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How Geisha Work

        Culture | Subcultures

Living as a Geisha

For all of their focus on men when they're at work, geisha live in a matriarchal society. Women run the okiya, women teach girls the skills they need to become geisha, and women introduce new geisha into the teahouses that will be their livelihood. The head of the okiya is called okasan, or "mother," and the mentor is onesan, or "older sister." Women run the teahouses and can make or break a geisha's career. If a geisha offends the mistress of the main teahouse where she does business, she may lose her livelihood entirely.

In the flower and willow world, a geisha's family is her okasan, onesan and the other maiko, geisha and retired geisha who live in her okiya. A geisha is always a single woman. If she decides to get married, she retires from the profession. The traditional path of a geisha's life looks something like this:

  • Shikomi - Prior to becoming an apprentice geisha, a young woman helps the maiko and geisha in her okiya and does chores around the house to earn her keep.
  • Misedashi: Around the age of 15, a shikomi finds a mentor and undergoes the misedashi ceremony. This ceremony binds them together as sisters, and the new maiko begins her training to become a geisha. She now has a new name that is derived from the name of her mentor.
  • Maiko: As an apprentice geisha, a maiko spends about five years learning the arts of music, dance and hostessing. She attends parties to observe and be seen.
  • Erikae: The erikae ("turning of the collar") ceremony marks the transition from maiko to geisha.
  • Geisha: Throughout her career, a geisha lives in the district in which she works. She spends her time entertaining, studying arts and performing. If she binds herself to a danna (patron), she may move out of the okiya into her own apartment.
  • Hiki-iwai: The hiki-iwai ceremony marks a geisha's retirement. She no longer entertains at parties, and she may discontinue her studies. At this point, a former geisha might become the head of an okiya or teahouse, or she may leave the geisha life entirely.

Very few women pursue the life of a geisha in the 21st century. The population of true geisha in Japan has dwindled since its height in the early 1900s. In the 1920s, there were 80,000 registered geisha. During World War II, people had no money for geisha parties, and geisha worked in factories to produce goods for the war. While Japan was occupied in the 1940s, geisha entertainment was against the law. Beginning in the 1950s, geisha began to return to work, but the profession never bounced back to its previous largesse. In 1970, there were about 17,000 geisha in Japan, and today there are fewer than 1,000. Most of today's geisha choose the profession because of its romantic, artistic nature or because it's the family business. Even those who attain the status of geisha may only remain in that role for a few years, until they choose to attend college or get married. Today's geisha are modern women whose career involves recreating the past.

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