Is Geisha a Picture of Delicate Grace and Beauty?

Dancing geishaHello, everyone! How are you today? Today, we are going to talk about something so delicate and beautiful, no I am not talking about nature lol. I am talking about a dying part of history. These beautiful delicate flowers are called “geisha/芸者(art performer)”. These women are in a class all of their own. There is a big misconception about these women, most people when you talk to them about geisha they consider them glorified prostitutes, this is totally false and very disrespectful to the women and the profession that they dedicate themselves to.

Let me take you into the world of the geisha. The history and life of a geisha go so deep that I could go one forever!

Let’s know all about geisha!




History of Geisha


Geisha in the old timeThe origin of Geisha is said a shrine maiden(Miko/巫女). The shrine maidens played an important role and this role was to be possessed by a god. This is a beginning of Geisha. The shrine maidens were males and females and they danced to call a god for the important events.

Shirabyoshi -  Katsushika Hokusai

Shirabyoshi – Katsushika Hokusai {{PD-1923}}

When in the Heian period(794-1185), to spread the Buddhism, the shrine maidens dressed the noble male’s clothing and they performed to dance or sing a song. There were called “Shirabyoshi(白拍子)”. They were males and females but generally, girls or young kids tended to perform. The reason why they were called Shirabyoshi is the white clothing or without any instrument, they could dance with clapping hands. The Kanji of “白” means white and “拍子” means clapping hands. This custom lasted until the Kamakura period(1185-1333) and they were loved by the noble people.

But this custom faded away because of the circumstance in Japan. When in the Muromachi period(1336-1573), there were many wars happened and Japan was torn by war. However, while this was going on, the foundation of geisha and geisha quarter were built. When the part of Kitano shrine(北野天満宮)’s building in Kyoto burned, they built Chaya(茶屋) without fixing the property. Chaya is a resting place for travelers and also served a tea and snacks. Hideyoshi Toyotomi who ruled Japan used to stop by this place for resting when he was on the way to his tea party in Kitano.

Kitano shrine in Kyoto

Kitano shrine in Kyoto

By the way, there were many shrine maidens used to work at Kitano shrine. When they became older, they had to quit being a shrine maiden so those people started to work at Chaya. Chaya got popular among the people who traveled and there were many people came. They couldn’t put all of the customers inside so they started to build the room called, “Okuzashiki(奥座敷)”. To compete for the other chaya, they started to play Shamisen/三味線(a traditional Japanese guitar) or dance in okuzashiki. Isn’t the story getting close to geisha that we know?

When in the Azuchi Momoyama period(1573-1603), the lady named, Okuni(阿国) became popular in Japan. To advertise Izumotaisha/出雲大社(Izumo shrine) where is in Shimane prefecture, she traveled around in Japan and entertained people with her dance and song. Her dance style was called “kabuki Odori(かぶき踊り)” and this dance style was taken into by many geisha who worked at brothels. Their dance style was called “Yujo Kabuki(遊女歌舞伎)”.

But this dance style extremely expressed a man and a woman so this was prohibited by the government. This prohibited women from performing Kabuki(That’s why Kabuki is still played by only men at the present time). This caused to put the definition of the women who are dancers(Odoriko/踊り子) and prostitutes together. So, the government made a red-light district called, “Yoshiwara Yukaku(吉原遊郭)” in 1618. The women who were dancers had to choose to work in this area or get hired by the rich samurai people who could let them dance at their houses. Those dancers are the present geisha in Japan.

Yoshiwara in 1872

Yoshiwara in 1872 {{PD-1923}}

After a while, Yoshiwara Yukaku were so popular but started to fade away so, in around 1760, the government started to support the women who are good at playing instruments or dancing. The government made them quit being prostitutes and concentrate on improving their skills. This policy went well and made the foundation of the present geisha house. At the present day, geisha performs their dance and songs but on top of that, you eat and drink with geisha as talking to them. The present definition of the geisha started to be established around this time.

