Japanese Geisha's contribution to Japanese Culture

As we’ve said before, what’s one of the first things we think about when we think about Japan? Sushi? Whaling? Extreme Street Style? One of the first things that always springs to mind for me are Japanese Geisha. Maybe this comes from having read “Memoirs of a Geisha” when I was a young teenager. This book most certainly has many flaws, but it evoked a sense of a completely foreign society that I had almost no hope of ever understanding. This, of course, incited my interest because I’m eternally curious, need to know what’s going on and have major FOMO. I probably should have been a spy or else a suburban housewife peeking through the net curtains so that I could be the centre of the gossip party (pretty glad I’m not the latter to be honest). So, what is it that we find so extremely interesting and alluring about geisha culture? And what have Japanese geisha contributed to Japanese culture? To answer this, we have to start at the beginning.

Japanese Geisha

The word “Geisha” comes from the kanji “Gei” ( 芸) meaning art, and “Sha” (者) meaning person. They are also known as “geiko” or “geigi” depending on what region they come from or work in. A geisha is an entertainer or performing artist who is gifted in the arts of poetry, music, dance and witty conversation. Geisha are often hired to attend gatherings and parties, often in teahouses or restaurants. The dance of the geisha is considered an extremely subtle art form, with every gesture telling a story. The smallest hand gesture can represent everything from reading a love letter to dabbing tears to being flirty. Being a geisha requires extreme discipline, some geisha will work well into their 80’s or 90’s and are still expected to practise their crafts daily. Even after 70+ years experience, a geisha is still expected to take lessons at least a couple of times a month. Who would be teaching this extremely experienced geisha anything is a mystery to me but oh well. Geisha are still said to exist in a special world, called “karyukai” or “the flower and willow world”. This is a world inhabited by Geisha and Oiran (courtesans), with Oiran being the bright, colourful flowers and Geisha being the graceful, subtle, strong willows.

Japanese geisha in a group playing instruments

Japanese Geisha playing their instruments 

Geisha History

It’s hard to say exactly when geisha started appearing in Japanese culture. The earliest links are to the Saburuko (serving girls) in the late 600s. These young women often came from displaced families and provided various services at socials gatherings. Depending on their educations, they either provided entertainment or sexual services. When the Imperial court made Kyoto the capital in 794AD, the elite started to become obsessed with the idea of beauty and the start of geisha culture emerged. Female dancers call Shirabyoshi became popular in the late Heian period (794-1185AD) when due to cultural changes, some women had to turn to performing to survive. These women, who dressed in men’s clothing and performed dances for the gods, were educated, able to read and write and were often musicians and singers. Their name, meaning "white rhythm" came partly from the fact that their dances were slow and rhythmic and partly from their white makeup. They performed for nobility at celebrations and although they are often called courtesans in English, they were performers and did not provide sexual services. Some Shirabyoshi did have relationships with their patrons but they were predominantly entertainers not high-class prostitutes. 

Shirabyoshi dancers including Shizuka Gozen

 Shirabyoshi dancers, wearing their trademark "tate-eboshi" hats which were traditionally worn by samurai, a samurai sword, and a "kawahori" hand fan, which men carried. The first example is one of the most famous Shirabyoshi dancers, Shizuka Gozen or Lady Shizuka

Geisha and Prostitution

Japan is a country that traditionally has embraced sexuality, and in earlier times men were not bound in monogamous relationships with their wives. Their wives were there to manage the home and provide children (doesn’t sound very fun to me), while courtesans were there to provide sexual fulfilment and pleasure. In the 16th century walled in areas called Yukaku were established and in 1617 the ruling Shogunate made it illegal for prostitution to occur outside these areas. The idea was that the women, called Yujo (meaning “play women”), working in these areas would be licensed and classified. The highest class of the Yujo were called Tayuu and Tayuu were both actresses and prostitutes. 

Tayuu or high class prostitute in Japan

A Tayuu in the Yukaku with her attendant. Image courtesy of Andrew O.

The Tayuu are considered the predecessors of geisha, and they performed skits and erotic dances on stages in the dry Kamo riverbed in Kyoto. This new performance style was called “kabuku” meaning “to be wild and outrageous” and this was the start of the kabuki theatre. Kabuki theatres often showcased the latest trends, providing new music, clothing, patterns and current events.

