Geisha in Japan’s Medieval Age

Geisha (often known as “geiko” in Kyoto) are Japanese female entertainers–primarily hostesses and performers–whose origins run hundreds of years into Japan’s medieval past.

16D03 Maiko (dress)

The word “geisha” translates “artist” (“geiko” means “child of the arts”) and is used only to refer to adult, female entertainers who have completed proper training and passed through the rituals associated with becoming a full-fledged geisha. Apprentice geisha, known as maiko, or sometimes o-shaku (“the person who pours [the alcohol]”), receive a lower wage and do not entertain clients on their own.

Historically, Geisha are not prostitutes. Although a geisha might have a patron whose gifts (and, sometimes, monetary payments) entitle him to special privileges (including sex), most of a geisha’s interactions with the men who paid to share her time were not sexual in nature. As the title suggests, geisha were entertainers and hostesses, trained as singers, musicians, dancers, and practitioners of tea ceremony.

16D03 Traditional activities

Geishas normally lived in a house with other entertainers–often owned by a retired (or particularly famous) geisha, who could afford to pay for the lavish kimono and other adornments geisha wore during their evening activities. Many of these kimono were heirlooms, passed down from mother to daughter or from master to apprentice. (The price for a single geisha kimono and adornments was often more than a samurai warrior earned in a year.)

Geishas passed on their knowledge by taking apprentices–either their daughters, or girls from the common classes whose parents brought them to the house in hopes of training. A geisha normally accepted no more than one or two apprentices at a time, so a girl would have to be beautiful and also show some talent for singing or dancing in order to secure a coveted spot in a geisha house.

16D03 Maiko dancing

Apprentices moved to the geisha house and lived there during their training, which often began as young as 3-4 years of age. In many cases, a girl remained in the house where she was trained even after her debut. On average, a house would be home to less than half a dozen women, including the owner, 1-2 “star” geisha in their prime, a couple of less-known geisha (or maiko preparing to become geisha) and a younger apprentice or two (who often fulfilled the dual roles of maiko in training and household servant).

Houses that could afford them also had servants to cook, clean, and help the geishas dress (a task that could not be done alone).

Geisha houses displayed the residents’ names on wooden plaques outside the door, a custom that continues to this day in geisha districts:

16D03 Gion Nameplates

The geisha districts themselves were a later creation–geisha culture began to emerge in Japan during the 8th century, though “geisha districts” as we now know them, didn’t exist until the 17th century–but that’s a story for another post.

Did you know that geisha (geiko, in Kyoto) still exist, and still entertain clients in the evenings in parts of Japan?