Geishas are a main figure in japanese culture, they are meant to represent beauty, luxury and sophistication. Unlike what you might think, those woman were not basically “prostitutes”. As an example, the word Geisha literaly means “the one who knows arts”, so they were not intended to hustle. That sexual ambiguity dates back to the 2nd world war when prostitutes pretended to be Geishas for American soldiers to pay the full price. There are still Geishas nowadays in Japan, even though it has became pretty rare.
I] Rise of this kind It’s in the old Kyoto that the myth began in the 17th century. The first teahouses opened in the prostitution district, Geishas were actually men whose work was to entertain guests by singing and playing music. Quickly, this market field went ruled by women and by the end of the century, every Geishas were female ones. Geishas are called « geiko » in Japan. Above all, it is a profession devoted to the cult of beauty and physical appearance. A geisha’s outfit is always impeccable and so is her make-up.
She always watches her mouth very carefully when she speaks and pay a very special attention to every single one of the moves she makes, she always focus to keep being graceful in everything she does and she keeps herself fit by training a lot. All along her life a geisha keep training and practicing dance, theater and shamisen. She gets involved in a lot of artistic representation such as dance and theatre shows, that also count for a lot in her reputation and help making it better. II] A Geisha’s pride. There is only a few times in her life when a geisha will get paid for sexual services.
Chronologically, the first one is when she sells her « mizuage », her virginity, to the highest bidder. When the time has come she gives « biscuits », which are called « ekubo » to potential bidders who will bid to be the first ones to have sex with her. As we see in the next part, this is a very important moment in a geisha’s life because it will allow her to pay back the biggest part of her debt to the okyia. A geisha who’s mizuage’s price was really expensive starts to build her reputation on it because everyone talks about it and admire her.
It’s part of their reputation. A geisha is not a prostitute. The only other man who will ever pay her for having sexual relation with her is called a « Dana ». A Geisha only has a few « dana » in her life, rarely more than 3 – and this is a very maximum. They will more often have only one « dana » in their entire life. The role of the « Dana » is very important because – apart from being adopted by the mother of the okyia – it is the only way out for a geisha, the only path to independence or at least what in her life will look like independence the most.
The « dana » is like a husband, he pays for everything : clothes, jewelries, rent… He has to be really wealthy to pay for the kimonos of the geisha for 2 reason, the first one being that they are very expensive and there’s a lot of pieces of tissue that compose a kimono and the second is that the geisha still goes out to entertain men when her dana doesn’t reserve her for the evening so everyone will see her in her kimono, everyone knows who is a geisha’s dana and if she looks bad, it means he isn’t powerful.
The geisha also has a responsibility toward the dana because if she doesn’t behave well or if she isn’t well-dressed then it will reflect on the dana’s reputation. Appart from the man who wins the bid for her mizuage and her Dana, a geisha isn’t paid for sex but for entertainment. She is a very elegant woman with spirit, able to discuss with every sort of men, about almost every subject or at least able to avoid the discussion graciously. She always have jokes and story ready to make the men laugh, and when that isn’t enough she is even able to dance for them or play the « shamisen » a sort of small guitar she learns to play at school.
A geisha isn’t rude or silly, they have very strict codes and rules they respect. They sell their skills, not their body. To be a geisha is to be judge as a moving work of art. III] A rough path to success. Only the prettiest girls (the less lucky ones did usually became prostitutes) could pretend to become maiko, an apprentice. One had to attend classes at her Hanamachi, a special school for geishas often ruled like a real business. A geisha , according to the rules, must have the softness and the strength of a flower, and be as resilient and supple as a willow.
Of course, there’s a whole emphasis on apparences, in which clothes, makeup and hairdressing play a major role. The traditionnal outfit is of course the kimono, they exist in several colors and fabrics depending on the season and the age of the geisha. Their cut is basically the same : the nape is widely revealed, the waist is emphasised by a large silk belt knotted in the back. They often wear “geta”, a kind of wooden shoes. Concerning makeup, which is a very important part of the myth, a Geisha first applies a white foundation made of lead or rice powder on her face and neck.
Eyes, cheeks and lips are painted in red and pink tones. They then underline the eyes and brows in black khol. Each admitted Geisha must be able to achieve her own accurate makeup by herself. The type of makeup associated with Geisha is actually the Maiko’s one. After thirty, Geishas tend not to wear makeup or only a few for special events. Eventually, the Geisha needs to pass into the hands of a hairdresser who will accomplish a complicated hair style, stylized buns most of the time. The hair needs to be combed and oiled for a long time, only to be drawn to the top of the head.
The hair is then embellished with colorful pins, combs and ribbons. Those hairstyles were meant to last for a whole week. In order to keep it entire, the geisha had to sleep on a special neck holder named takamakura. The life of a geisha is very closely related to pain. She will never know love – since she doesn’t get to chose her dana, she will very rarely fall in love with a man who happened to be the highest bidder and geishas who chose happiness over safety are very rare. As we said it before, a geisha basically spent her entire time learning and looking her best.
She has to be perfect every single second she spends in a place where she can be seen by someone else than the other people who live in the okiya or her servant if she has one. A geisha starts learning arts since her earliest childhood and never stops going to school and doing representation. Her shoes are very hard to walk with and hurt their feet and even when they sleep they have to be careful not to mess their hair up because their hairdo are very long and hard to do and it hurts a lot because of what the hairdresser put in their hair to remain well-done.
They need help to get dressed because they were so many layers of cloth that they are totally unable to do it all alone, it barely let them move and still they manage to dance when wearing it. Walking in the streets with those clothes and the shoes is a torture and it wasn’t rare to see a make, a « little sister », a student, fall down in the streets, with the weight of the kimono and the shoes its hard to remain vertical.