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In Japan, Geisha is a member of a professional class of women whose traditional occupation is to entertain men, specifically during businessmen’s parties in teahouses or restaurants. The Japanese term “geisha” literally means “art person.” Dancing, singing, and playing the samisen (a lute-like instrument) are essential talents for a geisha. Moreover, a geisha should be able to have the ability to make a conversation. Most geisha are also considered experts in performing the tea ceremony, calligraphy, and flower arranging. The primary duty of a geisha is to be able to provide an atmosphere of gaiety for her wealthy clients. Geisha are generally exquisitely dressed in traditional kimonos. They are delicately mannered and have the knowledge of contemporary and past gossip. (Gallagher, 750) The geisha system is said to have began in the 17th century in order to provide a class of entertainers set apart from prostitutes and courtesans, who are involved in catering to samurai and the nobility. (Foreman, 368) The geisha system was traditionally a form of indentured labor. However, some girls who were attracted by the glamorous life of a geisha have volunteered to be one. Normally, a girl at an early age was given by her parents to a geisha house in exchange for a sum of money. In the geisha house, young girls are taught, trained, clothed, and fed for a period of years. A girl the emerged into the society referred to as karyūkai or the “flower and willow world” and started earning money to pay back the debt of her parents and her past keep. (Dalby, 431) The most sought-after geisha had the privilege of commanding large amounts of money from her clients. Apart from providing social companionship and entertainment, geisha sometimes maintained sexual relationships with her clients. There were as many as 80,000 geisha in Japan during the 1920s. However, by the late 20th century, the number of geisha had decreased to only a few thousand. These remaining geisha stayed mostly in Kyoto and Tokyo where they were patronized by only the most influential politicians and wealthiest businessmen. The decrease in numbers of geisha was mainly due to the easier availability of more casual forms of sex during postwar Japan. Bar-hostesses have taken over the role of geisha with the ordinary Japanese businessmen during that period. When a geisha marries, she retires from her profession. Otherwise, she usually retires as the owner of a restaurant, trainer of young geisha, or a teacher of dance or music.

The Emergence of the Geisha

The beginnings of the new class of entertainers, the so-called “geiko” emerged in 1750 – 1751 from Osaka and Kyoto. Geiko were originally men, who were derived from a previously known group Taikomochi. These men had been entertaining in different ways since the era of Kwambun; however, the group had been solely male until the first female geisha, Kikuya, appeared from Fukugawa. The development of the female geisha was closely related to the introduction of the shamisen through the era of Eiroku. The shamisen had become popular throughout Japan because of its relative ease of playing. It was also the perfect accompaniment to most of the popular songs of the day. Courtesans had begun picking up the shamisen as one of their skills. However, they had stopped playing and left the musical side of entertainment to the male geisha or geiko. During 1680s, young teenage dancers were becoming quite popular in the households of the Daimyo and upper-class samurai. These girls were originally put out for hire without offering any sexual acts. But through the years, many of the girls had turned to prostitution as their parents started exploiting them. In 1743, a group of Edo odoriko were arrested and sent to work in the Yoshiwara. They were with other illegal prostitutes. In 1753, another group of odoriko was seen from Fukugaw, which sent off to the pleasure quarters to work as well. ((Foreman, 369) These women had started to call themselves “geiko” although they were still selling themselves in prostitution. (Gallagher, 752) In 1762, the first female geisha in Yoshiwara, Kazen of the Ogiya brothel, had been listed although odoriko had already been listed working as early as 1752. From 1769, the saiken was the first one to have an individual listing of the names of all geisha who were already serving. In 1779, female geisha had become popular. They were greatly in demand, rivaling the courtesans and taking their clients as well. Because of such rivalry, Daikokuya Shoroku, a former brothel owner, had come up with an idea that marked in the culture of Japan. Shoroku, being concerned with the fact that geisha were threats to the regulated structure of Yoshiwara and that they were avoiding paying taxes to put towards the maintenance of the Yoshiwara, he then conceived the idea to register both male and female geisha. Shoroku had established the first Kenban, a system that is still applied today although there was unprotected approval from the Yoshiwara officials. (Dalby, 432) The newly formed Kenban had proceeded to bring the geisha under control through the issuance of a new set of rules and regulations. Shoroku had established strict edicts with his concern that geisha were openly rivaling with the courtesans for their clients. Under the new set of rules and regulations, geisha were not allowed to leave the pleasure quarters in order to entertain. The days for the lifting of this rule were New Year’s Day and the great Bon festival, which is held in July. Geisha could not go back inside the gates by four in the afternoon although they could leave the quarters during the said two days. (Gallagher, 752)