Kabuki theatre woodcut

Painting of the Kabuki theatre. Women were banned from performing in Kabuki theatres in 1629 due to the Government deeming the dances too sensuous and disruptive. 

 In the 18th century, the Yukaku had become glamourous entertainment centres which provided more than just sex. Some courtesans became skilled poets, calligraphers and musicians who and entertained their patrons with singing and dancing and a new profession of entertainment only started. At the turn of the 18th century the first entertainment professionals, called Geisha, appeared in the Yukaku. These geisha were, however, all men. These men entertained customers waiting to see the most popular Oiran, the high-class prostitutes and entertainers of the area.

The beginnings of the modern-day Geisha

The first female versions of geisha were called “odoriko” and were teenage dancing girls who were popular entertainment in the houses of upper-class samurai in the 1680's. These dancing girls were theoretically chaste but by the end of the 18th century, many had turned to prostitution. When they reached their 20’s they were no longer allowed to call themselves Odoriko and some started calling themselves geisha after the male entertainers. Somewhere around 1750 the first woman to call herself a geisha became known. She was a Fukagawa prostitute named Kikuya who was a skilled musician and singer and her success made female geisha extremely popular. As they became more widely know, many women geisha started working in the same places as the male geisha purely as entertainers and gave up prostitution altogether.

Portrait of Kikuya, who started out as a high class courtesan and ended up as the first female Geisha

In order to protect the business of the Oiran who were held in high regard in society at the time, Geisha working in the Yukaku were banned from selling sexual services. They were also banned from wearing over the top kimono or hairpins and if they were accused of stealing customers or business from an oiran they would be investigated and an official enquiry would be held. By the 1800s, being a geisha was considered to be a purely female job and town geisha known as “machi geisha” had made their own separate niche as artists and female companions. Since they were banned from wearing gaudy kimono and accessories, when fashions started moving toward the more sleek styles, geisha were considered to be modern and chic and the more extravagant oiran went out of fashion. Mirroring the rise in popularity of the Kabuki theatre as the forefront of trends and fashion, by the 1830’s geisha were seen as leaders of style in Japanese society. Geisha actually started the trend of women wearing haori, previously these had been seen as a male garment. 

Geisha in subtle dress vs Oiran in extravagant dress

Geisha in the late 1800's, seen as subtler and sleeker vs Oiran in the late 1800's, wearing an extravagant kimono and headgear with extremely high shoes. Note the obi tied in the front, this is typical of an Oiran outfit

Geisha and relationships


Geisha have always been seen as single women. In the past, if a geisha chose to get married she would be required to retire from working life. This has changed a bit now and some geisha do choose to get married but most are still seen as unattached. It used to be very normal for a geisha to have a “Danna” or patron. This Danna would support the geisha, paying for her training, clothing, hairstyling and accommodation. In return, the danna would have a personal relationship with the geisha although this doesn’t necessarily mean that the danna would have an intimate relationship with her. The danna wasn’t buying the geisha, he was buying her skill, time and entertainment and whether she chose to turn that into a sexual relationship or not was up to her. Danna still exist today, but mainly just to keep the traditions of geisha alive. The heyday of the geisha seems to have been and gone (although that’s not to say it won’t come back again). In 1920 there were 80,000 working geisha, while today there are just 1,000. Most of the “geisha” you see on the streets in Japan are actually tourists paying to look like a maiko for a day.

geisha entertaining two men

A geisha entertaining two men with her Shamisen in a teahouse 

Geisha in post-war Japan

The popularity of Geisha continued until World War 2, at which time, due to men being sent to war and women having to go to work, their popularity dropped dramatically. In 1944 all geisha districts were closed and all working geisha were conscripted to help with the war effort. The title of geisha also took a major hit at this point as prostitutes working in the American military districts started styling themselves as “geisha girls”. This brought disrepute back into an industry that hadn’t been associated solely with ‘sex for sale’ for a long time. Prostitutes would wear kimono and have makeup similar to geisha and eventually “geisha girl” came to imply anything to do with sex work. Researchers suspect that the misconception in the west that all geisha are also sex workers stems from the “geisha girls” in post-war Japan.

A US Marine checking out "Geisha Girls" 

In 1945, geisha districts were allowed to open again although many geisha had by this point found work elsewhere and didn’t return to their pre-war professions. Having been seen as being at the forefront of fashion, geisha in 1945 debated whether to start adopting western-style dress and entertainment. Ultimately they decided against this, and geisha who experimented with western-style entertainment or clothing were seen as betraying the culture the others were trying so hard to maintain.

