Geisha — those beautiful, mysterious creatures represent all that is most traditional in Japan. Interest in the term has resurfaced with Arthur Golden’s book, Memoirs of a Geisha, and the movie of the same name.
In Japanese, geisha means “person of the arts,” or a person skilled in traditional arts such as music, dance, singing and tea ceremony. Men took this role at first, serving a purpose much like the traveling minstrels of medieval Europe. As the numbers of men taking up the arts declined, women took over. Some were probably former courtesans, but most were not.
The tradition of geisha as women became entrenched, along with a strict code of conduct and hierarchy. Most lived in a house called an okiya, owned by a woman who was usually a former geisha herself. Most okiyas had their prime geisha, apprentices and maids, often young girls training to become apprentices. Some girls were sold to okiyas, and the house mostly owned the girl until she paid off her purchase price — a system not unlike that in some brothels.
The girls trained at local schools and had teachers who specialized in every area of training: shamisen, dance, flute, drum and tea ceremony. As they approached the age of becoming apprentices, the okiya would negotiate for a mature geisha to become an apprentice’s mentor, or “older sister.” The older sister helped promote the apprentice and taught her the art of entertaining at parties, from how to make witty conversation right down to how to pour sake. She received a portion of her younger sister’s fees as her fee for training the apprentice.
A popular view of the geisha is that they were prostitutes. Some prostitutes posed in this role in order to attract men, but a true geisha rarely engaged in sexual relations with her customers. In fact, they were, first and foremost, entertainers. They went to parties, where they kept things lively, played drinking games with the men and danced or sang. Her presence was considered essential to the success of a private party. Several geisha present meant the host was a man of wealth and status.
These women made their money through the fees they charged at teahouses or parties where they entertained. Years ago, a geisha was registered through what amounted to a union office. The registry office kept track of what teahouses she visited, how long she stayed and what her fees were. The office then paid either the woman or her okiya.
A geisha may well have had a personal patron or danna. This relationship was usually sexual, but outside of the normal work environment. The danna was generally a wealthy man who could afford to pay her expenses for school, lessons, private recitals and even clothing. With a wealthy danna, a geisha could often afford to break with an okiya and live independently, if she wished.
Geisha take their skills in the arts seriously, even today. Their numbers are declining, but there are still women who want to take up entertaining and learning the traditional arts. The most popular geisha districts are in Kyoto, and tourists can still see young girls in the elaborate, ornate kimono of the apprentice.