JAPANBack to the Contest

The Art of the Geisha by Marie-Anne Bichai


The flower and willow world is one of the rites of passage, of formal bonds between geisha.  They live together in adopted family roles and no men play part in this formed family. The okamisan 2 is the surrogate mother and she has full authority. The few girls that enter the geisha world at any age now come on their own free will. A parent negotiates a contract with the okamisan to provide the daughter with training and further education, to be paid for out of future earnings. 

Before the war, a young girl sold to the geisha house knew almost nothing about art or culture. Known as an "egg" she performed household chores and helped the older geisha with their makeup and kimono. At the age of sixteen, she becomes a maiko. 3 A maiko will go to parties, but is not expected to know the ways of entertaining. She is a decoration and a diversion. 

When a maiko enters a party, there is almost like a moment of silence. Her talk is often foolish and childlike and she frequently makes mistakes. She really is just a teenager having fun.

At the age of twenty, she finally becomes a geisha. She is now more comfortable and gracious with men. As she gets older, her kimonos become softer in shade and color and her makeup less indiscreet. The full white makeup and wig are reserved for formal parties and stage performances, but she is never mistaken for an ordinary woman in kimono. She studies the dance and the shamisen becomes an extension of herself. She also studies the male ego and hopes to win a wealthy partner who will promote her training in the arts. She may even marry and leave the geisha world. 



One of the most evident things about geisha is the fact that they do not marry. At the same time that they are symbols of Japanese femininity, they do not follow the social path of the proper woman that is followed by the mass majority of Japanese women.  Instead, geisha live in communities of other women, among ritual mothers and sisters. Geisha are just few and have images that spark the curiosity of ordinary society. 

The image of femininity manifested by geisha is complicated. Their work is naturally characterized as being part of the service industry, yet they are anything but submissive. The notion of geisha as a romantic slave to male impulse is a stereotype formed outside Japan. Pouring a cup of tea for a customer is the maximum extent of physical service expected of a geisha, and is considered more of a ceremonial action then a functional one.

Japanese etiquette expresses that, out of respect, a true host places a guest before himself. He will insist that the guest sit in the place of honor and he will speak to the guest in special forms of speech, in order to honor him. Geisha behave in the manner expected of a host in treating their customers, who are never referred to as anything but okyakusama. 4

Acting as hosts, geisha should be able to draw out a shy guest, change the conversation toward subjects they know their customers are interested in and adapt to the mood of the gathering as it grows. A geisha usually gives as good as she gets.  



The geisha world is very sensual. The geisha is not only an artist, but also, in a way, her own canvas. The geisha makes no attempt to conceal the art of her performance. It is put on show to be admired. Her face, coated with a white and pink pigment, becomes a blank page onto which desires and fantasies may be created. She is beautiful but anonymous. Her eyes and mouth are carefully painted. A crimson half-moon is drawn on her lips with tiny creeks of red filling the tiny cracks. Her hair is tied down with very tight bandages and a wig made into a perfectly shaped dome is placed. In order to make the back full, small wads of soft nylon filaments are inserted as stuffing under her hair. She then wears the appropriate decoration and ornaments in her wig.  She also wears a formal Kimono and a small pair of tabi. 5 
A sash of some kind has always fastened the kimono. Elegant ambition in dress was aimed exclusively to the combination of colors at the sleeve openings and the breast, where the garments extend over. 

The obi 6 worn, is wide, wrapping the entire midsection in a hard outer covering. There is a symbolic relationship between the modesty of the wearer and the level at which she ties her obi. A proper wife will tie hers just below her breasts, and young girls, presumably innocent are to wear their obis highest of all, giving no trace that they even have breasts. The geisha tie their obis relatively low, giving a more voluptuous tone to the outfit. 

The tabi is often chosen to be a size smaller then the actual foot size in order to shape the foot better, for men find the sight of a foot in tabi very sensual. The geisha does not wear underpants, a line from panties is thought of as disgraceful. The color red is used for both makeup and dress wear because red is erotic. It symbolizes the change from a girl to a woman. When all these things are draw together, a geisha is positively breathtaking.   



Traditionally, the shamisen 7 was the marker of the geisha profession, the "three strings" upon which the women made their living. Until the postwar period, every young girl who entered geisha apprentices learned to play it. Even now, in spite of the division of artistic labor between geisha who are essentially dancers and those who are musicians, a serious dancer also learns enough shamisen and singing to increase her understanding of the dance, even if she never plays music publicly for customers. 

The body of the instrument is a hollow wooden frame, covered back and front with a tautly stretched skin, cat skin for the finer instruments, dog skin for the cheaper practice models. 

O-shami is the affectionate term geisha use for their shamisens. In spite of such aberrations as guitar-playing geisha the shamisen is, and has always been, the instrument of the geisha world. The prototype of the shamisen was introduced into Japan from China via Korea in the 1560's. Within the time span of a hundred years it had reached its actual form and had become the pillar of the newly developed profession of female artistes called geisha. Wherever there were geisha there were shamisen. 

Geisha musicians display the fullest range of their excellence when they play for the dance performances and music recitals that are rehearsed and presented to the public. When they play together with their colleges they can concentrate fully on the expression of music. A geisha has to know the music so thoroughly that no matter how much a customer may stretch it out of its attended form, she can structure it with her strategically placed calls and wise playing. A geisha who brings shamisen to a party is expected to be able to accompany anything a customer might want to sing. She, after all is the professional.   



Behind a mask of alcohol, a man in a geisha house, can play and laugh, and say what is actually on his mind. The geisha is his confidant. Nothing that goes on in the geisha world is held against him. In return, a man also brings something to the geisha. It is, in fact, not how much money he has, but how he spends it. To know how to keep a geisha in luxurious kimono, to know how to converse with her and please her and to be chic is the mark of a successful man. He defines himself by his charisma just as a geisha defines herself by her art.

The geisha struggles for perfection, her customer for release. The man may be as trapped as a geisha by the often suffocating inflexibility of Japanese society.
Men's ego is pampered and they are babied and highly valued in a geisha house. Some simply enjoy the conversations and the games with the artistic geisha, others are interested in traditional music and learn to appreciate the geisha as performers.
In modern Japan, men flaunt their wealth by joining exclusive clubs or driving fast cars. Only a decreasing number of aging men can appreciate, afford, what a geisha is so rigorously trained to do. 

Men were enticed by the geisha world because it was a world that used its magnificence and art to embrace the male individuality and distinctiveness. In this age, a geisha's very existence is bound to history and this may be the last generation of geisha. 


1. Zashiki: A banquet room. Also term used by geisha for their engagements
2. Okamisan: Proprietress of a shop or teahouse
3. Maiko: Apprentice geisha in Kyoto
4. Okyakusama: Honored guest
5. Tabi: White, split-toed socks worn with Japanese sandals
6. Obi: Wide, heavy sash that completes a kimono outfit
7. Shamisen: three-string fretless instrument associated with geisha.