A first-person account of geisha culture, by the anthropologist Liza Crihfield Dalby. She was the first non-Japanese woman to train and work as a geisha. This ethnographic study was updated for a new edition, in which Dalby reflects on changes in the 24 years since she did her intensive field work as a participant-observer.

Literally, "person of art". A profession with centuries of tradition in Japan. Most gaijin either think it means "prostitute" because some actual prostitutes wrongly call themselves that, or they have read Memoirs of a Geisha, which gives a much better account of the whole thing, but allegedly the woman whose experiences it is actually based on still thinks the author put too great a stress on the sexual aspects.

That the profession has a sexual aspect is undeniable, but at worst, a Geisha is similar to a high-class callgirl, and this is rather optional. It is (or at least used to be) relatively common for Geishas to become mistress to a rich man in order to pay back her Geisha house (see below).

But first and foremost, being a Geisha is about being perfection, in looks, manners and education. Their actual job consists of providing entertainment and creating a pleasant atmosphere at Geisha parties. Nowadays, these parties are extremely exclusive, if not aristocratic events, appropriate for occasions like the sealing of a major business deal between large corporations, because the service of a single Geisha can cost several thousand dollars per evening. This was different in the past, Geisha parties were nothing special, but somewhere along the way, it turned from mainstream entertainment into what it is now.

Geisha trainees start at a very young age (not quite so young nowadays): they enter a Geisha house and are called tamago (egg). They get a very intensive education in classical Japanese poetry, music (especially the koto) and dance, as well as a broad general education (to improve conversational skills). At the age of 17, they can become Maiko, not a full Geisha yet, but allowed to attend the parties and work partially. After they have become full Geisha, they start to pay back the Geisha house for their education and equipment (a good kimono costs a fortune). Geishas who are very successful may earn enough money to start their own Geisha house.

Also a delicious brand of milk chocolate from Finland. The wrapping features a geisha woman, against a pink background, suitably attired and waving a fan. It is made by Fazer, a leading manufacturer of Scandanavian confectionery. Try eating Geisha while drinking Finlandia vodka. Mmmmmmmm.

芸者

(Lit. "art person")

A brief history

Geisha have been part of Japan's culture for centuries. Though skilled courtesans had existed as earlier as the 10th century, the geisha became a distinctive profession from the 18th century onwards. During this period entertainers were mostly men but a few female drum players appeared in the 1770s. They were called geiko, the predecessors of the geisha. The popularity of the geiko soared and so they expanded their repertoire.

In many ways, the geisha were the creation of the wealthy merchant class. The merchants were annoyed by the lack of social mobility under Tokugawa rule, as certain arts such as Noh drama were reserved for the nobility only. Thus they decided to create a type of entertainer to serve their needs. She would be as accomplished as any courtesan of the time, skilled in the use of the shamisen, koto and other classical Japanese instruments. She would be the epitome of grace, the perfect dancer and an excellent conversationalist. For a select few, she would also provide an incredible night of sex. Originally samurai were unable to purchase a geisha's services, a small act of revenge on the part of the merchants.

The geisha were originally based in the Yoshiwara pleasure district around Edo (Tokyo) but the profession soon grew. Girls were recruited as young as possible, sometimes as young as 6, normally from families so poor they had to sell a daughter. Curiously it seems that few came from peasant families, as they were too proud to do so - most were from those living in urban areas. In rare cases, impoverished samurai families asked a daughter to join to pay off debts - some even volunteered. They were normally made to do the chores in the okiya where they lived. Those who lacked sufficient skill or fell out with the owner of the okiya stayed as maids, as lessons in the appropriate arts were deemed a waste of money. But those who worked hard and looked promising were sent to the various music and dance schools for regular lessons. They would wake early and go to bed late, a routine that would stay with them for much of their career.

As the numbers of geisha increased, so too did the interest in them. It did not take long until most self-respecting daimyo had at least one geisha in their service. Nowadays there are few okiya still in existence but a number do survive in modern Tokyo and Kyoto.

Geisha and Sex

Though in the past geisha on occasion did offer sexual services to clients, this was especially rare. The view that many gaijin have of geisha as being little more than prostitutes is heinously incorrect. This is mostly due to Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. Quite fittingly, in 2001 Mineko Iwasaki, one of the geisha who he interviewed while researching his book, initiated legal precedings against him, accusing him of misrepresenting her profession.