In around 1779, the government made the more strict rule to separate geisha and prostitutes. They started to put a  supervisory office called, “Kenban( 検番/見番)”. To keep geisha under control, Kenban made geisha(including men too) register their name on the nameplates. You see this system nowadays! This rule has started since this time. This system is easy to understand. The brothel or “Hikitejaya(引き手茶屋)” needed to ask Kenban. Kenban chose the geisha who suits their requests and sent them to those places. Hikitejaya is a tea house that introduces clients to prostitutes but those geisha from Kenban weren’t prostitutes. What they do was to perform their dance and songs. To make a difference between them and the prostitutes, Kenban taught them strict rules. For example, hairstyle, the way of wearing clothing, and so on. This is how it happened in around Edo(Edo is Tokyo now).

Gion in Kyoto


On the other hand, In Kyoto, the situation was changing like Edo too. “Gion(祇園)” is the most famous place for geisha nowadays and you probably know this place already. Anyway, it’s said that Geisha appeared in Kyoto in around 1750. There was the place called, “Shimabara(島原)” which was permitted as an official red-light district by the government. Comparing to Yoshiwara, this place was for everybody and it’s said that many families or old people went to this place to enjoy the foods and entertainment. But this place was a red-light district after all so when the government tightened the law in Kyoto, the prostitutes were sent to Shimabara and the other geisha who had skills to play an instrument or dance were supported like the geisha from Yoshiwara by the government.

Going back to Edo, in around 1804, the geisha from Fukagawa(深川) were getting more popular than the geisha from Yoshiwara. Those geisha were sometimes called “Tatsumi-geisha(辰巳芸者)”. The reason why they were called that name is because of the direction. Fukagawa was the southeast of Edo and in the Japanese zodiac’s direction, the southeast is called “Tatsumi(辰巳)” If you want to know more Japanese zodiac, I will list it at the end of this post.

It’s said that Tatsumi-geisha was stylish and very caring. They also had the pride that they sell their performance but they won’t sell themselves. They didn’t put much makeup on and they wore a Haori which is a short coat for men. They also talked like men and had men’s geisha name.

But in Fukagawa, there were also many prostitutes so the government started cracking them down. This caused Tatsumi-geisha to move to Yanagibashi(柳橋). Yanagibashi was the transportation by ship and there were many people who stopped by this place before they went to Yoshiwara. Those geisha in Yanagibashi were called “Yanagibashi-geisha(柳橋芸者)”.

In the end of the Edo period, the price of rice went up rapidly and this caused the poor people to become violent. The area of Yoshiwara was burned. While this disturbance, there were many restaurants along the Shiodome river(汐留川)  got popular. Those geisha called themselves “Konparu-geisha(金春芸者)”. Later on, Konparu-geisha became “Shinbashi-geisha(新橋芸者)”. Shinbashi is one of the places to be able to see geisha nowadays in Tokyo.

The time became the Meiji period(1868-1912). To make a modern nation, Japan abolished the Samurai society. It’s said that there were many women from the samurai families became geisha and entertained Japan. The Meiji government released the laws to prohibit a human trafficking, geisha’s apprenticeship, and so on. So, geisha who were in debt or forced to work were set free. People who wanted to be a geisha needed to see a governor and get an operating license. They also had to pay a business tax monthly. This is how a new geisha business started in Japan.


The dark history of geisha


Yoshihara inside

They used to wait for the customers in here(The model of Yoshiwara is at Toei Kyoto Studio Park)

The history of the geisha is very heartbreaking and must have been a very hard choice for the families of these young women to make. The families sold their daughters at a young age, for money to pay off the family debt. The daughters would work until their debt had been paid off to the owner of the geisha house(Okiya/置屋). In some cases, a geisha was able to acquire a “Danna(旦那)” that would pay for expenses, and even at times pay off her debt.

But those geisha who were picked up by the rich people were few. Even though they were picked up, I wonder if they could have a good life. I hope they could, though.

Many geisha ended up in working until they died. The half of their income went to their owner and they still had to pay for the debt, foods, clothing, and more. They didn’t even have money left on their hand. Top of that, when they got older, their income naturally went down because of the age. They were in the bad circulation. This is something that should not have happened. It makes me so sad to hear the stories.  。゚(゚´Д`゚)゜。


What’s “Oiran(花魁)”?


