alright, so this is a very very simple question... but since geisha are mysterious and lots of people have prejudice against them, i don't want to simply google this and find an answer that's not exactly correct. so here's the very simple question; what is it exactly that geisha do? why are people prejudiced against them? thank you so much! sorry i couldn't ask anything more interesting...
Your question is not boring at all! A lot of people wonder what a Geisha’s job intails and have prejudices or misconceptions against them, so it’s actually a great opportunity to refute them.
Let me first explain what Geisha do as part of their job. Geisha are highly-skilled traditional Japanese entertainers and artists. They are trained in traditional Japanese dance, singing, several instruments (shamisen, several drums and flutes, some even play the koto and the kokyū), the tea ceremony, ikebana and calligraphy. They take lessons at a special Geisha-school in their district every day and continue to do so throughout their entire career, as they view art and performance as an ongoing process.
Geisha-in-training are called Maiko (dancing child) in western Japan and hangyoku (half jewel) in and around Tokyo. You sometimes also find the more general term oshaku. They dress much more colorful and flashy than their older Geisha sisters to highlight their youth and childishness. A girl becomes a Maiko after about 1 year of training as a Shikomi, most Maiko debut at age 15 or 16 directly after completing the mandatory 9 years of primary and middle school and are ages 15 to 21 (22 is the max), hangyoku usually debut after high school and are ages 18 to 25. After that, the girl stays a Maiko for about 5 years and then, after her completed apprenticeship, becomes a Geisha and is considered a fully-fledged artist. A woman usually becomes a Geisha at age 20 or 21. Geisha dress much more subdued than Maiko to symbolize that they are adult women and they are quite easy to tell apart once you know what you have to look out for. Geisha are called Geiko (”woman of art”) in western Japan.
Geisha entertain at ozashiki, Geisha-parties, at ochaya, tea houses or sometimes high-class traditional restaurants called ryootei. They will dance and perform music at the party and have discussions about art, music or current events with their clients. Depending on what kind of party you want it to be, Geisha can also perform drinking games and have the party become more lively. All in all, a Geisha does everything in her power to make sure that her clients have a great time.
Geisha live in designated Geisha-districts, called hanamachi or kagai (”Flower towns”). Before WWII even small towns had their own hanamachi and Geisha lived and worked everywhere across the country. The most famous Geisha were and still are from Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka, Niigata, Kanazawa, Nara and Atami.
Maiko and young Geisha live at okiya, Geisha-houses. The proprietress, the okaasan (mother) treats them like their own children and raises them to become independent and successful Geisha. She pays for their lessons and living expenses, which the girl has to pay back during her career. Once her debts are settled, she becomes independent and moves out of the okiya. An independent Geisha has to have her own collection of high-class, handmade kimono, obi and hair ornaments and are very succesful.
Historically, Geisha entertained mainly wealthy merchants and sometimes aristocrats and later on also politicians. During the Edo-Period, the merchant class was big and very wealthy and had the means to support them. At their height around 1900 over 80,000 of them worked in Japan. Today, Geisha still mostly entertain wealthy buisnesspeople. Their numbers are down to about 1,200, but have been slowly rising over the last 10 years after a rapid demise in the eighties and nineties.
A lot of people, especially in the west, still think that Geisha are high-class prostitutes. This has several reasons and I’m going to talk about the most important.
1. The most important reason for the misconception stems from the time right after WWII. During this time, Japan was occupied by American soldiers after they had lost the war to them. A lot of big cities were destroyed, many people had died during air raids or from starvation, the economy was in shambles and many men had died during the war or were still missing. It was a time of despair for most Japanese and many women were forced to become prostitutes to survive and often even support their whole family.
Most of the clients of these women were American soldiers, because they belonged to the few people who could still afford to pay a prostitute. Back then, Geisha were a symbol of Japan already, being popular postcard-models and appearing in a lot of fiction of the time, so most American soldiers knew a little bit about Geisha.
They could, however, only rarely tell a Geisha apart from an ordinary women wearing a kimono. Since kimono were still the everyday-wear of the time, they thought the women they were sleeping with were Geisha and the women soon realized that they could achieve higher prices when they presented themselves as Geisha to the soldiers and started acting the part.
When the occupation ended and the soldiers returned home, they told their friends and family that they had had a (sexual) relationship with a Geisha in Japan and that is an important reason as to why this misconception spread to fastly across the west.
2. Another reason is the so called “double registration”. As I’ve said before, hanamachi used to exist all over Japan. The vast majority of Geisha lived a pretty good life: Although their schedule was extremely hectic and live was certainly not easy, they could achieve financial independency and fame and meet a lot of influential people and form conncetions through their work. Geisha can also work for their entire lives, if they want to do so. There is no retirement-age for Geisha, so they had a very secure job.
Geisha could also retire and start their own okiya or tea house or start working at a restaurant or a tea house as a server. They also often got married to rich and influential men.
However, not all Geisha had it so well. There were some small towns in which Geisha were struggling to survive, because the economic situation was so tough. The towns lacked enough wealthy merchants and visitors to support them. This was the reason why Geisha in some towns were forced to become registrated as both a Geisha and a prostitute to survive.
While these Geisha were still artists like the Geisha in bigger, more economically stable towns and cities, they also had to sleep with their clients to make extra money to survive.
A lot of these poor, small town were Onsen-towns, seaside-resorts that were unpopular and lacked a steady stream of visitors.
