NORBERT WEBER (GERMANY)

20181205 Japan Maiko and Geisha

The Geisha: A Japanese entertainer

What exactly is a geisha and why is it sometimes called geiko?

White painted skin, red lips and elegantly pinned up, black hair: 

The image of Japanese geishas in intricately crafted kimonos is known worldwide. 
Especially in Kyoto, Japan’s center of traditional culture, Geishas is literally choked in the public by photogenic tourists. 

Their mysterious reputation precedes them, their sight conjures up images of a bygone Japan.

But as a symbol of traditional Japanese culture, Japan’s entertainment ladies still harbor a much glorified image.
A geisha, what’s that?

Contrary to persistent opinion, geishas were not and still are not prostitutes. 

The term geisha 芸 者 literally means „skilled person“.

He refers to the training of geisha in the art of entertainment, including learning instruments 

of instruments, dances, the tea ceremony and conversation

The profession has its origins in the Edo period (1603-1868), when the formerly strategic advisers and entertainers lost importance at the court in a time of relative peace.

Her role shifted to that of a mood maker.

These men were called hōkan („jester“) or informally also taikomochi (literally „drum bearer“).

Coinciding with this development, the term geisha first appeared as a term for the newly created professional group.

It was not until the mid-18th century that geiko or onna geisha („female Geisha“) appeared on the scene, whose conversational style was less comedic than that of their male counterparts. The geiko were so popular that they formed the bulk of the geisha within a few decades.

Soon, only women were referred to as geisha. Men used from then on the addition otoko geisha („male Geisha“). 

By the way, the geishas in Kyoto are still known as geeks and enjoy a high reputation in the hierarchy of Japanese geishas.

Forerunners of traditional geishas are also the saburuko (from the 7th century), often women without social support, who offered entertaining and also sexual services.

In the Heian period (794-1192), the profession of the shirabyōshi dancers, who had a high level of education (!) And were talented singers and musicians, also developed.

The training for Geisha

While formerly geisha training was often started at the tender age of six (often as a way out of the financial hardship of a family), aspirants now complete the compulsory school leaving certificate (age 15).

The geisha training lasts several years and is very demanding.

The first step for female applicants is to find an okiya (house for geishas) in which they can complete their training.

There they are looked after by the okāsan („mother“) of the house, who also covers all the costs of training (for expensive kimonos, make-up and accessories, for example).

So a geisha is financially tied to an okiya, mostly for the course of her career, but at least until that financial debt is settled.

A geisha in education is called maiko („dancing child“).

She will be assigned a more experienced geisha as Onēsan („big sister“) assigned, she presents among other things the guests.

The first phase of training is called shikomi („preparation“), in which the maiko is introduced into the household and teaches to learn etiquette, instruments, dance, singing and the tea ceremony.

The second level of training is called minarai (learning by sight). In this, the maiko observe and imitate their onēsan in dealing with guests and in the elegance of the movements.

Only in this learning phase maiko come in contact with guests, but do not take on any entertaining tasks.

After several years of intensive training, the maiko is promoted to Geisha and is now responsible for entertaining guests.

However, it is still subject to the strict hierarchies of the okiya (!) and is ranked among the more experienced geishas.

Geisha or maiko – how is the look different?

Especially in the traditional Kyoto entertainment district Gion you can often see geishas or maikos on the way to work.

Whether it is a geisha in training, you usually already recognize the look.

The maiko wears very intricately crafted and decorated kimonos with a wide belt (obi) that falls down the back long.

The kimono sleeves are also very long.

The elaborately raised hairstyles of maiko are decorated with numerous, seasonally changing decorations, which become less with increasing experience.

In the first year of the minarai phase, the maiko hana-kanzashi wears a flower ornament, which hangs down to the chin next to the face.

At this time, only the lower lip is painted with red paint.

Geisha, on the other hand, is more subtle and dignified in its experience and maturity.

She wears kimonos in muted shades, for example.

The sleeves are shorter and the belt is narrower and tied in a square knot at the back.

In addition, geishas wear traditional wigs with few decorations and thus have no edge between the hairline and the white facial primer.

Beware of tourist traps

For visitors in Japan, there are many offers to be prepared for a few hours like a geisha and to stroll through the streets.

Often tourists recognize disagreements in the otherwise carefully prepared look of geishas.

For example, if you see a geisha with red cherry mouth and hana-kanzashi, you can be sure that it is not a real geisha.

Also, geishas and maikos usually do not have time to take photos with tourists.

If you grab a snapshot with a geisha, it could also be a „geisha for a day“.

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