- 1. Introduction
- 2. History and transition
- 3. Appearance
- 4. The popular culture
- 4.1 Dressing up as maiko tourist activity
Maiko-san. It is likely that these young women are not
real maiko but ordinary people dressed up as maiko.
Geishas are the artisans and entertainers of traditional Japan. They singed and danced and performed in front of audience, and were very skilled in social skills. That's what the word geisha literally means, "artisan" or "cultivated person".
Geishas are often seen as the center of original Japanese culture, or the last protectors of the old values and visual art. They have also often described as objects of safety for the Japanese. Since 1600 the samurai culture was ruling in Japan. In that world, geisha was institution of safety - with geishas, samurais and people could talk about their worries.
The same aspect of geisha's work still exists. Perhaps most important virtue is her trustworthiness - geisha is never - under any circumstances to reveal the name of their customer or any of the topics discussed with them. If geisha would make such mistake, she would lose her position as geisha.
Today, not everyone can purchase services of geisha. Foreigners have a rare chance to get into touch with geisha, only few famous people or politicians from abroad are allowed into tea houses.
In 1920's there was about 80 000 geishas in Japan. I believe the estimation to be quite true , it was very common profession for women. As there has been steep decrease of number of geisha, it has received much more unique and mysterious fame.In 80's the number of geishas was said to be around 17 000. The economic trouble in 90's was to reduce the number further. At present there are perhaps less than 200 geishas and the number is on steady decrease. Most of them are now in Kyoto in Hanamachi called Gion , the last cradle of the most traditional Japanese culture.
It is important to realize that geisha is a symbol of Japan, similarly like mount fuji. Perhaps young japanese don't know much about geishas, but most of them feel geisha is somewhat central part of their own culture. Although the image of geisha in kimono is perhaps the first thing people in west get in their minds when thinking about Japan geisha however is hardly a sign of Japan. Symbol, much more than a sign.
Unlike the popular American novel and movie Memoirs of Geisha suggests, a modern geisha really doesn't have so much to do with sexual professions. In west people often falsely connect geisha into a profession of a prostitute. This is silly as the daily life of a geisha does not include sexual relations with the customers. Such situation might exist but to focus on that would be beside the point. With this aspect, it is good to note also that first geishas were in fact, men.
Geisha is often called "high class courtesan" but I find that little a bit problematic, as geisha isn't prostitute, at least not in it's present form. Certainly geishas do flirt with men but they do it with art - and part of the game is always the certain social distance. Male customers know the impossibility of having her - and perhaps that's what makes it so beautiful. Yasunari Kawabata's Yukiguni illustrates this relationship very beautiful way.
Geisha is in fact opposite to sexy. Geishas are not so beautiful, they are more like ordinary women you can see in the street. They are in a way anonymous. Most of the geishas never use their original name. In a way they hide their personality behind their skill, their canvas in which they project their quickly fading image.
Geishas are artists who use themselves as the canvas.
Although it would appear that geisha does not have so long history, the first emergences as "modern geisha" are dating back to 1700's, the similar type professionals have existed from the early Kamakura period.
It is important to realize here that the courtesans discussed in this chapter doesn't have so much to do with concept of geisha as we know it, despite I sometimes call them "maiko" or "geisha". Their clothes were nothing so fine (as the Tokugawa government made limits to their clothing as told below) and their skills were not nearly as sophisticated.
Shirabyoshi (who got their name from the dance they performed) appeared at the time of social change in Japan. There was all kinds of hassle, the long fortunate families became unfortunate, and in order to survive, the daughters often had to become Shirabyoshi. As they often had the education and life in the aristocratic families, they knew the social skills and grace. They were fine women, so to speak. They had talent for poetry and dance, and they became the supporters of the aristocratic families who wanted to maintain their high class life. In some cases, they got pregnant and gave birth to noble children. Perhaps most known aristocrats that were supported by Shirabyoshi were the Fujiwara and Taira families.
Saburuko (literally meaning "ones who serve") were women who didn't have job or other chance to survive. Although most of them were from the lower class, there were also educated and talented higher class ones. These talented individuals pulled the Saburuko status up and eventually made it possible to offer the services for aristocrats.
As noted earlier, geisha has origins of professional performers who mostly were male. The male entertainer (sometimes strangely called as h?kan) however had to give space for the female practitioners. By the 1800, female geishas (onna geisha) had already become more popular than male geisha.It was around this time when the word "onna geisha" was simply changed to "geisha" referring to the female professionals.
From the childhood, geisha students were often in daily contact with the experienced, professional geisha. In early age, they started work as maids or assistants for the geisha. They could have worked as a waitress in restaurants or those musically inclined could do musical performances, playing a shamisen or koto.
When they became old enough, they could become apprentice geisha (maiko). This includes a tight contact to the master, the teacher. This relationship is somewhat similar to current sempai/kohai role, still visible in Japanese university.
