How Geisha Work

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.