With their porcelain painted faces, scarlet red lips and exquisite Kimono, Geisha girls are the ultimate iconic symbol of Japans devotion to tradition, elegance and etiquette.
Referred to as the “Flower and Willow World”, this almost secret society is one of the oldest yet most mysterious professions in Japan. Although there is still much about them we might never learn, here are 50 amazing facts on Geisha culture we think everybody ought to know.
Facts about Geisha History
- The word Geisha literally translates into person of the arts, with (Gei) meaning “art” and (sha) meaning person.
- Geisha culture is one of the oldest professions in Japan said to have started some 400 years ago.
- The first Geisha were men, known as Taikomochi, they resembled modern day comedians, story tellers and musicians but were quickly replaced by women.
- Geisha are called different names in different regions, in Tokyo they are named Geisha, in Kyoto they are Geiko and elsewhere in Japan they are known as Geigi.
- The word for the Geisha district in Japan is Hanamachi, meaning “flower town“.
- In the old days women did not become Geisha out of choice, they were either born into it by another Geisha or girls were adopted from poor families.
- Geisha businesses are solely owned and operated by women. Some of the wealthiest and most successful business women in Japan work in the Geisha industry.
- Geisha are not prostitutes. This is a misconception based on inaccurate depictions in films (such as Memoirs of a Geisha) and after WW2 when prostitutes either masqueraded as, or were mistaken for being Geisha by soldiers from the USA army. Geisha emerged out of the early 16th century to provide entertainment in the form of the arts in the pleasure districts for those who did not want to pay for sex. Laws were actually drawn up to prevent Geisha from stealing prostitutes clients.
- In the 1920s -30s there were estimated to be 80,000 Maiko and Geisha in business, today its is estimated that only 1000 remain in active service.
“The first Geisha were men.”
Facts about Geisha Training
- Apprentice Geisha are called Maiko which means Dancer Child.
- Geisha and Maiko live a boarding house named a Okiya with other apprentice Maiko and Geisha.
- The proprietress of the Okiya is called a Okaasan, which means mother. The Okesan pays for the board, lodgings, lessons, Kimono and decorations for the duration of her training in exchange for the entertainment services she will sell to the customers at the Tea House.
- Traditionally apprentice Geisha would start their training on the 6th day of the 6th month of the 6th year of their childhood. Today however they start at the age of 15 after Junior High school.
- It takes a minimum of 5 years training to debut as a Geisha.
- Stage 1, all Geisha began their training as a house keeper to the Okiya, this stage is known as Shikomi. Their daily work includes cooking, cleaning, running errands and serving anybody else that lives in the boarding house.
- Stage 2 is called Minarai which means learning by observation, this is where the junior Maiko follows senior Maiko and Geisha around learning what they do before entertaining clients themselves.
- Geisha are skilled entertainers in the ancient Japanese arts of tea ceremony, music, singing, dance, games and conversation.
- Maiko work relentlessly hard often only having 1 or 2 days off per month.
- Training to become a qualified Geisha costs the Okesan around $500,000.
- Geisha never stop training and still attend practice lessons once qualified.
- The oldest working Geisha on record is 93 year old Yuko Asakusa from Tokyo. She has pledged to work as a Geisha until she dies.
- Foreigners can train to become Geisha now.
“Training to become a Geisha costs around $500,000.”
Facts about Geisha Tradition
- Apprentice Geisha are forbidden from using mobile phones and email during their training.
- Geisha have to read newspapers daily to keep up to date with current affairs so they can make engaging conversation with influential clients.
- Geisha entertain some of Japans richest and most powerful people therefore they must adhere to a strict code of conduct and are sworn to secrecy to instill confidence in their clients.
- Every Maiko must have a mentor, a big sister known as a Onee-san. The ceremony that bonds the sisters together is called a San San Kudo, this is where cups of sake are passed and sipped between the sisters to symbolise their union for
life. It is one of the most important rituals in Geisha culture.
- Geisha do not use their real name, they have a special Geisha name that is used to bring good luck and prosperity to the business.
- A Geisha’s life is never relaxed. She is a role model to her younger sister and expected to maintain high standards of etiquette in all aspects of her life and lead by setting example every day.
- You can only hire a Geisha through a Okaasan (Geisha mother).
- To spend time in the company of a Geisha is extremely expensive ($500 per hour) and requires connections as the Ochaya (tea house) where Geisha work traditionally operate a no cash policy, instead customers are billed monthly. Therefore the relationship between the customer and the Ochaya relies heavily on trust.
- A Geisha’s time was traditionally measured by the amount of incense sticks that were burnt during entertainment instead of using a clock.
- Geisha are not allowed to eat whilst entertaining.
- They entertain women as well as men.
- Although seldom heard of Geisha are allowed to marry, but they must retire to do so.
“Apprentice Geisha are forbidden from using mobile phones.”
Facts about Geisha Fashion & Beauty
- You can tell Maiko and Geisha apart by their hairstyle, makeup and Kimono.
- It takes up to 2 hours for a Geisha to get ready every day.
- Maiko style their natural hair but Geisha wear a wig.
To prevent their elaborate and time consuming hair styles from falling out, Maiko and Geisha have to sleep on a wooden pillow a few inches from the ground called Takamakura.
- Geisha often get bald spots on the top of their scalp where their hair was rigorously pulled into a central bun. In Geisha culture this is seen as a symbol of perseverance and endurance.
- Traditionally their faces were painted white to illuminate their beauty in the candle light.
- The W pattern of bare skin accentuated on the nape of the neck is seen as the most sensual part of a women’s body in Japan.
- Apprentice Geisha are only allowed to paint their bottom lip red in the first year of training.
- Geisha used to paint their teeth black to cover the creamy yellow colour of natural teeth enamel as this did not look attractive against their porcelain painted faces.
- Maiko must paint their faces white to every entertainment event, where as Geisha only wear white makeup to important events and annual ceremonies.
- Most important compliment you can give a Geisha is to tell her that she is beautiful.
- Geisha Kimonos are often hand made from silk and cost around $50,000. It is common knowledge that many Geisha prefer to wear each Kimono only once.
- Maiko wear red collars and Geisha wear white. There is a very special ceremony called the Erikae (“turning of the collar”) on the day the apprentice makes her debut to the public as a qualified Geisha.
- A full Kimono outfit can weigh upto 20kg and traditionally requires a man to tie the 7 meter Obi on the back.
- They must learn to walk elegantly in oboko wedge sandals (which are minimum of 10cm high) to stop the hem of their expensive Kimono touching the floor.
- Today Geisha are seen a modern day celebrities in Japan.
“Some Geisha will only wear a Kimono once.”
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Do you have anymore amazing Facts about Geisha Culture you would like to add to this list? We would love to hear from you, please comment in the box below as we would love to make this post even better!
- Geisha Girl BBC Documentary 2013
- Real Geisha, Real Women Documentary 2009
- Day in the life of a Geisha
- What is the difference between a Maiko and Geisha
- Gesiha’s Importance: Women in Power
- Japanese Geisha Culture
- Geisha stages in Career
- Becoming a Maiko
- Geisha vs Maiko the difference explained
- The American Geisha