Geisha in training

Traditionally, girls who were meant to become geisha started their training at an extremely young age, sometimes as young as 6. This is no longer allowed as education laws were passed in the 1960’s which meant that training generally started at 13-16 and nowadays trainees start at 17-18 although they are expected to already have some background knowledge of some of the geisha arts. 

Apprentices are called “Maiko” (舞妓) which when translated means “women of dance”. Traditionally maiko would live in an Okiya (a geisha house) and would be provided with training, food, board and everything they needed to become a geisha. The okiya would pay all the costs for the maiko, and the maiko would be contractually obliged to stay with this house until all her debts were repaid once she became a geisha. Once all her debts had been settled she was able to move out and work independently if she wanted to.

Young girls training to be geisha

Young "minarai" in training in 1910 and 1913. Note the opulent headpiece in the first photo and the kimono in the second. Images via Pinterest

 A maiko will start her training as a “minarai” (“learning by watching”). She will learn by watching other geisha and older maiko and their interactions with clients, but she won’t be allowed to participate until she is considered ready. At this level of training, the minarai will wear a more ornate and elaborate kimono as this garment is meant to do the talking for her. These days this training stage doesn’t normally last very long and is over within about a month (I guess they want to make sure you can hack it before you sign up). When the minarai has her official debut, called a misedashi, she officially becomes a maiko and her training can last up to 5 years. She is taken under the wing of a geisha and taught everything she needs to know from serving tea to making conversation.

Maiko have 3 major elements in their training: 

Formal arts - these take place in special schools 

Entertainment training - skills are learned from observing her mento at tea houses and parties 

Social skills - this takes place on the streets of the geisha district known as the “Hanamachi” (flower town) as the maiko learns to navigate the complex social web that she will use to work as a successful geisha. Formal greetings, visits and gifts are an extremely important part of Japanese social structures and a maiko has to learn to negotiate these in order to build support network or else she won’t survive long as a geisha.  

3 maiko (geisha in training) walking the Hanamachi

A group of maiko walking through the Hanamachi 

Controversy within Maiko training

A maiko used to have to take part in a ceremony called “mizuage” (hoisting from water) when she was considered ready to debut as a geisha by her mentor. In this outdated ceremony, the maiko would have her topknot symbolically cut off. This ceremony was often sponsored by a patron who would essentially pay to take the maiko’s virginity as part of the ceremony. The money raised by auctioning off the young woman's virginity was then used to promote her debut as a geisha, a very expensive process. This ritual was considered a "coming of age" ceremony and considered normal within the community. Mizuage was made illegal in 1959 due to the prostitution act. Sayo Masuda, a resort town geisha who wrote “Autobiography of a Geisha” in 1957, considered this custom as sexual exploitation as she says that she was sold multiple times in order to make a larger profit. 

Autobiography of a geisha by Sayo Masuda book cover

Sayo Masuda wrote about her experiences of being a geisha in Japan

There are other geisha who deny this practice takes place. Mineko Iwasaki, who has written her own biography "Geisha, A Life", claims that our understanding of the ceremony is wrong and the idea what these girls are auctioned off is a misunderstanding. 

 "Mizuage is really a coming-of-age ceremony, and apparently there was some selling of the virginity that went on in association with that ritual ceremony in the pleasure district a long time ago. However, that has never been true for the geisha. For the geisha, it was simply when they were becoming a young woman, similar to a sweet 16 in the West, and it was symbolized by the change in hairstyle, into a more womanly, grown-up hairstyle. And also certain subtle changes in the ensembles. There are a lot of rites of passage, but for some reason this one has been really latched on by people, and maybe it’s because of this misunderstanding."

