When you hear the word “geisha,” you probably think of the book and film, “Memoirs of a Geisha.” In media, a geisha is a beautiful woman trained in poise and good manners, who serves as eye candy and companionship for wealthy men. There’s a charged sexual element, as well, but the reality of the Japanese geisha is much more complicated.
Originally, geishas weren’t even women. The first incarnation of a geisha was male and lived around 1730. The first female geisha was known as an “odoriko” or dancer, and by 1780, overtook the male profession. Geishas originally served as assistants to high-class courtesans, who were wary of the geisha stealing their customers. They weren’t even allowed to sit near visitors, let alone entertain them. However, geishas didn’t bear the stigma that courtesans did, and by the 1800’s, geishas had replaced courtesans as a more affordable, socially-acceptable presence at parties.
Geishas weren’t never sex workers; that’s why they became so popular at large gatherings often hosted by companies. Their training was rigorous, and consisted of four stages: shikomi, minarai, maiko, and finally, geisha. The shikomi was essentially a maid, and would have to do whatever she was told and go to the geisha school, where she would be trained in everything from dance to dress to serving. When she passed, the shikomi would become a minarai. This was the “shadowing” part of the program, where a trainee would attend parties with an onee-san, an “older sister,” and learn by watching. Her dress was the most expensive, because she wasn’t allowed to talk, so she had to look good. When we picture a classic geisha, we’re picturing a minarai.
After a few months to a year, the minarai would become a maiko, an apprentice geisha. She would continue to go to parties with her onee-san, but now she could participate in games and conversation. The training would get a lot more intense, and involve how to perform a proper tea ceremony, calligraphy, music, flower arrangement, and dancing. A maiko would begin to wear makeup – thick, white foundation, black and red makeup around the eyes, and red lips. After three years with this striking makeup, a maiko would tone her look down.
Once her onee-san decided she was ready, a maiko would finally become a geisha. If she was better at music and singing, she would be a jikata, while if she was a dancer, she would be called a tachikata. She could start to charge full-price. And what about sex? In “Memoirs of a Geisha,” a huge plot point is the virginity ritual, where the main character’s virginity is essentially bartered off to a suitor. However, this was not something all geisha communities did, and a lot of them actively discouraged it. It was also not seen as a service to a man; it was actually a rite of passage for the geisha in her journey from girl to woman.
When Japan became occupied after WWII, the role of the geisha became warped. American soldiers didn’t understand that geishas weren’t sex workers, and so geishas were put into a lot of awkward and dangerous situations. Actual sex workers began capitalizing on the American fascination with geisha and began dressing up and calling themselves geisha to attract customers. This is when the lines became blurred and Western society saw geishas as high-class prostitutes instead of hospitality hostesses. Today, there are still some geishas who work at tea houses and fancy restaurants. They’re limited mostly to Kyoto, and it’s more of a symbolic job than serious profession.