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Posted on July 26th, 2012, by

Geisha is Japanese for person of art, gei means arts or performance and sha means people. The geisha’s art developed in the Tokugawa period in Japan, but this profession did not really flourish until the Meiji era which started in 1868. Geisha were originally men who were to entertain in the flower and willow world called karyukai in Japanese, it contained prostitutes, entertainers and their patrons. Geisha have their roots in female entertainers of the 7th century and gained more considerable popularity in the early 13th century. They performed for the noble people of the period and in rare occasions were even very close to the emperor. The 16th century was the time when pleasure quarters were arranged in Japan, they more or less imitated those of Ming Dynasty in China. In 1600s, prostitution was legalized in a number of districts called Yoshiwara (Linton). Located in Edo it was organized according to the brothel district standard but due to strict regulations brothels were not allowed to operate out of this area. Suspicious visitors were taken into account at once and later on observed. During the Edo period Japan was closed to the rest of the world and awoke particular interest, it was also the era of considerable cultural development. As Japan was no longer in war, many daughters of noble families became courtesans and formed such places as Yoshiwara and Shimabara which were considered the places of refinement and culture. The historical background of geisha culture is most likely the reason why Western culture and even some social strata in Japan still confuse refined geishas with ladies of pleasure quarters, so called high-class courtesans. Because they entertain behind closed doors and in a definitely exclusive manner, there is much debate and mystique about their profession (Mishima). Truly, geisha and prostitutes separated their activities still in the 18th century or so, consequently geisha became very popular and were often asked for entertaining in teahouses, restaurants, etc. Geisha tended to occupy the society’s attention, though rather strictly dressed, they were considered to be fashion leaders and their popularity even played an important role in the history of Japan as a country. Hence, they participated in the changing of government from Tokugawa to Meiji. Actually, the revolution was arranged and thought over in teahouses of Gion and Pontocho, but remained silent about the revolution (Layton).

It is believed that the women involved in dancing in the 11th century were prototypes of modern geisha. Now they have already become professional hostesses, mastered ideally their technique, perfected their skills and those who entertain guests with the help of various kinds of arts, reciting poems, playing musical instruments, engaging in conversation and even flirting and men who are amused by the illusion that which is never to be. They perform traditional Japanese arts at banquets as well as teahouses. It is a long way till inexperienced girl will turn into a skilled geisha. The houses where geisha gather are called o-chaya, situated it districts called hanamachi (kagai).

Geisha would entertain clients in o-chaya teahouses made according to the Japanese style. Some o-chaya also train geisha or maiko who are young geisha to live and to entertain. Such o-chaya are also known as okiya (Mishima).

Geisha training is a long process and it comprises several stages during which the status of the trainee changes together with the attitude to her. Training starts at a very young age, some girls are even sold to okiya being still children, often brought up as geisha, mothers also give their daughters way to this profession. The first stage is called shikomi. The girls are to work as maids, do everything they are told. According to modern rules girls are obliged to attend school up to the age of fifteen. When a girl becomes a maiko, she has to find an onesan, an older geisha to become her preceptor which may be found in the same okiya or be out of some other geisha house. To tie up the onesan with a miako a san san kuda ritual is performed. This intermediate stage is called misedashi. Then comes the next stage called minarai, when after passing a serious exam a girl is relieved from household duties and starts training in the field. They attend parties which their onesan is invited to, they are sometimes called ozashiki. For the rest of her career maiko will attend classes in her chosen arts. At this stage she becomes involved in practice such as conversation and gaming, this period lasts for about a month. The maiko is expected to pass through mizuage which is now a matter of personal concern and signifies maturity, it occurs when the maiko is eighteen. In this period the maiko changes her hairstyle and becomes a geiko. She is to change her kimono from furisode to kosode and alter the color of her collar. That is how during the ceremony Erikae the maiko turns into geisha. This last stage can last for years depending on various circumstances. The senior geisha is to teach maiko proper ways of serving tea, playing shamisen, dancing, art of conversation, maiko has to learn all this in detail for future gatherings. So the maiko becomes a full-grown geisha until she retires from public life, then there is a celebration Hiki-iwai. The reason for that may be her marriage or the fact that she becomes a proprietress of an okiya, other careers are seldom open to middle-aged women in Japan.

Obviously, geisha’s appearance changes throughout her career. She continues to evoke interest because of her beautiful pale face, dark eyes and hair and blood-red lips. Geisha dress in traditional kimono which dates back to China in the early 5th century. It is typically about three feet longer than the distance between the shoulders and the feet. Usually it is long enough to cover the foot-line. There are popular and formal kimonos. Omeshi, for instance, is a kimono suitable for everyday usage. It is made of silk and has a half-width obi. Obi by the way is a simple sash designed to tie and secure kimono (Layton). There are also Wool, Yukata and Johfu kimonos which also serve practical purposes mainly. But there exist formal kimono which are worn on special occasions such as marriage (Kuro tomesode kimono), worn by ladies in court (Iro tomesode), by brides (Uchikake and Shiromuku). As for the make-up and hairstyle, they are also glamorous. The make-up looks like a thick white base with red lipstick and accents around the eyes and eyebrows. Earlier, the white base mask was made of lead but it turned out to be poisonous for skin, it was replaced with rice powder. Today, certainly, modern cosmetics are used. The eyebrows and eye edges are colored black; the maiko also uses red around her eyes. Maiko who is in her first stage of training can color her teeth black for some period of time. In first three years she has to put on much make-up, but then she is allowed to have more subdued style to show her natural beauty. The hairstyles of geisha were different in various history periods. Women wore their hair up and down, there are four main types of hairstyle called shimada, they are: the taka shimada, the uiwata, the tsubushi shimada, the style that resembles a peach worn by maiko only. The hairstyles are decorated with different haircombs. Many contemporary geisha wear wigs at work, while maiko use their natural hair. They are also taught to be keen on flower arrangement called ikebana which is traditional for Japan and symbolizes harmony of nature. Moreover, geisha have to know the ceremony of tea preparation and its drinking as it reflects ideals of aestheticism, peace, harmony and discipline. The type of tea called matcha is the tea traditionally served in Japan today. Geisha has to master classical Japanese dances including nihon buyoh and odori.

Geisha are expected to be single women, there is traditional relationship between geisha and a wealthy man, a danna, who financially supports her, and however, their relations are tangled and not well understood by outsiders (Mishima). Geisha is truly a woman of art, it is even the creator of art rather than its manifestation, it gives people a potential to experience art, shows the nature of veritable beauty. They are powerful enough and desired by men.

Since early times geisha and her way of life continue to bewitch and fascinate people all over the world.

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