It is interesting for us foreigners to realize how tight and natural this knit was. It was natural for the apprentice to study every movement of the master, in order to accumulate the knowledge and feeling. The friendship often grew deep, and the student wisely appreciated the feedback, even cruel one from the master.
Times were hard, and there was no room for complaining. The apprentices lived with their masters and were totally supported by the teacher. Often the apprentice did all the housework for exchange for the food and hopefully kind care from the master.
However, let's go back a little for interesting event dating back to 1589. It was this year when Hara Saburozaemon opened a pleasure quarter in Nijo Yanagimachi, Kyoto. The design of this had strong influence from China. For security, he built a walls around the place.
After years went by, this basically same quarter had been moved around due to difficulties, Rokujo Misujimachi, and finally to Suzakuno in Kyoto, which soon started to bear more famous name "Shimabara of Kyoto". This quarter became soon the famous and popular site for those seeking for entertainment.
However, keeping a brothel wasn't a simple task. There was competition, women offering their services cheaper outside. So the brothel owners decided to appeal the Tokugawa government with the proposal to restrict selling the services to inside the walls of the pleasure quarters. In 1617 the request was granted, and now the brothels became regulated and licensed business. Selling the services outside the brothel was illegal, as well as selling the services without a proper licence. The other rules were that the guests were not permitted to remain in the brothel for more than twenty-four hours, and that the courtesans are forbidden to wear luxurious clothes.
The latter rule is interesting, as it appears that the Tokugawa were afraid that the courtesans became too much noble-looking. They were well aware that this business was doing a good profit, and they wanted to keep the courtesans as less than ordinary looking. This single detail is worth of special attention, I think.
The Shimabara, Yoshiwara and other pleasure quarters were indeed popular, and appeared just in right time to fullfill the need of men to escape from their daily, hard lifes.
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It is interesting to realize how the courtesans were not at all same, they soon formed their own hidden universe inside the walls of the quarters, and their own class system as well. Tayuu and Hashi-joro were the first classes, while the other Koshi-joro, Tsubone-joro and Kirimise-joro came in picture later.
Tayuus were the super top class, which everyone wanted to become. Second was Koshi-joro and third became Tsubone-joro. Naturally the price of the provided services depended on the status.
The Tayuus were exceptional, talented women. Although it would quickly seem that they were just rich, lucky women, they had to work hard for their status. They had their own standards and rituals to follow. Keeping up the high status and class was by no chance an easy task. However, tayuus did have one luxury which could be considered above others, the chance to say reject.
One could say that the 1700 was the golden-era of the pleasure quarters. People hand money to spend and the merchant class was flourishing. Ukiyo-e art became pop and kabuki was favored by courtesans, which soon had effect that the courtesans wanted to upgrade their clothing to fit the current style. The limits set before, had to gradually set aside.
However there was also other changes inside the community of courtesans. Tayuu and Koshi-joro had to eventually step aside and give space to new fashion sancha-joro class. But sancha-joro was not the only class, but yobidashi (which was later split into two groups).
Even though the people had money to spend, the sancha-joro class failed to take the entertainment to new level. The times were changing, and customers demanded cultivation and spiritual food.
The new group of entertainments that filled this need were geiko, originally male entertainers. Their origins, as well were in Kyoto and Osaka. The men were the ones that entertained the audience in many ways, until the first modern geisha Kikuya, came onto stage.
It was around 1750 when the shamisen-playing geishas appeared. The geisha-culture was born.
The regulations were set again, this time again restricting their clothing to more simple one, white collar, simple patterned cloth, uniform hairstyle. And the geisha was never to leave the pleasure quarters. Only the New Years day and obon were allowed days. Also geisha was not allowed to work until 10pm (later to midnight).
Also it is interesting to realize here that it was this time when the geishas started to look rather ordinary, than specially beautiful. The geishas wanted to distinct from the courtesans (who were often specially picked up cute ones). Also it was thought that the musically or artistically inclined ones would be better as geishas.
The geisha's appearance changes throughout her career. Maikos wear the distinctive red under kimono and thick white makeup, while older geisha wear more sophisticated, less flashy style. The older geisha has the experience and charm, so she does not require additional feat.
It is long and tiresome process to apply the makeup. Naturally there are special professionals to do this. This usually happens after the geisha is dressed up to kimono.
The traditional white base makeup was originally made with harmful lead or rice powder. The red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows are typical geisha makeup.
The makeup process begins with application of bintsuke-abura, a special kind of oil. Next the white powder like substance is mixed with water and applied to the skin with a special bamboo brush. The white substance covers almost all visible part of the skin, including chest and neck. The nape of the neck has the typical W or V shape of clear skin which has no white makeup. This is especially important part, as the neck is the crucial point of geisha's presence.
After the white base is applied, the excess material is removed with patting of a sponge. Then, the eyebrows and eyes are drawn, with traditional charcoal or modern day cosmetics. The eyebrows and the corenrs of the eyes are colored black. The maiko also has red around her eyes, which is another distinctive difference between maiko and established geisha.