Although the vast majority of Geisha never sold sex and even the majority of Onsen-Geisha (Geisha working in said Onsen-towns) never did, this tarnished the reputation of Geisha.
Prostitution was outlawed in Japan in 1956, so doube-registration doesn’t exist anymore today.
3. The whole mizuage-issue. I’ll have to go deeper into history with that one. First of all, there are junior and senior Maiko. Junior Maiko wear the wareshinobu hairstyle and a predominately red collar, senior Maiko wear the ofuku hairstyle and a predominately white collar. Today, a girl is promoted from junior to senior at age 18, before WWII, when Maiko were still much younger, this happened around 15 or 16; generally when a girl was starting to look older and was deemed a young woman by her older Geisha-sisters.
When a junior Maiko becomes a senior Maiko she has her mizuage ceremony (”hoisting the water”). During this ceremony, the topknot of her wareshinobu hairstyle is symbolically cut open by friends and okiya-family-members. The okaasan and the girl hand out presents to ochaya she frequents, okiya she has relationships with and some close clients and she’ll start to wear the ofuku hairstyle and a whiter kimono-collar afterwards. It is a simple coming-of-age ceremony symbolizing that the Maiko is recognized as a young woman from then on. Historically, this also meant that a Maiko was now old enough to marry and proposals could be made, which she could accpet or decline at free will.
However, Oiran also had a ceremony of the same name. Oiran were high-class prostitutes in old Japan and are extinct today. They were also highly-skilled artists and trained in the arts of the nobility. They had a coming-of-age ceremony of the same name (why the name is the same as with Geisha is unknown, but it’s probably because the quarters of Oiran and Geisha were close by), that intailed the ritual deflowering of the young Oiran by a man who paid highly for being her first sexual partner. This ceremony was also performed by yuujo, ordinary prostitutes, and some double-registered Geisha.
This gets confused a lot, because these two ceremonies have the same names and is one of the most persistens misconceptions when it comes to Geisha. The novel and movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” also mixes this up and portray mizuage completely wrong, so I would highly advise you to not watch it, at least not until you’ve gathered some futher information.
4. Danna. Danna are people who sponsor one particular Geisha they are fond of and monthly pay her a privately agreed on amount of money to help her pay for her lessons and other living expenses. While danna are very rare today, back before WWII most Geisha had a danna, because there were so many poeple willing and able to sponsor Geisha back then and it would have been a sign of unpoularity if you didn’t have one.
People interested in becoming a Geisha’s danna can inquire via the proptriess of the teahouse they meet her at if she would be interested. If the Geisha shows interest, okaasan, Geisha, the proprietress of the ochaya and the possibe danna will get together and discuss the finances. If they come to an agreement, the Geisha will accept him as her danna. A Geisha can always end the relationship and pursue another, if she wishes to do so.
Being a danna has certain adavantages. Your inquiries to see the Geisha will always be handled first before anyone else’s and you can also “buy out” a Geisha’s time and spend it with her in a more private setting or just buy her some time off (Geisha have very little time off, especially during odori-season).
It is also a status symbol and a great way to show off one’s wealth and influence. One has to consider that, during the Edo-Period and even for a long time afterwards, Geisha and the arts they performed were seen as modern entertainment, just like we see movies, shows or pop-music today, so Geisha were very popular, famous and interesting for a lot of people. It was after WWII that people started to see Geisha as symbols of old Japan. Being the danna of a talented Geisha who would entertain oneself and one’s friends was a major status symbol.
There are two things that made westeners suspicious about this: Firstly, before WWII, pretty much all danna were male. This is a fact, because men held almost all economic power back then and were the only ones with the means to support Geisha. Westeners of that time had an extremely conservative and moralistic view of sexuality and many considered themelves to be superior to the “dirty and immoral” Japanese people, so they immediately thought that Geisha had sexual relationships with their danna and that they were bascially waiting to be “bought” by a man. (Today, a large and increasing part of Geisha’s customers are female.)
Secondly, some Geisha DID have romantic relationships with their danna. Mineko Iwasaki, Japan’s most famous Geisha of the 20th century described this very well in her book “Geisha of Gion”: “You can’t put talented, beautiful, elegant women together with rich and powerful men and expect nothing to happen. Romantic entaglements happen all the time, some leading to marriage and others to heartache.”
Of course some Geisha fell in love with their clients and vice versa. This was accepted and even encouraged in the hanamachi, as these relationships might lead to the birth of a girl who could also become a Geisha one day.
So if a customer and a Geisha had romantic interest for each other, the man, if he had the financial means, naturally would try to become the Geisha’s danna. By being her danna he could spend more time with her and support the woman he loved in her career, so this was completely logical.
However, the majority of Geisha and danna didn’t have any sexual or romantic relationship. If they did, it was based on mutual attraction for each other and was not forced in any way. Both parties could always end the relationship at any time and enter another, if they wanted to.
The fact that Geisha are very private and don’t talk a lot about their profession adds to the “suspiciousness” in the eyes of a lot of people.
In fact, Geisha are so “mysterious” because they are supposed so remain exclusive. A lot of their regular clients book them because the are so exclusive and they can be sure that nothing that happens or is said at an ozashiki ever leaves the room. If Geisha became accessible to everyone, they would lose a lot of customers.
Geisha today are torn between doing publicity-work, being more accessible and understandable to the “common” people and getting new applicants, while still keeping an aura of exclusivity.
I hope I could answer all of your questions! If you have more, feel free to ask them! Have a nice day!