How Geisha Work

Geisha is Japanese for "person of art". Electravk / Getty Images

The best-selling novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" depicts life as a geisha in Japan in the World War II era. The heroine arrives at a geisha house as a slave and becomes one of the most successful women in Gion. She is a dancer, a musician and a woman without a lot of choices. Her virginity is sold to the highest bidder for a record sum, earning her a place in geisha history.

It is a story of hardship, exploitation and tremendous success -- but it is, first and foremost, a work of fiction. The geisha who provided first-hand information for the book proceeded to sue the author because she believed he twisted her accounts and missed the mark entirely. So what is the truth of the geisha? In this article, we'll examine who and what a geisha is and how the "flower and willow world" fits into Japanese culture.


What is a Geisha?

Two apprentice geisha outside Heian Jingu shrine in Kyoto
Photo courtesy Johan Groth

A geisha is a woman highly trained in the arts of music, dance and entertaining. Geisha is Japanese for "person of art." She spends many years learning to play various musical instruments, sing, dance and be the perfect hostess in a party of men. A geisha, when she is working, is just that: the illusion of female perfection.

A geisha's makeup, hair, clothing and manner are calculated to indulge a man's fantasy of the perfect woman, and men pay huge sums of money to have geisha attend to their every whim.


Or, almost every whim.

Many Westerners confuse geisha with prostitutes. Those who understand the intricacies of Japanese culture explain that a geisha is not a prostitute. A true geisha is successful because she projects a sense of unattainable perfection. When men hire geisha to entertain at a party, sex has nothing to do with it. A geisha entertains with singing, music, dance, story-telling, attentiveness and flirtation. She can speak about politics as easily as she can explain the rules of a drinking game. In a time when Japanese wives were excluded from public life in general, geisha were the women who could play the role of attentive female at business gatherings.

The original geisha were men, and they entertained all over Japan -- social restrictions dictated that women could not entertain at a party. These men kept the conversation going, gave artistic performances and flattered guests at parties thrown by noblemen and other members of the upperclass. In the 1700s, women calling themselves geisha first appeared in the "pleasure districts" of Japan. There are many takes on the origins of the female geisha. One has a group of female artists stealing business from prostitutes in the pleasure districts by hiring themselves out to sing and dance at parties. Another one has a failing prostitute taking a job as a geisha to make some extra money, and as a geisha she was a hit. However the female geisha came about, they were a threat to the brothels. Because geisha were not affiliated with the brothels, the people running them received no money from the geisha's wages. In order to curtail the geisha's popularity and get the focus back on registered prostitutes, the government set very strict rules for geisha concerning their style of dress, how and where they could entertain and the hours they could work. To make sure sex was not part of the party, geisha were not allowed to be hired singly. But instead of reducing the geisha's success, these restrictions only made them more desirable.

As time went on, particularly during the poorest times in Japan, the success of the geisha led many impoverished parents to sell their young daughters to a geisha house (okiya). These children trained from the age of five or six to become successful geisha and repay the okiya for the cost of their training. Today, young women choose to become geisha just like they might choose to become doctors. They typically begin their training after junior high school, and the training is rigorous. Only the most dedicated women make it to full geisha status.


Training to be a Geisha

At the entrance to this okiya in Kyoto, the name of each working geisha living inside is written on a wooden plaque.
Photo courtesy Alina Hagen

A young woman's first step toward becoming a geisha is to apply and be accepted into an okiya, a geisha house owned by the woman who will pay for her training. This woman is the okami or okasan. Okasan is Japanese for "mother."

Training to be a geisha takes about as long as it takes to train to be a doctor. Typically, a young woman spends about six years studying the arts of music, dance, tea ceremony, language and hostessing. During this time, and sometimes throughout her career as a geisha, she lives in the okiya, which is something like a boarding house for geisha and geisha-trainees. The okiya is a big part of a geisha's life -- the women in the okiya are her geisha family, and the okasan manages her career. A geisha pays a percentage of her earnings to maintain the house and support the people living there who are not working geisha, including apprentice geisha, retired geisha and house maids.


Geisha study the arts at a kaburenjo -- a school dedicated to the training of geisha. This school may also house a theater where geisha give their rare public performances. During the course of her studies, a geisha learns how to play the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument that is strummed with a large pick. She will play the shamisen at parties and in performances, usually accompanying another geisha who is singing. She may also learn to play other traditional Japanese instruments including the shimedaiko, a small drum, the koto, a large, stringed instrument, and the fue, a type of flute.

Musical instruments are only one aspect of a geisha's artistic repertoire. She studies singing, traditional Japanese dance (nihon-buyoh) and tea ceremony (sadoh), all of which she will use in her job as entertainer. She studies flower arrangement (ikebana) and calligraphy (shodoh), because she is the quintessential cultured woman. A geisha may specialize in one art form, such as singing or dancing, but she is proficient in all of them.

A young woman spends years studying not only to be an artist, but also to carry herself with grace. She learns the proper way to speak in the accent of the district where she works, to walk in a floor-length kimono without tripping over her hem, and to pour sake so that her kimono sleeve doesn't dip into the cup. In a group of men and geisha, she learns whom to greet first and how low to bow when greeting each person. She learns how to flatter a shy man, an arrogant man and a disinterested man with equal success. These less formal aspects of her training take place while she is a maiko, an apprentice geisha. The apprentice period begins when a young woman finds an onesan ("older sister"), a full geisha who will serve as her mentor. The ceremony that binds them together is the same ceremony that marks the "marriage" of a geisha and her danna (see Sex in the Flower and Willow World): Each takes three sips from three cups of sake. In this transition to maiko status, the young woman takes a new name that will be her "geisha name." This name is typically derived from the name of the onesan.

