Many people around the world have misconceptions about what a geisha (or in Tokyo, geiko) is and what they do for a living. Most do not realize that girls who wanted to become a geisha in the 1900’s began their training from the age of four or five years old. They would live in the okiya (boarding house) with a senior geisha who would train them in the ways of the geisha. The okiya was run by a woman who acted as a manager and she was the one who paid for the young girl’s training. As the girls grew up, they would attend classes everyday to learn the skills of their craft.
By the time they were old enough to work in the tea houses as a maiko (apprentice geisha) they were expected to be able to perform traditional dances, sing traditional songs, recite poetry and literature, play traditional Japanese instruments, be skilled in the art of the tea ceremony, calligraphy and also to know many games to play with guests if they wished. Seeing as the term “geisha” translates in “art person” or artisan, it seems fitting that these young women would have such an arsenal of talent ready for use.
Over time the girls usually excelled at some of the arts but not all and would gain a reputation for the arts she had perfected. Patrons would request the presence of a maiko and/or geisha to their events often based on their talents, not only on their looks. (Maiko appearances cost less because they were still in training and had not debuted yet.) For example, if a business man was hosting a dinner party with a client who enjoyed reading, he would request a geisha who was known for her passion for literature and reading skills.
The part that many people misunderstand is in regard to prostitution. Traditional and professional geishas were never prostitutes, but it is understandable that people were confused. Let us start from the Edo period, where things got murky.
The Edo period was from 1603-1867. Geisha evolved from the “oiran” women of the Edo period who wore similar hair, make-up and dress. At that time, prostitution was legal in Japan, but shortly after the fall of Edo, things changed. The Meiji Restoration took place in Japan in 1868 which restored the government and reset the country’s laws and social values. A few years later in 1872, Emperor Meiji and his government passed a law that made a distinction between “shogi” which were actual prostitutes, and “geigi” who were geishas, meaning women of art. The government upheld these strict distinctions between the professions and had geishas working in licensed districts (tea houses or restaurants) that did not enable clients who desired carnal entertainment.
Even though this distinction was respected and maintained, many Japanese as well as foreigners continued to be confused as to what a geisha’s role was. It didn’t help that women outside of the licensed areas often promoted themselves as geishas to clients and had no problem selling their bodies.
It also didn’t help that until the 1950’s, young maikos celebrated their “mizuage,” or coming of age, with a wealthy patron paying for the privilege of taking her virginity. This was called being a sponsor and men who frequented the tea houses or restaurants of the time often watched maiko girls in training and chose with great care who they would later sponsor. This was a one-time sexual act and after the deflowering, the sponsor was expected to have no further relations with the new geisha. This practice was left over from the Edo period but was declared illegal as of 1959.
Okiya mothers who housed and trained the girls actually forbade their girls from performing sexual acts, as maiko and geisha were respected as refined, educated women who would not engage in such acts. Furthermore, girls in the okiya were expected to remain single while working in the industry and if they chose to date or marry, they had to leave the profession altogether. Although these women catered to the clients with charming wit and subtle flirtations, nothing more was ever expected of the girls who worked in the licensed district. Men who wanted more went to “machi geisha” who lived and worked outside of the licensed area and incorporated prostitution into their work. These women were performing illegal acts and were looked down upon in the community as a cheap knock-off of the skilled artisans who were their counterparts.
The rise and fall of the Edo period, along with the tradition of mizuage and the outlying women who used the reputation of geisha to get business all led to the misconception of what a geisha did and still does. Although the geisha culture has reduced hugely in modern times, women still train to be geishas in today’s society. They mostly choose when they want to start training, after middle school, high school or even after university. If they enter into training over the age of 18, they are too old to be a maiko and will enter as a geisha. The tea houses and restaurants who host geishas still exist, but at a much smaller capacity. Kyoto is where the geisha women still flourish, in five different districts. The most popular area is called the Gion district. If you go walking the streets of the Gion district at night you may find a few geishas arriving at or leaving an event. I wandered the streets of the Gion district and saw around 8 geishas. Some were leaving tea houses, some were walking their customers to their cars or to their next engagement while others were hurrying across busy intersections, eager to reach their next appointment.
The first geisha I saw was in a royal blue kimono with a pearly white obi wrapped around her waist. She was walking down a cobblestone path with a client, her pace was steady and her head was bowed with listening concentration. I was going past in a taxi my heart leaped at seeing a real geisha for the first time. The next night my friend and I went walking around the district again and saw a few more. It was truly enchanting, like seeing a unicorn walk through a modern day park. We were left feeling quite exhilarated with Kyoto; the streets, the people and the legends.