How Geisha Work

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.
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 Teahouse in Kyoto
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.