection: The San Diego Museum of Art
Over time, however, they started to lose their artistic skills and turned into nothing but dull, artless sex providers. The sophisticated samurai and merchant class soon grew bored of them. As the need for a new source of entertainment arose, male artists saw their chance and took it. It may come as a surprise to many, but the earliest geisha were actually men. Shortly after, the first female entertainers appeared in the form of shamisen players and dancers. Charmed by the talent and grace of these women, known as odoriko (lit. "dancing girls"), clients soon lost interest in courtesans and male entertainers. It wasn't long before they were the only ones worthy to be called geisha. In Japanese, the word geisha consists of the characters for art 'gei' and person 'sha'. Literally translated this means "person of the arts". A fitting name for these skillful artisans.

"Japanese Geisha Girls" -- Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress
Despite questionable customs that developed over time, such as the mizuage, where the virginity of a trainee geisha was sold to the highest bidder, their primary purpose was and still is to entertain. Back then, their training began from a very young age as maiko (lit. “dance child”), an apprentice geisha. Bound to an okiya, a geisha house, the maiko would attend numerous classes. The list of skills required to become a geisha wasn’t short. As part of her performing arts education, dancing, singing and various musical instruments had to be mastered. From her onee-san (lit. "sister"), her geisha mentor, she would also learn social skills, such as parlor games and conversation. As the perfect hostess, a geisha had to be able read her customer's every wish from their eyes. Be it lighting a cigar, telling a funny story, initiating a drinking game or performing a traditional song--a geisha could do it all.

Playing the shamisen circa 1870 -- Photo Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Today's Geisha

Today, not much has changed regarding their skill set or their function as entertainers. The ritual of mizuage was abolished after WWII, freeing their profession from any sexual connotation. Geisha now are hired for private parties, high-class banquets and other special events. Several public shows are held every year, giving ordinary people the chance to witness real geisha perform. The most famous of these performances is the Miyako Odori in Kyoto. 

Spotted in Gion, Kyoto -- Photo by Nathan Hosken 
However, while the numbers of active geisha in 1928 were at 80,000, today, only about 1,000 are left. This decline in numbers happened for many reasons. Changes in culture and lifestyle resulting in a decrease in demand and an increase in costs (both for the geisha herself as well as her services) played a key role in their slow disappearance. Despite this -- or precisely because of it -- these talented performers have managed to remain mysterious and alluring. With their magnificent attire and graceful demeanor, geisha are the embodiment of Japanese tradition. We should enjoy them as long as we can. 

Explore Kyoto's most famous geisha district:


Kathrin Kecht