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Kanji, Kana & Pronunciation

Romaji Geisha
Kanji 芸者
Kana げいしゃ
Audio Coming Soon
(n) Geisha

A geisha is a traditional entertainer trained in classical arts such as dance, tea ceremony, and music. In the modern era geisha are understood to be female, but historically there were male geisha as well.


Geisha (芸者), literally meaning "arts person" or artist, is the most common term and the best-known outside Japan. Within Japan geiko (芸子, literally arts child) and geigi (芸妓, arts girl) are also used, primarily in reference to Kyoto geisha. Apprentice geisha are called maiko (舞子 or 舞妓, "dance child" and "dance girl," respectively) or hangyoku (半玉), "half-jewel," in reference to their being paid less than the wage of a full geisha),[1] or by the more generic term o-shaku (御酌), literally "one who pours (alcohol)."

"Geisha girls" (pronounced gee-sha instead of gay-sha)[2] were Japanese women who worked as prostitutes during the Allied Occupation of Japan following World War II. They almost exclusively serviced American GIs stationed in the country. These women dressed in kimono and imitated the look of professional geisha. Eventually, the term "geisha girl" became a general word for any female Japanese prostitute or worker in the mizu shobai ("the water trade," the traditional euphemism for the night-time entertainment business), including bar hostesses and street prostitutes. The geisha girl phenomenon is one reason for the continuing misconception in the West that all geisha engage(d) in prostitution.[2]



Traditionally, geisha began their training at a very young age. Some were bonded to geisha houses (okiya) as young as nine years old. This practice disappeared in the 1950s with the outlawing of child labour.[3] Daughters of geisha are often brought up as geisha themselves, usually as the successor (atotori, "heir/heiress") or daughter-role (musume-bun) to the okiya.

A maiko is an apprentice and is therefore under contract to her okiya, which provides room and board, kimonos, obi, and other necessities. Her training is very expensive,[4] and her debt must be repaid to the okiya with the earnings she makes. This repayment may continue after the maiko becomes a full-fledged geisha and only when her debts are settled is she permitted to move out to live and work independently.[3]

A maiko will start her formal training on the job as a minarai, which literally means "learning by watching." Before she can do this she must find an "older sister" (onē-san): an older geisha who will be her mentor. The maiko will sit and observe as the mentor is at work.

After a short period the final stage of training begins, and the students are called "maiko". This stage can last for years. Maiko learn from their mentor and follow them to all their engagements.

There are three major elements of a maiko's training. The first is the formal arts training. This takes place in special geisha schools which are found in every hanamachi. The second element is the entertainment training which the maiko learns at various teahouses and parties by observing her mentor. The third is the social skill of navigating the complex social web of the hanamachi. Formal greetings, gifts, and visits are key parts of any social structure in Japan and for a maiko, they are crucial for her to build the support network she needs to survive as a geisha.[3]

Around the age of 20–22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha in a ceremony called erikae (turning of the collar).[5][6]

In popular culture

Interest in geisha has spawned various popular culture phenomena both in Japan and in the West. Western interest in geisha increased with the 1997 novel and 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha and the autobiography of former geisha Iwasaki Mineko, titled Geisha of Gion. Western performers like Bjork and Madonna have appeared in geisha-inspired looks.

In film

  • Sisters of the Gion (1936)—Dir. Mizoguchi Kenji
  • Geisha Girl (1952)—Dir. George P. Breakston
  • The Life of Oharu (西鶴一代女 Saikaku Ichidai Onna) (1952)—Dir. Mizoguchi Kenji
  • A Geisha (祇園囃子, Gion bayashi) (1953)—Dir. Mizoguchi Kenji
  • The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956)—Dir. Daniel Mann
  • The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)—Dir. John Huston
  • The Geisha Boy (1958)—Dir. Frank Tashlin
  • Late Chrysanthemum (Bangiku) (1958)—Dir. Naruse Mikio
  • Cry for Happy (1961)—George Marshall
  • My Geisha (1962)—Dir. Jack Cardiff
  • The World of Geisha (1973)—Dir. Kumashiro‎ Tatsumi
  • In the Realm of the Senses (1976)—Dir. Oshima Nagisa
  • Yokiro (The Geisha) (1983)—Dir. Gosha Hideo
  • American Geisha (1986)—Dir. Lee Philips, made for TV
  • Ihara Saikaku Koshoku Ichidai Otoko (1991)—Dir. Abe Yukio
  • The Geisha House (1999)—Dir. Fukasaku Kinji
  • The Sea is Watching (2002)—Dir. Kumai Kei
  • [[Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)—Dir. Rob Marshall
  • Maiko Haaaan!!! (2007)—Dir. Mizuta Nobuo

See also

Further reading

  • Aihara, Kyoko. Geisha: A Living Tradition. London: Carlton Books, 2000. ISBN 1858689376, ISBN 1858689708.
  • Ariyoshi Sawako, The Twilight Years. Translated by Mildred Tahara. New York: Kodansha America, 1987.
  • Burns, Stanley B., and Elizabeth A. Burns. Geisha: A Photographic History, 1872–1912. Brooklyn, N.Y.: powerHouse Books, 2006. ISBN 1576873366.
  • Downer, Lesley. Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha. New York: Broadway Books, 2001. ISBN 0767904893, ISBN 0767904907.
  • Ishihara, Tetsuo. Peter MacIntosh, trans. Nihongami no Sekai: Maiko no kamigata (The World of Traditional Japanese Hairstyles: Hairstyles of the Maiko). Kyōtō: Dōhōsha Shuppan, 1993. ISBN 4810412946.
  • Iwasaki, Mineko, with Rande Brown. Geisha, A Life (also known as Geisha of Gion). New York: Atria Books, 2002. ISBN 0743444329, ISBN 0756781612; ISBN 074343059X.
  • Masuda, Sayo. G.G. Rowley, trans. Autobiography of a Geisha. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. ISBN 0231129505.
  • Scott, A.C. The Flower and Willow World; The Story of the Geisha. New York: Orion Press, 1960.

External links


  1. Masuda, S. Autobiography of a Geisha. Columbia University Press (2005)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Prasso, Sheridan. The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient. PublicAffairs, 2005.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Gallagher, John. Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance, and Art. London: PRC, 2003. ISBN 1856486974
  4. Miles, S, "Gion, the Geisha District of Kyoto," in [1]. The estimated cost for a 5 year apprenticeship is US$500,000.
  5. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Melissa_Hope_Ditmore_2006
  6. Reynolds, Wayne and John Gallagher. Geisha : A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance and Art. PRC Publishing (2003).