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Things Japanese - Geisha
"Fake Maiko". The "maiko/ geisha" you might see in Kyoto these days aren't always the real thing. Click here for more...

The word Geisha (literally translated as "a person of the arts") was first used to describe men who entertained the higher classes through a mixture of song, dance and proficiency in a number of arts. By the end of the 17th Century women had taken over the role once carried out by men and the numbers and status of Geisha began to rise.

Due to Japan's social system the role of the "Japanese wife" was to maintain the home and rarely, if ever, participate with men in business or politics. This meant that they could not entertain their husbands' business associates or host any related functions and Geisha therefore became an integral part of business entertainment by serving as gracious hosts at the many ryokan (inns), ryotei (restaurants) and o-chaya (teahouses) where banquet facilities were rented for this purpose.

Geisha begin their careers at a very young age and are first accepted into an o-chaya or okiya where they live throughout their apprenticeship and usually well into their careers. The okiya is a Japanese style house with a banquet room for rent and dormitory type rooms where the maiko (geisha in training) and geisha live. The okiya is owned and managed by an okami (head mistress or guardian) who provides room and board and supervises and pays for the girls' training. The girls in turn contribute to the okiya by doing household chores.

The okami later acts as a manager or agent for the geisha taken a certain amount of money from her appointments. Within the o-chaya and okiya the geisha organize themselves hierarchically with relationships based on the family model (i.e. mother/daughter younger/older sisters). The okami is also in charge of the conduct of all her geishas. Each geisha has a senior elder sister who helps her during her training. In this way the traditional knowledge of the geisha can be past on.

Sometime after entering the okiya, girls between the ages of 15 to 20 are promoted to the rank of maiko. They begin their training in the arts and accompany a geisha from the okiya to her appointments in order to get to know the customers and learn social graces. Maiko dress in long-sleeved kimonos, wear very tall geta (wooden clogs), an elaborate hairstyle and only apply red lipstick to their upper lip. When a maiko turns twenty she decides whether or not she wants to become a geisha and if she does, a ceremony is held called `eriage` which means "changing of the collar". Only women who are at the top of their group and pass a rigorous exam actually become geisha.

Since there aren't many people who want to endure the hard training necessary to become a geisha, the number of geisha is decreasing. Young girls who wish to become a geisha are usually introduced to an o-chaya through someone who has a connection to the teahouse. The okami will interview the girl with her parents, explaining the training and what is expected of her. If the okami accepts the girl as an apprentice to her o-chaya, the girl can begin her training immediately and live in the o-chaya if she has graduated from a middle school.

During the 1940s, geisha entertainment was outlawed and many were forced into factory and industry labor. The late 1970s saw geisha numbers drop to around 17,000. Today they number fewer than a thousand and are found mainly in Osaka and Kyoto.

In Kyoto there is a district called Gion which was famous for its geisha and is still popular today. In Tokyo, the best known geisha districts are located in Shimbashi, Akasaka and Yanagibashi. Today, the procedure for hiring a geisha is relatively unchanged since its beginnings. When someone wishes to have geisha or maiko host a party, they either contact the okami directly or ask for a referral from the owner of the o-chaya, ryokan or ryotei. The request then goes through a management office called a yakata which is also responsible for billing the client. This system is based on trust and reputation and clients are usually invoiced at a later date and not on the night of the function. The cost of hiring a geisha is very high and is based on her experience and expertise. Clients are billed per person attending the function which averages between 12,000 to 25,000 Yen for a two hour appointment.

Unless you are referred by someone who is already a customer of a o-chaya, you aren't allowed to enter an o-chaya. O-chaya are very exclusive places. Usually, the charge for the service is billed to the customer from the o-chaya later, so, it's important for the o-chaya to have a trusting relationship with customers. O-chaya don't do business with a newcomer without the proper referral. However, many well-known restaurants and Japanese inns in Kyoto have some kinds of connection to an o-chaya, so you can request them to send geisha women to your party.

One of the most famous books written about Geisha is "Memoirs of a Geisha". The woman who inspired the best-selling novel is currently suing the author, claiming he damaged her reputation by claiming that she said she was sold into the hidden world of Kyoto's infamous Gion district as a child. At the height of her career in the 1970s, she was known as a geiko, a geisha who came along once in a century, and was sought out at tea ceremonies by leading politicians and businessmen. One of her patrons was Akio Morita, a chairman of Sony. Now 50, the former geisha - she retired in 1980 - lives in a suburb of Kyoto with her husband Jin, an artist, and her daughter.

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Gion District, Kyoto

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