What is a Geisha?

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A Geisha
The image that comes to mind when one hears the word Geisha, is of a Japanese woman, dressed in a traditional kimono, hair pinned up and face painted white
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Learn about the Geisha's history.

The image that comes to mind when one hears the word Geisha, is of a Japanese woman, dressed in a traditional kimono, hair pinned up and face painted white. Although the image is familiar, how many truly know what a Geisha is and what this ancient career is all about? Read on to learn more about this historic tradition.


The word Geisha means "artist" in Japanese and Geisha are formal hosts, responsible for entertaining guests in traditional teahouses, called O-chaya. Contrary to popular belief Geisha are not waitresses, they do not serve or make food and they are not prostitutes. In fact, Geisha hold themselves to virtue and elegance and with a wide variety of talent ranging from ancient dance to singing, flower arrangement, playing instruments such as the Japanese Shamisen, conversation, proper alcohol serving and calligraphy, Geisha are considered artistic entertainers and an important facet in Japanese culture.


Successful Geisha display qualities such as beauty, charm, grace, artistic talent, and etiquette perfection. Not everyone is privy to their talent, only well-known and invited guests get to experience what the Geisha have to offer and tea houses generally do not allow new proprietors without a recommendation or formal introduction. In addition, a Geisha hosted party is very expensive and will usually cost thousands of dollars. Part of the reason for the expense is due to the lack of professional Geisha available. In the 1920s there were approximately 80,000 Geisha but today, thanks to the modernization of Japan, there are only about 10,000.


The title of Geisha does not come easily, much formal training is required before a woman debuts as a full Geisha and it is not a title available to everyone. Either a woman's mother needs to be a Geisha before her or she needs to be accepted by an O-chaya. Throughout history, little girls were sold by their parents into an O-chaya who would spend large amounts of money in training them to become professional Geishas. They perform household chores and watch other Geisha and when they are 15 to 20 years old they are made apprentices to the Geisha and given the title "Maiko." A Maiko accompanies Geisha on their appointments to aid and to observe. When a girl is 20 or so, she must decide whether she wants to be a Geisha. If she marries, she cannot be a Geisha. The initiation ceremony is called "erigae" and translates to "changes collars." At one time, the Maiko would change her collar from red to white when she became a Geisha.


Geisha's will usually either perform as "Tachikata" who do traditional Japanese dance or "Jikata" who mainly sing or play an instrument. Tachikata are usually younger women while older women are usually Jikata. Being a Geisha is not only a career, it is a lifestyle. Geishas traditionally dress in a kimono and wear their hair up, in a bun or similar elegant style complete with one comb and two pins. Their faces are painted with white make up, their eyes dark and lips red.


It is interesting to note that the first Geishas were men. Due to social restrictions, women were not permitted to entertain so the men traveled across Japan entertaining various groups with singing, dancing, flattering guests, engaging in conversation. It wasn't until the 1700s that the first female Geishas appeared.


Answering the question what is a Geisha gives us a deeper look into this important, but often misunderstood, career. Geisha have been an essential aspect of Japan's cultural history and continue to be an important facet in the tradition of this beautiful country.

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