Teahouse in Kyoto
Photo courtesy Alina Hagen

An apprentice geisha spends several years studying the behavior of full geisha to learn the arts she can't learn in the classroom. Her onesan brings her to parties where she will not entertain -- she will remain quiet and observe, learning how geisha interact with men and how they use their wit, attention and feminine wiles to keep everyone happy. Her attendance at a party is not only a learning experience, though. The job of an older sister is to introduce a maiko into geisha society, making sure everyone knows who she is. This way, when a maiko makes her debut as a geisha, she already has relationships with the customers and teahouses that will be her livelihood.

The ceremony that marks the transition from maiko to geisha is called eriage, which means "changing of the collar." At this time, the maiko exchanges her red, patterned collar for a solid white one, a symbol of her debut as a geisha. Now she officially starts entertaining.


Working as a Geisha

A geisha's primary job is that of hostess. All of her skills go into making sure a party is a tremendous success and that everyone has a good time. A good chunk of a geisha's work traditionally involves parties attended by businessmen who are trying to strike a deal together. A man throws a geisha party to show his potential associates a good time -- and to impress them with how wealthy, cultured and well-connected he is, because geisha parties are exclusive and expensive. Today, a geisha party can cost $200 to $300 per guest for every two hours the geisha are present. What goes on at a geisha party is private -- a geisha does not speak about her clients. In a culture known for its social reserve and workaholicism, a geisha party is a place where men can be loud, drunk and flirtatious with no social repercussions.

Japan's most popular geisha districts (hanamachi, or "flower towns") are located in Kyoto and Tokyo. The teahouses (o-chaya), inns (ryokan) and restaurants (ryotei) where geisha entertain are concentrated in these areas.


Geisha are exclusive hostesses. You don't just call up a geisha and hire her. When someone wants geisha to host his party, he can go through one of two avenues: He can call the okasan of a geisha house, or he can call a teahouse where geisha entertain. The okasan or teahouse mistress then calls the central office for geisha affairs, which handles all geisha bookings and charges the client for geisha services. Every geisha must register with the central office in order to work in her district.

A geisha never eats with her guests when she is working. She must be on her toes at all times, making every guest feel welcome and happy, having the perfect story to tell when the conversation starts to lag and keeping an eye on every sake cup to make sure it's never empty. She may be called on to perform a dance, sing a song or accompany another geisha on the shamisen. If two men appear to be having a conflict, she will smooth it out, preferably without anyone knowing she is doing so. A party is not a relaxing experience for a geisha. It is her workplace.

In addition to the fees the central office charges for a geisha's time, she typically receives generous tips from customers. Most of the money a geisha earns goes toward maintaining the okiya and keeping herself adorned in the proper make-up, expensive kimono and valuable hairpieces for which she is known. A geisha's appearance is one of her primary assets: She is a living piece of art.


Dressing as a Geisha

Photo courtesy Alina Hagen

For a geisha, getting ready for work involves hours of preparation. The distinctive appearance of a geisha is part of her allure, but it's not only about beauty and exclusivity. It's also a way to tell the difference between a maiko and a geisha and between a child geisha and an adult geisha. You can tell a lot about a geisha just by looking at her.

Unlike a regular kimono, a geisha kimono exposes her neckline -- in Japanese culture, this is considered the most sensual part of a woman.


Kimono can cost thousands of dollars each. A maiko wears a kimono that has extra long sleeves (they touch the ground when she drops her arms) and is very long, colorful and intricately adorned with embroidery or hand-painted designs. Her collar is red, and her obi is long and wide. She wears tall wooden clogs called okobo to keep her kimono from dragging on the ground. Learning to walk in this outfit without falling over is part of her training.

The white makeup that is a trademark of the geisha was once lead-based and poisonous. Now, it is harmless. If a maiko follows the traditional way of achieving the look, she first applies oil and a layer of wax to her face. This makes the skin perfectly smooth and forms a base to which the white powder can adhere. She then applies red lipstick only to her lower lip. This is a sign that she is an apprentice.

Before becoming an apprentice, a young woman grows her hair very long so that it can be shaped into the elaborate hairstyles of a maiko. She wears at least five different styles, each one signifying a different stage in her apprenticeship. For instance, a new maiko wears a hairstyle called wareshinobu, which incorporates two strands of red ribbon that signify her innocence. An adult maiko wears a style called ofuku. This change was once determined by mizu-age, or a maiko's first sexual experience, but now it is simply a function of time. The switch usually occurs when the apprentice turns 18 or has been working for three years.

Apprentice geisha spend hours at the hairdresser every week to maintain their hairstyle. They sleep on special pillows that have a hole in the middle so they don't ruin their hair while they sleep.

When a maiko becomes a geisha, she switches out her red collar for a white one and her maiko kimono for a geisha kimono.

A geisha kimono is simpler in appearance and easier to deal with. It has shorter sleeves and does not require high clogs to keep it off the ground. A geisha wears zori, which are like flip-flops, and a shorter obi tied in a simple knot. After working for several years, a geisha may chose to wear lighter, "Western-style" makeup instead of the traditional, heavy makeup worn early in her career. A geisha wears variations on the shimada hairstyle and typically wears a series of wigs instead of styling her real hair.

These intricate hairstyles and kimono distinctions mark stages in a geisha's career. Once, they were also a way to tell geisha from prostitutes when prostitution was legal in Japan. If both geisha and prostitutes attended a party, she could look at a woman's hairstyle, kimono or makeup and instantly know which she was.

Ultimately, the appearance, mannerisms and work of a geisha is about pleasing men. But the daily life of a geisha revolves around women.


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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