When westerners think of Japan they conjure images of fierce sword wielding samurai, secretive black masked ninja and, most iconic of all, geisha. Unlike the samurai and ninja, whose time has long passed, the delicate, kimono wrapped women with white painted faces can still be seen in the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Tokyo. Sadly, the once vibrant geisha culture is slowly dying out – soon it may be no more than a memory.
Although to those of us in the west geisha seem to be timeless, like all things, the tradition had a beginning. Women traditionally held one of two positions in Japanese society, wife or prostitute. Marriages were arranged to cement alliances between households, clans and fiefdoms. Love seldom, if ever, played a part. Wives ran the household and raised children, men looked elsewhere for passion. In the late 1600s the shogun decreed prostitutes confine themselves to walled pleasure districts. These flower and willow worlds existed in most major cities, the most famous being Gion in Kyoto and Yoshiwara in Edo (now Tokyo). The first geisha were actually male performers known as geiko, who entertained men while they waited for prostitutes. Gradually women began to take over these positions, dancing, singing and playing music to entertain the waiting customers. The pleasure districts became more than just a place to go for sex as the most highly accomplished of the courtesans entertained clients by dancing, singing and playing music. Gradually they took over the duties of the male geiko and became full time performers.
Female geisha were not allowed to sell sex, in order to preserve the business of the courtesans. Then, as now, a geisha's sex life and her professional life were kept separate. The one exception to this rule was the practice of mizuage, where a maiko's first sexual experience was sold to the highest bidder. The mizuage marked the transition from maiko to geisha. In this modern age the practice of mizuage no longer exists. Now maiko transition to geisha two to five years after they begin their apprenticeship in a ceremony known as erikae, or turning of the collar.
The word geisha is made up of two characters – gei which means art, and sha or person, so a geisha is actually an artist. They study and perform with traditional instruments, like the shamisen and shakuhachi, calligraphy, ikebana (flower arranging) and dance. Traditionally a geisha began her journey at the age of three years and three months, although many remained with their families until the age of nine or ten. In these modern times compulsory education comes first. The geisha of Tokyo and the hot springs towns like Akemi now begin their training at the age of 18. Kyoto, which holds most closely to the old ways, allows them to start at the age of 15.
It might surprise most in the west that the instantly recognizable white painted face and elaborate kimono belong not to geisha, but to their apprentices, the maiko. A mature geisha wears more natural makeup and a much simpler style of kimono and obi, only donning the heavy makeup for rare special performances. The easiest way to distinguish between them, though, the the color of the collar of the under kimono – maiko's collars are red, a geisha's collar is white. In both cases the collar hangs low in the back, emphasizing the nape of the neck, considered an erotic zone in Japan. The two or three strips of natural skin visible through the makeup at the back of the neck are also intended to highlight this area.
Maiko are apprentices contracted to their okiya. A considerable investment is made in their training, food, lodging, as well as kimono, obi, hairdressers and ornamentation. Only when this debt is paid off is she free to leave the okiya and work independently. Every maiko has an oneesan, an older sister, who is a full geisha. During her apprenticeship the maiko accompanies her oneesan to banquets and engagements, sometimes to perform, but often just to watch and learn. While maiko go to school to study dance and music, the other business of a geisha, serving tea, making conversation and keeping a man's attention, are learned from her experienced older sister.
The society of geisha is female-centric. Although men are occasionally employed as hairstylists, dressers or accountants, the world of the geisha is, primarily, a world of women. Some of the most successful businesswomen in Japan run the teahouses on which the geisha depend. In fact, the geisha industry has always promoted the independence and self-sufficiency of women in a society in which they had few other outlets for such success. Many women chose to enter the world of the geisha to avoid marriage and control their own destiny. The pinnacle of such success ended in owning a teahouse, or an okiya, where a group of geisha and maiko would live and work together.