What's OiranTo understand the world of geisha, you should know “Oiran(花魁)” too. If you know this word, what is your image of oiran? Probably, flashy kimono or high-rank prostitutes(Yujo/遊女) and that image is truth. The word of “Oiran” started to be used in the middle of 18 centuries. Originally, the high-rank yujo was called “Tayu(太夫)” in Kyoto or Osaka but in Yoshiwara, the word of oiran got popular and spread to the nationwide. The low-rank yujo was also called “Joro(女郎)”. They weren’t even close to oiran because the women who were called oiran had the skills of play instruments, dance, education for the culture like noble people, and the good looking(they were trained those skills since they were young). Those women who were called oiran belong to the high-class brothels and they used to treat the people who were the high-rank samurai or rich people.


The reason why Oiran tied their belt at the front


Oiran Manaita Obi

Photo: oiran, 花魁 by Andrew O. Wikimedia Commons with CC License Attribution

To tie a belt(Obi/帯) at the front was for the people who didn’t have to wear their clothing by themselves. So, high-rank samurai family’s women used to wear it at the front. Usually, to tie a belt at the front would bother the women to do their housework but as I said they were from high-rank samurai family so they didn’t do the house work. They had people to help to do a housework. That’s why they could tie it at the front.

But generally, this way was the symbol of being prostitute because they started that way and spread all over in Japan. Let me show you the reasons why they tied a belt at the front like the high-rank samurai family’s women.

  • Oiran showed the belt off to make them look like they were a high-rank
  • Oiran showed the most beautiful part of belt off to make them look better
  • This meant to be a one night wife(In the Edo period, the women who were married tied their belt at the front and the women who were single tied their belt at the back)
  • They longed for the high-class samurai society
Oirandochu in Japan

Oiran Dochu

Do you know “Oiran-Dochu(花魁道中)”? When oiran went out to meet with the customers, oiran took many people to go with. It was like a parade or fashion show. They walked slowly on purpose and make the customers feel impatient to show that they have their pride. When they did oiran-Dochu, they wore the belt called, “Manaita-obi(俎板帯)”(the picture is above). They tied this belt at the chest. The length of the belt which is hanging is 1meter and the width is 19 centimeters. When they wore it, it looked like they hang “Manaita(cutting board)” from their chest so this is how this belt was called. It is gorgeous belt and when oiran-dochu was going, the common people had the chance to see the oiran women. This was only the chance to see them. Only the rich people or high-rank samurai could get to see the top of the top as being their customers.




The way of becoming a Geisha

To be a geisha you must first become a maiko(apprentice geisha), traditional maiko began their training around the age of 6. The modern geisha starts her training at the age of 15-18 depending on where they are from. In order to be a maiko there are many things that you give up, during the Edo period a maiko or geisha were not able to have contact with family the owner of the geisha house(okiya) become the mother and the other maiko and geisha become the sisters(onee-san), this still holds true today, a maiko can’t have contact with family or friends except through letters, After their training and a testing is done the Okasan (mother) will grant the maiko special permission to make a call home. After half way through her training, the maiko’s name will be changed for her life and work as a maiko, maiko train 5-6 years to become a full-fledged geisha and are able to entertain.  A maiko will study music, dance, tea ceremony, language, and hostessing.


What is the difference between Geisha(芸者), Geiko(芸妓), and Maiko(舞妓)?


Have you heard those names before? Well, about the geisha, I have already explained what they are like. But do you know Geiko and maiko? Let me explain those!




Seiki Kuroda- Maiko

Seiki Kuroda – Maiko {{PD-1923}}

Maiko is generally young girls or women who entertain people with their skills to dance, sing a song, or play instruments in Kyoto. In another word, they are under training. The reason why I wrote young girls or women is because of their age. Basically, the people who are under training are between 15 years old(after graduating from a junior high school) to the early 20’s. This term to train is called “Shikomi(仕込み)”. Shikomi means the preparation in English. Shikomi is called “Hangyoku(半玉)” in Kanto area(around Tokyo). While they are under training,  they learn the rule, the etiquette, the way of tea, the way of flower, how to deal with guests, how to sing, how to dance, how to play an instrument, and more. There are the houses called “Okiya(置屋)” in Kyoto and those houses support the people who want to be geisha and take care of them until they become a geisha. This system to raise a geisha is only in Kyoto now.




