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A geiko or “woman of art” is an entertainer in Japan who has trained in a variety of arts including dance, music, and painting. You may also hear a geiko referred to as a “geisha,” or “artist,” especially outside of Kyoto. These talented women are perhaps some of the most misunderstood figures in Japan, with many people believing that they engage in prostitution, which could not be further from the truth. In fact, geiko are skilled and valuable entertainers who can command high prices for their fully-clothed time, so they have no need to engage in prostitution.
The difference between “geiko” and “geisha” may seem subtle in translation, but it is an important distinction. In Kyoto, an ancient stronghold of Japanese culture and the geiko tradition, women who work as geiko wish to emphasize that they are trained in a variety of arts, and that in addition to being knowledgeable about traditional arts and culture, they also typically know several foreign languages, and they are conversant in history, current politics, and popular culture. Since the term “geisha” has been co-opted by prostitutes, geiko also wish to differentiate themselves as women of the mind, rather than women of the body.
Geiko/geisha evolved from oiran and tayuu, high-ranking courtesans in feudal Japan. These women were known for wearing elaborate makeup and very complex, formal kimono, but they were also valued as entertainers with sharp wits and skills in the arts. Over time, the functions of oiran began to diverge, with some women continuing to work as courtesans, while others focused specifically on the arts. In Kyoto, the capital of Japan until 1872, training of geiko is still taken very seriously, and geisha can be found in other regions of Japan as well.
Historically, women began training as young girls, learning to dance and play musical instruments while studying other arts, diverse foreign languages, and Japanese history. Trainees went through several phases in Kyoto before being elevated to the position of maiko, “dance child,” or apprentice geiko; outside of Kyoto, apprentice geisha are not known as maiko, and apprenticeships are usually brief. Apprentice geiko studied for as long as five years in Kyoto under the tutelage of “older sisters” who showed them how to navigate the entertainment district and introduced them to powerful clients.
When many Westerners think of “geisha,” they are actually usually visualizing a maiko. Maiko wear very ornate makeup, hairstyles, and clothing, changing to simpler styles when they “turn their collars” to become geiko. Both maiko and geiko wear kimono while on duty, but the striking kimono and obi of maiko are usually what catch the eyes of passerby.
When geiko arrive at a party or celebration, they traditionally serve tea or sake, with other staff being responsible for handling food. They keep the host entertained, ensure that the party runs smoothly, and sometimes perform music or dances when requested. Geiko may only be present at a party for a few minutes, especially if they are in high demand, and the ability to pay several geiko for their time is a powerful status symbol in Japan.
The highly refined and traditional culture of the “flower and willow world” in Kyoto began to come under siege in the 20th century, when shifts in Japanese culture changed attitudes about the arts and culture. Several organizations have worked to retain the geiko tradition, partly through reforms of the industry which are designed to attract modern women to the work. Many students of traditional Japanese culture agree that it would be a great shame to lose this entertainment tradition forever.