As their literal description suggests, a geisha's purpose is to be a thing of beauty, almost a piece of art. The whole point of the new entertainers was to separate themselves from the conventional cortesans and prostitutes. Some geisha did sleep with a few, special clients and the act of mizuage (a client payed to sleep with a maiko for the first time in her life) was an integral part of a young maiko's career. However such activities were rare and not the main point of becoming a geisha.

Of course geisha were women and often fell in love themselves. If it was with a patron, they were lucky. If it was with a man who could not afford her contract, she had to supress her emotions - being caught with an unsuitable man could destroy her reputation. After prositution was banned after WWII in Japan, the age of sleeping with select clients drew to an end. Geisha are still expected to keep their chastity but as ever, this is not always possible to enforce.

Today geisha wear the finest kimono, ones that ordinary people could never afford. They paint their faces in thick white make-up and carefully apply rouge to their lips. Their fine black hair is pile up high, locked in place with strong wax and ornate hair combs. A truly alluring image. Though they are often the things of sexual desires, it would be unthinkable for a client to inquire whether one would sleep with him. Even if he had the arrogance to do so, the most he could expect would be a polite smile.

Modern geisha

For the outlay of hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds, geisha entertain clients through song and dance, either in ochaya (teahouses) or restaurants - in rare circumstances at private functions. The Japanese koto and shamisen are the preferred instruments to accompany performing geisha. They also make polite conversation with their clients, though such conversations are strictly private. They also serve meals and drink such as sake.

Though the geisha of today do not spend as long as their ancient predecessors in training, who could be entered into a okiya before they were 10, geisha still have to go through at least a few years of intensive training. Generally it is still a case of "the younger the better" - the younger an applicant is, the more training she can be put through. The young girls join a particular okiya, where they live with the other trainees, maiko and geisha, under the care of a mama-san. They are instructed in traditional dance, poetry, how to play instruments like the koto and perform the ancient tea ceremony. By the age of 17 (though today older girls apply) an apprentice geisha traditionally became a maiko - today a girl normally requires 5 years training first. Although not a full geisha, she attends an older "sister" during parties. This is important as she learns how to make the conversation vital to being a successful geisha.

Geisha have a fixed contract and at first earn no money, as they must pay for the expensive kimonos, wigs and make-up. They are normally sponsored by a wealthy patron to pay for this. Geisha are given accommodation in an okiya and an allowance though. After some time they earn a lot of money, and they can expect to leave with a great deal of money. The more successful women can leave the shared dwellings and operate by themselves, often the most efficient way of making money. For many decades, geisha have been expected to move out by their 30s, to make way for the younger trainees. Though they could stay on, it was normally only if they were not in demand and could not afford to do so.

Though many commentators claim that the geisha are a dying breed, there is still an adequate interest in them, both in terms of potential clients and potential employees. The geisha profession provides Japanese women with an excellent opportunity at being financially independent and a rare chance to retire before they are 40. Some go on to buy their own ochaya. A new breed of geisha, the furisode-san, has recently sprung up in Tokyo. These entertainers are less exclusive than the geisha and spend less time in training - some people complain they are like buzzing bees, rather than graceful butterflies. However in a consummerist market, they are 21st century geisha, who will keep the old arts alive if their more illustrious counterparts really do fade away.


A recent book Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World by Lesley Downer provides a comprehensive and more accurate understanding of geisha than Memoirs of a Geisha.

Geisha were not Japanese prostitutes!

It is unfortunate that many possess the misconception that the women who called themselves geisha were in fact the Japanese versions of prostitutes. This is not so. The profession of geisha took much training, time, and effort. Once a woman decided (or had the decision made for her) that she was to become one, it would become an endeavor that would take up all of her life.

A geisha's training began early in life, some at the traditional if young age of three years and three days. But most started somewhere between the ages of three and ten, and there were few that began their studies as early as that age. The training itself took place in a school specially made for young trainees, who - once there - would learn such arts as shamisen, drum, and flute playing, singing, dancing, and tea ceremony, along with others.

