Some of the irresistible pictures flashing into the mind while thinking of Japan were of the girls beautifully cladded with traditional Japanese clothes, having a bunch of clothes at her back, the face almost like white washed, lips reddened like hibiscus flower, the bunched hair tied at her back attractively and walking as if her legs are tied.
This terribly beautiful Japanese women images persisted and dominated the thoughts while I was in India. The other image was of wrestling men with huge physical figure. I wondered how these giant wrestlers and beautiful women make a perfect combination in a wonderful part of the earth – Japan. I was not knowing that these beautiful women are called geisha in Japan. To my surprise now, It was after almost three months of stay in Japan, I came to know about the term geisha and became interested to read more about such wonderful entertainers of Japanese culture.
Geisha are entertainers, skilled in singing, dancing, story telling, and flirting with customers, Geisha were conversationalists employed at parties and other social affairs to entertain men in a male-dominated Japanese society. The Japanese word Geisha consists of two kanji, 芸 (gei) meaning art and 者 (sha) meaning person or and the translation of geisha into English would be an artist or performing artist.
Another term used in Japan is geiko, a word from the Kyoto dialect. Full-fledged geisha living in Kyoto are called geiko. This term is also commonly used in the region to distinguish geisha practiced in traditional arts from prostitutes who have co-opted the name and attire of geisha.
Often there is a confusion between geisha and prostitutes. Prostitutes wear the bow of their sash, or obi, in front of their dress- kimono. Geisha wear their obi at the back. A full-time geisha usually had the luxury of a professional aide to help them in the difficult process of dressing; their clothing is made up of several layers of kimono and undergarments, and an obi is more than a simple band of cloth. Dressing could take over an hour, even with professional help. Prostitutes, however, had to take off their obi several times a day, so theirs were far less complex and tied at the front for ease of removal and replacement.
Geisha are expected to be strictly entertainers and not engage in the sex business, but the distinction between entertainment and sex has always not been maintained precisely and some of them became the mistresses of men who purchased their contracts from the masters who held them in bondage. In old times, even though the Tokugawa government directed the geisha not to engage in prostitution, the problem and mystical confusion of geisha and the prostitutes persisted.
Interestingly there remains some confusion, even within Japan, about the nature of the geisha profession. Geisha are frequently depicted as expensive prostitutes in Western popular culture. Geisha are entertainers, their purpose being to entertain their customer, be it by reciting verse, playing musical instruments, or engaging in light conversation. Geisha engagements may include flirting with men and playful innuendos; however, clients know that nothing more can be expected. In a social style that is uniquely Japanese, men are amused by the illusion of that which is never to be. Geisha do not engage in paid sex with clients.
Apprentice geisha are called maiko. It is the maiko, with her white make-up and elaborate kimono and hairstyle, that has become the stereotype of a geisha to the outside world, rather than the original geisha. A woman entering the geisha community does not have to start out as a maiko, having the opportunity to begin her career as a full geisha. In fact, a woman above 21 is considered too old to be a maiko and becomes a full geisha upon her initiation into the geisha community. However, those who do go through the maiko stage enjoy more prestige later in their professional lives.
Young women who wish to become geisha now most often begin their training after completing junior high school with many women beginning their careers in adulthood. Geisha still study traditional instruments like the shamisen, shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and drums, as well as traditional songs, Japanese traditional dance, tea ceremony, literature, and poetry. By watching other geisha, and with the assistance of the owner of the geisha house, apprentices also become skilled in the complex traditions surrounding selecting and wearing kimono, and in dealing with clients.
Kyoto is considered by many to be where the geisha tradition is the strongest today, including Gion Kobu. The geisha in these districts are known as geiko. The Tokyo hanamachi of Shimbashi, Asakusa and Kagurazaka are also well known.
In modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight outside hanamachi. In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today there are far fewer, estimated to be from 1,000 to 2,000.
Young girls were sold into the geisha life by their families until the mid-20th century and were often subject to the ritual of ‘mizu-age,’ whereby their virginity was sold to the highest bidder. Such practices were eradicated after World War II and the geisha profession went into a steady decline.
Although the profession of geisha has declined greatly in modern times, some geisha have been successful working in the political world. These geisha are engaged to entertain at parties of leading politicians, where the sake (Japanese alcohol) flows freely and sometimes in important political negotiations are conducted. Although geisha are supposed to remain silent about what they hear at these affairs, it is interesting that the leading political parties tend to patronize their own groups of geisha. Political canvassing and eaves-dropping business are not limited to some countries, and Japan is also not an exception!
An article about Japanese geisha can not be concluded without mentioning MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA.
Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel – memoirs of a geisha depicts the world, where appearances are paramount; a world where a girl’s virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion. It is a unique and masterpiece work of fiction, at once romantic, erotic, suspense at the same time unforgettable with haunting memories.
In ‘memoirs of a geisha’, Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. The story begins from a poor fishing village in 1929 when, Sayuri, as a nine-year-old girl with unusual blue-gray eyes, has taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house. The readers witness her transformation of her life as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men’s solicitude and the money that goes with it.