Geisha in Kyoto


Actually, geiko and geisha are the same meaning and what they do is same. The difference is the place. The name of the geiko is usually used in Kyoto only(This is supposed to be in Kyoto only but nowadays, you will see the geisha is called geiko in the different places too). The other places use the word of geisha. “芸妓” has two pronunciations. One is geiko as I say but another one is “Geigi”. They also write “芸子(Geiko)” in Kyoto. “芸子” and “芸妓” are basically the same meaning but it’s said that the word of “芸妓” is used for the woman who has an education and skills of arts. So, this word is respectable. If you go to Kyoto, you will get to see those words(“芸子” and “芸妓”) are used differently. Geiko or geisha don’t have a retirement so you will see the elder beautiful women are Geiko or geisha!


How to tell Geiko and Maiko apart


If you read the sentences above, you know geiko and maiko already. Now, I want to show you how to tell them apart when you see them. There are some points to be able to tell which is which. Let’s check!




  • They use their own hair to make a topknot
  • They use some fancy Kanzashi(traditional Japanese hairpin)


  • They wear a wig
  • They don’t use kanzashi much(they use it but it’s plain)




  • Their kimono(着物) is colorful and has patterns on
  • The sleeves of the furisode(振袖) are long
  • Their belt(obi/帯) is long. The length is 5-6 meters. It looks like hanging when they tie. It’s called “Darari no Obi(だらりの帯)”.



  • Their kimono is chic. They wear the color like white or black without the patterns
  • They wear a belt tight unlike maiko does




Zori and Geta

Left: Zori and right: Geta


  • They wear sandals called, “Okobo(おこぼ)”. This is like a “Geta(下駄)”. Geta is a traditional Japanese wooden clog



  • They wear “Zori(草履)”. This is a traditional Japanese sandal


Now, you are able to tell your friends about how to recognize them!


Why don’t many Chaya deal with “Ichigen-san/一見さん(first-time customers)”?


Kyoto in JapanFirst off, I think you want to know what “Ichigen-san(一見さん)” is. Ichigen-san is a first-time customer to go to the Chaya. There are many chaya don’t take those customers. The reason is the bond between chaya and “Okami-san(女将さん)”. Okami-san is like a mother to maiko and geiko and Okami-san teaches them lessons to be geiko. As Okami-san lives in okiya with maiko, she takes care of them(when the people become a geiko, they usually leave okiya and start to live alone but some geiko live in okiya for their conditions). Okami-san is the one who sends maiko and geiko to chaya so Okami-san doesn’t want to send maiko and geiko to the people who chaya doesn’t trust. They are like a mother and daughters. Do you want to send your daughters to the weird to hang out?

So They are like a family and they cherish “Goen(御縁)”. Goen is a fate or chance in English. When the customers are trusted by chaya, those customers can introduce his or her friends or acquaintances to chaya. This is the way of how they do and they try to link with the trusted people to the trusted people. Chaya is like the customer’s another home so they don’t want to let the strangers in easily. This is how many chaya don’t take the first-time customers.

The foundation of the geisha world is a relationship or a tie. They are looking forward to having a long-term relationship. To build a relationship, you need to be trusted. It goes to the same thing in our life too. It might be hard to enter chaya for the sight seeing people but we all have to understand the rule of them. If you become a customer to the chaya, what you have to be careful is when you introduce somebody to the chaya. If the person who you introduce acts up or rude, you are the would lose all trust from chaya. You have to choose somebody who can build a relationship with them. That’s what you have to know.

By the way, chaya is also called “Ochaya(お茶屋)”. They are the same meaning. The word of “O(お)” is an honorable word so sometimes, they put “O” to call the name. Do you know chaya is not a restaurant? Chaya is the place where people can play with maiko and geiko. Chaya only lets the customers use the room to have a fun with them. Chaya orders foods from the restaurants for the customers. So, maiko and geiko go back and forth between okiya and chaya.



A geisha and the history of the geisha go so deep! I only knew the surface of the geisha and new how beautiful and delicate they are. While studying the geisha my head began to spin, and I became dizzy with all the history that I was finding. These girls truly train so hard to be who they are, therefore, should be respected. I don’t claim to have all the answers about a geisha, and sometimes when studying the facts were so inconsistent but I gave it my best lol. Thank you for reading my post!

I am off to bed now to rest my eyes lol.

(waves) See you next time!





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