A young girl's training would continue until she made her debut as an apprentice geisha. In order for this to happen, an experienced geisha, who had completed her training, had to agree to become what was called an older sister to the trainee. As a young girl moved into her apprentenship, she would come to rely totally on her older sister, for it is she who would watch and guide her in the years until she became a full fledged geisha at the age of eighteen.

A geisha's life consisted of parties and banquets, where the idea was to keep the guests entertained and happy, for they were paying the woman to be there. For every hour she stayed, each guest at the party would pay her a certain amount of money (which varied depending on how successful a geisha she was). She would move from one guest to the next, greeting each in turn and spending a few minutes talking with them. On some occasions she and the other geisha who happen to be there might put on an impromptu show of singing, dancing, and/or music for them.

There is an aspect of a geisha's life that does resemble that of a prostitute's life, however. When the apprentice geisha reaches a certain point in her life, her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidding man. This is called her mizuage . The man who has put down the most money on the apprentice wins the right to be the first to "explore her cave" as they sometimes crudely put it.

This was the only time something like this would occur in a successful geisha's life. While the mizuage was common practice, and happened to every geisha, only a woman with either no hope or no scruples would lower herself to having sex with a man for money. No geisha who wanted a good reputation would willingly do so.

I can't help but quote Alan Booth on this:

Geishas, the coffee-table books and up-market glossies and thoughtful TV documentaries never tire of telling us, have no truck whatever with crude fleshly pleasures. They are highly skilled entertainers who specialize in shamisen ballads, exquisite dances, elegant repartee, party games with matchsticks, and delicate liaisons with incumbent prime ministers. To confuse them with women who grant sexual favors to lesser mortals for money is to be as ignorant and misinformed as were the occupying American GIs who, shortly after their arrival in 1945, are said to have congregated on the Ginza and set up cries of "We want geesha girls!" Imagine the indignation of the local populace! Why, these barbarians wouldn't know a skilled shamisen performer from a hula dancer! Oh woe, the coarseness of foreign education! And then, to smooth ruffled national pride, the more affluent among the populace likely took themselves off to a hot spring for a bath, a drink, and a fuck.

-- Alan Booth, Looking for the Lost

I think the real misconception is in how geisha are viewed in the West: no, not as prostitutes, but as bizarre sexless substitutes for prostitutes. According to this view, the inscrutable Japanese don't even need sex, but instead they satisfy themselves simply through the esthetic pleasure of watching geisha pluck cat gut and croon folk songs. How wonderfully civilized! Even better yet, these life-sized dolls are cultivated like bonsai trees, to such an extent that their beauty and their skills cannot even be fully appreciated without a thorough indoctrination in the Japanese Way. Why, oh why, can't we in the West emulate such exquisite tastes and strength of character? The idolization of seppuku/harakiri, with characters in James Clavell novels like Shogun disemboweling themselves without even a grunt while composing poetry, is much along the same lines. Behold the Wonders of Japan!

This is not just bullshit, it borders on offensive, and nearly every book about Japan written by Japanese writers either laments or snickers about such absurdity. Fact is, onsen geisha (hot spring prostitutes) and their ilk have always way outnumbered so-called "real" geisha. The sex industry in Japan is huge, and it has been huge for as long as there have been records of it (cf. Yoshiwara). And why not? Human nature means it's pleasurable to get laid, and Japanese morality doesn't proclaim extramarital or commercial sex to be a sin. Even at worst, if exposed to others, it's only shameful (hazukashii). Geisha who do not engage in hanky-panky may exist, and even more may at first claim so in order to drive up their price, but they're about as common as asexual escorts.

Although I have to add one caveat: the Western view has become so ubiquitous that it is starting to affect the geisha themselves. These days, the average age of geisha is pushing sixty, and many make their living posing on stage in fronts of crowds of googly-eyed foreign tourists, acting out what they expect to see. In Kyoto, the largest geisha center, there are less than 200 geisha left. Like kabuki and the tea ceremony, geisha have minimal relevance to the vast majority of the Japanese populace, and even those remnants are rapidly disappearing -- it's just sad that their last days will be spent as a freak show for tourists.

Gei"sha (ga"sh&adot;), n.; pl. Geisha (-sh&adot;), Geishas (- sh&adot;z). [Jap.]

A Japanese singing and dancing girl.

 

© Webster 1913.

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