The new Kenban also prohibited geisha to wear extravagant clothing. They were only limited to wearing non-figured clothing with their crest. Collars should be of white material. The hairstyles of geisha should be uniformed in style such as the “Shimada” style. The geisha were only allowed to wear three ornaments in their hair including a comb and two hair pins, one longer than the other. In terms of the hours that geisha were allowed to work, they were limited from noon until 10 in the evening although it was later increased until Midnight. Geisha were also ordered to be hired in groups of three in order to avoid familiarity with their clients. Geisha was not allowed to sit next to her client unless there was no other choice. An inquiry was conducted by the Kenban for geisha who are suspected to be too intimate with their clients. If proven guilty, the geisha would be suspended for a couple of days. In relevance with the new set of rules and regulations, it was encouraged not to recruit ordinary and plain looking women in order to help subdue competition between geisha and courtesan. Artistically talented and skilled women were thought to be much more suitable for such role. (Gallagher, 752) The new Kenban system that was established to regulate and control geisha had been effective within Yoshiwara. Its efficiency resulted to the adaptation of the same rules and regulations all over Japan’s pleasure quarters. The new Kenban system had created the perfect conditions that led the way for a new age in the popularity of geisha rather than hindering them.

Becoming a Geisha

The number of geisha had decreased through the years as many people were not interested in enduring the hard training necessary to become a geisha. Young women who wanted to become a geisha are normally introduced to an o-chaya through someone connected to the teahouse. The okami or the head woman of an o-chaya usually interviews the girl with her parents. She explains to them the training process. If the girl is accepted by the okami as an apprentice to her o-chaya, the girl can start with the training immediately and reside in the o-chaya if she has graduated from a middle school. The girl, on the other hand, can quit for 5 to 6 years if she becomes a geisha trainee. The young girl can learn social skills and customs while assisting in the chores and errands of the house. She can also learn dance and music lessons. She then becomes a young geisha called “maiko” after about a half-year. Normally, a maiko is at age 15 to 20 years old. (Gallagher, 753) A maiko has the principal responsibility of accompanying a geisha on appointments to get to know clients. Maiko girls are those who wear colorful kimono with long sleeves and high wooden shoes. When a maiko reaches the age of 20, she usually decides if she will quit or become a geisha. If she marries, she has no choice but to quit. If a maiko decides to become a geisha, the “erigae,” a ceremony that means changes of collars, is held.

Partying with a Geisha in Japan

A geisha can be invited by clients to a party through asking the okami of an o-chaya. The okami is responsible for letting “yakata” or a management office know about the invitation. Yakata are in charge of sending maiko or geisha girls to places such as hotels, restaurants, Japanese inns, or o-chaya depending on the request of a client. If a client opts to rent a room in an o-chaya for a dinner party, the client will be charged for the food and geisha plus the cost for renting the room. “O-hanadai” is the charge for calling the geisha girls. (Golden, 341) A client is not allowed to enter an o-chaya unless he is referred by a regular client of an o-chaya. O-chaya is an exclusive place that charges geisha service to clients. It is important for the o-chaya to have a trusting relationship with its clients. A proper referral for a newcomer should take place before the o-chaya accommodates him. However, many well-known Japanese inns and restaurants have some connections to an o-chaya so newcomers can request them to send geisha to their parties. (Underwood, 435) It is also important for clients to specify what types of performance of a geisha they want her to perform. There are two types of geisha performance, the “tachikata” and the “jikata.” The tachikata mainly does the “mai,” which is the traditional Japanese dance. The jikata mainly sings or plays an instrument. Tachikata are usually performed by maiko girls while the jikata are for older geisha women. The cost for partying with a geisha varies depending on the number of geisha, hours, food, drink, etc. However, clients can have a party ranging at about $150 per person for a regular 2-hour appointment. (Golden, 339)

Where to See a Geisha in Japan

In Kyoto, five hanamachi can be found. These are the places where geisha girls are usually connected. The most famous is Gion, which is located on the west of Kawaramachi, Shijo-dori Street. The Gion has retained the old Japanese style buildings. (Underwood, 434) The district’s atmosphere is very different from other modern parts of the city. The best area to meet a geisha is in Hanamikoji Street in Gion, where many o-chaya are located. In Tokyo, Asakusa and Shinbashi geisha are well-known.

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Dalby, Liza. Geisha. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1983. 431-32.

Foreman, Kelly. Bad Girls Confined: Okuni, Geisha, and the Negotiation of Female Performance Space in Bad Girls of Japan, edited by Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2005. 368-69.

Gallagher, John. Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance and Art. London. New York: Sterling Pub., 2003. 750-753.

Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. 339-341.

Underwood, Eleanor. The Life of a Geisha. New York: Smithmark, 1999. 434-435.

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