The Japanese Geisha

When you think of Japan, you quickly think of geishas, but who were and are those geishas? Are they prostitutes or are they entertainers? What is the origin of the geisha? The book and film ‘Memoirs of a geisha’ popularized the subject in the West. In this article more information about the past and present of these special ladies.

History of the Geisha

The history of Geishas goes back to the seventeenth century. Earlier there were female entertainers who resembled the later geishas, such as the Saburuko, these Saburuko were already present in Japan in the seventh century. Later, the Shirabyoshi emerged as a female entertainer during the late Heian and early Kamakura periods (from 1185 to 1333 AD).

The Saburuko (‘the one who serves’) had emerged as a result of increasing social unrest at the end of the seventh century. Many women no longer had a permanent place and had to provide sexual services to support themselves . Most of these women were from lower social classes, but some were well educated and talented. It was these last ladies who graced the aristocratic parties.

The Shirabyoshi (named after the dance they performed) also appeared at a time when the social structure was undergoing major changes. Many daughters from aristocratic families became Shirabyoshi to survive. Many of these girls were highly educated and quickly became appreciated for their dancing and poetic talents. They were supported by upper-class families.

Red light districts

In 1589, the first ‘red-light district’ was built, a wall-enclosed district in Kyoto, modeled after the red-light districts of the Ming Dynasty in China. Later, all prostitutes and brothels in one district were brought together in order to have a better overview. For men, a trip to these neighborhoods became an escape from the tightly regulated society of that period. The level of women in this period was high, many came from wealthy backgrounds and had turned to prostitution to earn a living. Later the level and elegance would decline.


There were different classes of prostitutes, the lowest class of which were originally illegally working women who were later forced to settle within the walls of the neighborhoods. The highest class, the Tayuu, were extraordinary women, both beautiful and talented. They were treated like nobles but at the same time had strict rules to adhere to. When those rules were broken they were ‘demoted’. They were allowed to reject unwanted lords and were assigned two children as servants, the Kamuro, who were often treated as younger sisters. Gold and silver were banned, as was gold embroidery, making these Tayuu look much less dressed up than their successors, although their clothing was very stylish.

Rise of the geisha

In the seventeenth century the neighborhoods became even more popular and this could be seen as the golden age of these neighborhoods. Wealth then increased rapidly and this also applied to the neighborhoods of prostitutes. With the growing development and popularity of writers and the kabuki, the upper classes of prostitutes continued to expand and the original rules came under pressure. The Sancha-joro class emerged and the former Tayuu and Koshi-joro classes slowly disappeared. There was also a new class, the Yobidashi, a new class of highly trained courtesans. The major changes in the second half of the eighteenth century and the declining quality of women provided the breeding ground for the emergence of a new type of entertainer: the geisha.

In 1750 -51 a new class appeared in Kyoto and Osaka: the ‘geiko’. Originally, geiko were men who worked as entertainers. The rise of the female geisha was also linked to the rise of the shamisen (a stringed instrument). The shamisen was relatively easy to play and a good accompaniment to popular songs of the period. Initially the courtesans used the shamisen, but after a while they left this to the male geishas.


Meanwhile, there were parents who had their daughters take dance training so that they could later dance during performances in upper-class households. These girls, ‘odiroko’, did not provide sexual services, but over the years this changed. This was seen as illegal prostitution and groups of girls were sent to the special neighborhoods and started calling themselves ‘geiko’. By 1779, female geishas had become so popular that they rivaled courtesans. In order not to disrupt the tightly regulated system, it was decided to register the geishas. The ‘kenban’ was set up, a system that exists to this day and strict rules were issued that made competition with the courtesans difficult. However, instead of hindering the geishas, it became the breeding ground for their ever-increasing popularity.

Geisha training

It takes many years of study to become an accomplished geisha. Until a few decades ago, young girls were often sold by their parents to ‘okiyas’ (houses where geishas lived), after which, if they were lucky, they would be trained as geisha. Initially, they worked as maids in the okiya and were sent to school to begin their education. The training of a geisha consists of singing, dancing, playing various instruments, the tea ceremony, etc. Other girls were themselves the daughters of geishas and followed in the footsteps of their mothers. When the girl reaches a certain age she becomes ‘minarai’. From that moment on, she no longer has to work at home and can fully focus on her career. In this phase a girl is taken along by her ‘older sister’ or ‘onee-san’, an accomplished geisha and the point is that she gains practical experience with this. Her older sister takes her to parties that she herself has been invited to. The minarai is beautifully dressed and wears white makeup, she is not expected to do or say much, her clothing indicates that she is in training. This phase only lasts a short time, about a month. The third phase is that of ‘maiko’ or apprentice geisha, in this phase the apprentice also wears white make-up and brightly colored kimonos. The apprentice geisha is taken to all her parties by her older sister. The relationship between the student and her sister is of great importance, her career often depends on this, the practical part of the geisha training is almost entirely taught by the onee-san. She takes care of the important relationships with the tea houses and she helps choose a new name, the name that the geisha will bear from then on. The apprenticeship as a maiko can be short or years, after which she becomes an accomplished geisha. The accomplished geisha wears less striking clothing than the student and she only uses white make-up for special performances.


Until 1958, the practice of ‘mizuage’ existed, in which the student geisha was officially deflowered by the highest bidder. She was usually 15 or 16 years old. Just before her mizuage, her clients who were interested in deflowering offered money and then the ‘winner’ could deflower the young geisha. This custom was officially abolished in 1958.

Role of the geisha

Real geishas are certainly not prostitutes, they entertain their guests, flirt with them, but they are not likely to enter into sexual relations, certainly not for one night. Reputation is very important, especially in the small world in which geishas live. An important distinction between prostitutes and geishas is the way they dress. While geisha tie their ‘obi’ (the cloth they use to tie their kimono) behind their backs, prostitutes do this from the front. The clothing style of a geisha is so complicated that she cannot dress or undress herself alone, which would be very inconvenient for a prostitute. A geisha is an unmarried woman, as soon as she marries she can no longer practice her profession. However, she can enter into a relationship with a man who becomes her ‘danna’. This makes her a kind of official mistress, but continues to work as a geisha. The geisha does have a sexual relationship with this danna. The danna takes care of a large part of the geisha’s costs, her clothing, lessons, etc. Few modern geishas still have a danna, but previously it was very common for a wealthy man to become ‘danna’ to a geisha.

The modern geisha

Nowadays, girls or women often only start a career as a geisha at a later age. They then no longer go through all the above stages, and especially if they do not choose the profession of geisha until they are twenty-one or later, they are immediately seen as geisha and even skip the maiko phase. That does not mean that they do not have to learn anything, because a geisha is largely dependent on her knowledge of singing, dancing and the instruments they play. The traditions of dressing and, for example, the tea ceremony are also learned, often with the help of the owner of a tea house. Nowadays the number of women working as geisha is no longer large, it is probably between 1000 and 2000 women. In its heyday, there were as many as 80,000 geishas working in the various districts.

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