                    — Mineko Iwasaki, author of "Geisha, A Life"

Maiko and our view of traditional Japanese Geisha

In a common misconception, what we think of when we think of a geisha, is in actual fact most likely to be a maiko. A fully qualified geisha will have makeup that is more subtle, a kimono that is less extravagant and a different hairstyle to that of a maiko. A maiko is seen as the peak of Japanese femininity, she will wear a red collar under her kimono which will hang loosely to accentuate the nape of her neck. Her makeup will leave 2 or 3 small strips of skin exposed on the back of her neck. Her kimono will be bright, and she will wear traditional wooden shoes called “okono” which are very high, up to 10cm. She will have an elaborately tied Obi which will reach her ankles and she will have her hair in a very elaborate style. At the age of 20-21 the maiko will have a ceremony called “erikai” or “turning of the collar” where she exchange her red collar for the white collar of a geisha and she will change her hairstyle. It is interesting to note that a geisha doesn’t actually have to be a maiko before she becomes a geisha. If a woman enters into the world of geishas at any point above the age of 21 she is considered too old to be an apprentice and will go straight on to become a geisha if she is accepted into the community.

Geisha from behind and maiko from behind showing the difference of makeup and hairstyle

Geisha and maiko from behind. Notice the difference in styling, and makeup, along with the white collar of the geisha and red collar of the maiko. Images courtesy of John Paul Foster

A day in the life of a Maiko

Traditional Geisha Hairstyles and Maiko Hairstyles

Like with any fashions, geisha have had very different hairstyles throughout their history, from wearing their hair down to having it up. It is interesting to note that while maiko are expected to have their natural hair styled, established geisha will often wear a wig. Maiko had to learn to sleep with their heads on small supports called “takamakura” instead of pillows so that their hair didn’t have to be restyled the next day. In order to train them to sleep with these supports, rice was strewn around the base of the support so that if rice grains were found in their hair in the morning, the maiko would know they had moved too much while they were asleep and would have to have their hair painfully restyled. The Takamakura is not that commonly used anymore, although it has been know to pop up in the western world now and again. In 2013 a Chanel ad used one as a prop for their models to lie on. If a maiko didn’t wake up covered in rice, she would have to have her hair restyled about once a week

Chanel ad showing the traditional takamakura pillow in use

Chanel ad from the 2013 Spring/Summer campaign using takamakura as a prop

Traditionally hair was pressed, set, teased, tied and then waxed into place. Due to stress on their hair caused by the styling, maiko would often end up with a  small bald patch on their heads. This small, round, bald spot was seen as a badge of honour for having endured the suffering of so much hairstyling. Although a geisha will often wear a wig, even this needs to be tended to on a regular basis and restyled once a week. Unfortunately, due to the decline in geisha tradition, the art of traditional styling for a geishas hair is a slowly dying art.  

During the 17th century, it became the norm to have a shimada hairstyle, which was a type of chignon that was quickly adopted by most established geisha. 

There are two main types of shimada: 

Taka Shimada - a hairstyle with a high back bun worn by young women 

Tsubushi Shimada - a hairstyle wth a flatter section generally worn by older women

Taka Shimada and Tsubushi Shimada on a geisha

Taka Shimada and Tsubushi Shimada. Notice the Taka Shimada has it's bun pushed up, and the Tsubushi Shimada has the bun pushed down

Maiko have a wider range of hairstyles including: 

Wareshinobu, Ofuku, Katsuyama, Yakko Shimada, Sakko 

These hairstyles often had ornate and elaborate decorations, such as hair combs and hairpins called Kanzashi.

Ofuku shimada and ornate kanzashi

Ofuku Shimada and ornate wisteria Kanzashi. Photo courtesy of John Paul Foster

Geisha Makeup

One of the most distinctive things about a geisha, or maiko, is her makeup. While the more established Geisha tend to only wear full makeup for very special occasions, and some older geisha will apply white makeup for very special dances, maiko are required to wear full makeup more often. The traditional makeup is a thick white base, which used to be made from lead, but when it was realised that it caused major skin and health problems the lead-based makeup was switched out to rice powder. Along with the heavy white base coat, red lipstick is worn with black and sometimes red accents around the eyes and eyebrows. Makeup is always applied before dressing, so as to avoid dirtying the kimono. A base of wax or oil called “bintsuke-abura” is applied, over which a white paste is applied with a bamboo brush. Makeup is applied starting at the neck and working upwards. This white base covers the face, neck and chest, however 2 or 3 areas on the back of the neck are left free from makeup in the distinctive “V” or a “W” shape. The nape of the neck is considered one of the most erotic zones in Japanese culture so the makeup and shape are meant to highlight this area. 