The lips are interesting, as the traditional lip color has crystallized sugar in it (the geisha's kiss must be so sweet!). The first stage maiko used to have tradition to color their teeth black but nowadays this practice is rare.
In the beginning of her career, the maiko gets help from the master for this tiresome cosmetic marathon, but later she must do it all alone.
There is also a habit that as the years go by, the geisha's make-up becomes more subdue, and starts to use her natural charm more. The most mature geishas have almost no makeup at all, although even they wear the heavy cosmetics for formal events.
There is a large variation throughout the history in the way geisha have been wearing their hairstyles. In the past their hair was down, and in some periods it was tied up again. The most famous is the shimada hairstyle, worn by most famous geisha.
Four different types of shimada could be distinguished: the taka shimada, tsubushi shimada, uiwata and the divided peach (aka. splitted pumpkin in the pop book Memoirs of Geisha).
The taka shimada is the high chignon style usually worn by younggeisha, tsubushi shimada is the more flat version, usually worn by older women. The uiwata instead is a chignon that is usually bound with a piece of cotton.
The divided peach style is only worn by maiko.
The hair is another source of discomfort for geisha as it requires constant work. Although modern geisha wears a wig, even the wig needs professional care at times to times.
As discussed more extensively in kimono section of Hanami Web, the geishas are experts of wafuku, traditional Japanese wear.
Most distintive is the red underkimono the maiko wears. But the geishas do have their own subculture of kimonos, their kimonos are often so flashy and fabulous that a normal woman wouldn't dare to wear it.
The geisha must have perfect sense of style and she must also be aware of the current trends in fashion. As the kimono has a strong link to sense of the season, kisetsu, geisha must be also very well informed about the visual design and style. You can wear certain kind of coloured obi (the sash) and certain kind of kimono.
It is often said that it's not the kimono itself that makes the geisha so fantastic, but it's the way she walks, and uses it. Geishas seem to be totally comfortable with their tight and restrictive clothing, as if it was their second layer of skin.
Geisha have special formal, trailing kimono, de which means "going out". It exposes the nape of her neck deeply. Only geisha can wear kimono like this. Also geishas wear heavy and distinctive white makeup and a wig that is often decorated. In the old times, geishas didn't wear wig but had their actual hair oiled and prepared to shape like that. It was very hard to make, thus when they slept, they had to use special hard support to hold their head to prevent their hair to mess up.
However, geisha wears her de only for formal occasions. In their daily work, they use normal, non trailing kimono. It is striking that this kimono isn't usually so very different what ordinary Japanese woman might wear. What makes the difference is the way how geisha wears it. She has a good bearing and her walking is elaborate, well trained. Most
importantly - she is cozy in her kimono and she is one with it. It seems like the kimono is her second skin, as if she had it when she was born.
The way how geisha wears her taiko (type of obi -sash) is also different to ordinary woman. It is tied down in their waists, perhaps because the neck is so exposed, it creates better balance. Geishas wear their kimonos usually so that their under kimonos are slightly exposed in the front.
Throughout the century, geishas have been source of magnificent interest in abroad. In a way, geisha is a symbol of Japan, it has such a huge symbolic value. This is in a way very natural as the geishas are doing very important job of prevailing the old Japanese lifestyle and culture. If I was to write a book about kimono, I would interview the geishas first, as they are the most pro wafuku users still existing on earth.
It is the most recent Hollywood movie Memoirs of Geisha and that raised the interest to geishas among foreigners. The movie is based on the Arthur Goldens novel bearing the same name. But one cannot mention these products, without mentioning the controversy the book and later the movie brought. Arthur Goldens book single handedly suggested that modern geisha is a no more than high-class courtesan.
Instead of recommending the US version, I would like to offer geisha Mineko Iwasaki's book "Geisha of Gion". The book is written from Japanese real geisha's perspective, a realistic description of life of a geisha.
Japanese artist and ex-geisha called Hanayo made to the cover of the Face Magazine in the photos where she dressed up as a geisha with a missing a tooth, and in bubble blowing geisha. She later became Jean-Paul Gaultier model.
Nowadays it is popular activity for young Japanese women to wear maiko costume in Kyoto. Therefore, the casual behaving young women in maiko costume is most likely not a real maiko.
For young women this complete transformation into a traditional artisan is very enjoyable and fun.
See also: An evening with Geisha..
thank you for you answer...
I am just an ordinary woman wanting to learn about Japanese culture and I absolutely love geishas,which I think is one of the most influnced,important part of among Japanese culture and it's women.My real name is not Megumi,but I go by that name,I want to become a geisha,I believe I have the beauty,love,and most of all the talent! I'm still studying and learning to become a geisha,I love the arts and it is my passion,if anyone can help,please contact me!
and possibly girl students
greet for me Yukio Hatoyama.
@larry: the geisha first wore the white make-up, when they only had candlelight... the white makeup would reflect the candlelight, making them stand out more, and make them look stunning to their clients :D