Japanese Arts (I): Geisha

Japanese Arts (I): Geisha

Geisha (or sometimes called geiko in Kyoto) refers to Japanese performers who are skilled in traditional Japanese performing arts such as dancing, singing, instrument playing, and tea ceremony. They are professional entertainers and hosts who entertain guests with conversation, drinking games, and dance performances. They can be recognized by their pale white makeup, long trailing kimono and traditional hairstyles.

History of Geisha


Japanese geisha originated in Tokyo and Osaka in the 17th century. To many people’s surprise, the earliest geisha were male performers. It was not until 1751 that the first female geisha appeared. From then on, female geisha gradually replaced male geisha and dominated the industry. By the 19th century, the profession of geisha was almost entirely female.

World War II drastically changed geisha culture. In the 1830s, geisha were considered the fashion icons in Japanese society and emulated by women. However, after the war, geisha became a “tradition protector” rather than an “avant-garde fashionista” in a westernized Japan.

With the improvement of laws and the awakening of women's rights, geisha underwent shorter training periods and enjoyed more personal freedom. Nowadays, girls choose to become geisha out of their own interest in traditional culture, rather than being forced to become geisha to make a living.

Common Misconceptions of Geisha

Geisha1. Geisha are prostitutes.

Let's set the record straight. Geisha are proficient performers providing the joy of the art and music rather than the excitement of a sexual encounter. Their work includes dancing, singing, playing instruments, reciting verses, hosting tea ceremonies, and engaging in light conversation. Moreover, they have been forbidden to engage in any sexual activity since the Meiji era. If they violate that rule, their name would be erased from the registered list, which is a severe punishment considering the time and effort they devote to becoming a geisha.

2. Geisha and maiko are the same thing.

In Japanese, geisha means " a person of the arts" and maiko means "a child who dances". It's easy to deduce that geisha and maiko have differences in age and skills. Maiko apprentice geisha and train their skills in singing and dancing. They are children from 15 to 19 years old who haven't mastered the technique of conversation, while geisha are professional artists who are 20 years old or older and have mastered all the necessary skills. It takes 5 years for a maiko to become a geisha. Geisha and maiko also have a different appearance. Their hair, makeup, shoes, and clothes are all different. The most noticeable difference is that a maiko's kimono is more extravagant, while a geisha's is simple and elegant.

How to Experience Geisha Culture


It’s undeniable that geisha culture is declining. Nowadays, there are only about 1,000 geisha in several major cities across Japan, including Kyoto, Tokyo, and Kanazawa. Among them, Kyoto, the capital of Japan 150 years ago and the birthplace of the geisha profession, is the best place to experience geisha.

Gion is the entertainment district of Kyoto, locating traditional townhouses, theaters, and teahouses. In the townhouse, you can have a chance to glimpse at geisha in training. You can enjoy a geisha dinner in teahouses, which includes food, drinks, games, dances, and musical performances. You can also go to the theater to enjoy the traditional Japanese arts, such as drama, flower arrangement performances, and traditional instruments.

Nowadays, there are many studios in Kyoto providing services of dressing up as a maiko or geisha. The dress-up includes makeup, costume, hairstyles, and photographs. It is important to note that the process of dressing up as a geisha is very tedious - the makeup alone takes almost an hour. Please remember to allow plenty of time if you want to experience it.

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