Maiko having her makeup applied

"V" makeup being applied with white makeup to a maikos' back. Image courtesy of John Paul Foster 

A small line of skin is also left bare just around the hairline to give the effect of the geisha or maiko wearing a mask. Eyebrows are drawn over the top of the white base, traditional charcoal would have been used, but this has been replaced with modern cosmetics.Geisha and maiko almost always have red lips. You can tell what stage of their training they are in dependent on what parts of their mouths they are painting. A geisha will almost never colour her lips fully as this would make them appear overlarge. Most established geisha will colour the top lip completely but will stylise the bottom lip in a curved stripe that doesn’t follow the shape of the lip. A new geisha will colour in only the top lip and leave the bottom bare. In her first year, a maiko will leave her top lip bare of colour, after which she will start to colour both lips. Maiko have also been known to colour their teeth black. This is because the heavy white of a maikos' daily makeup can make her teeth appear quite yellow. Blackening the teeth makes them disappear in the darkness of the mouth. This can be quite disconcerting if you aren't expecting to see someone with “no teeth” from a distance.

Maiko with makeup and blackened teeth

A maiko with her upper lip barely painted and the blackened teeth of a maiko. Images courtesy of John Paul Foster  

A maiko will wear full makeup daily for her first year, during which her mentor will help her apply and learn to use makeup. After this she will be expected to apply her makeup herself. When she has been training for three years, a maiko will move on to a more subdued style of makeup to indicate that she has become more mature and to let more of her natural beauty show. This relates back to earlier where we mentioned that very early on in their training, maiko will also wear much more extravagant kimono in order to distract from the fact that they aren't fully trained yet.

Geisha and Kimono

Geisha will always wear a traditional kimono. As mentioned before, depending on the age and level of training, the kimono will get more and more subtle. A young trainee maiko will wear extravagant and bright kimono with a bright obi belt while and established geisha will wear subdued and subtle patterns and colours. A maiko will have a kimono with long sleeves which can touch the ground when she drops her arms. It will often be brightly and intricately painted or embroidered. A maiko will wear very tall Okobo ti prevent her kimono from touching the ground. Her collar will be red, and this is sewn into the kimono to prevent the actual kimono becoming dirty or marked with makeup. The collar is more easily detachable and will be laundered much more frequently than the kimono itself. A geisha will have a normal white collar. A maiko will also wear a rather extravagant obi which will be heavily embroidered and will hang all the way to her feet. Geisha will have a normal obi, which will be tied up in the usual way in the back. Colour and pattern on the kimono is chosen carefully depending on the season and type of even that the geisha is attending.

Geisha wearing obi and kimono and maiko wearing obi and kimono

A geisha in her kimono, note the subdued colour of the kimono, the lack of pattern and the tied obi. Beside her a maiko in her kimono, note the length of the obi, the red collar and the patterned kimono. Images courtesy of John Paul Foster

Japanese Geisha and their contribution to Japanese Culture

Geisha were an incredibly important part of Japanese culture. They were at the forefront of style, often making trends that many other women would choose to follow.They were educated and intelligent and able to skillfully navigate social situations. In my opinion, geisha have also contributed hugely to women and their fight for independence. Women in Japan (and all over the world really) were seen as wives and mothers who should manage the household and not have aspirations to anything beyond this. Geisha were women who turned this idea on its head and managed to be completely independent while being held in high regard in society. 

"Geishas are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan, and traditionally have been so."

                         —Mineko Iwasaki, Geisha of Gion

Women ran the geisha houses, women trained maiko, women ran the teahouses, women made the kimono, women looked after the geisha's finances. The only place where a man was involved, was in being a guest or on the rare occasion helping to dress the maiko, whose obi could sometimes be too heavy to manoeuvre without a bit of muscle. Men were also sometimes hired to carry a geishas' shopping or musical instruments. 

geisha and her servent in 1900

A geisha in 1900 with her servant, possibly a hakoya, a man who carried geisha's shamisen

"The geisha system was founded, actually, to promote the independence and economic self-sufficiency of women. And that was its stated purpose, and it actually accomplished that quite admirably in Japanese society, where there were very few routes for women to achieve that sort of independence"

                         — Mineko Iwasaki in interview, Boston Phoenix 

Geisha today are astute businesswomen who have realised the value in keeping traditions alive while also making an independent living. I say, more power to them and long may they prosper!Is there anything else you want to know about geisha and maiko? Do you have anything to add? Do you just wanna say hi? Send us a DM on Instagram and let us know! 

Modern Archive xx

Geisha style Kimono

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