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The Secret World of the Geisha
Genevieve Long

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The Japanese Identity
Since the end of World War II, a mystique has surrounded the Japanese Geisha in the western world—but not a very flattering mystique. The popular western belief and concept of a Geisha, literally translated as “one who serves,” sprang from stories that American servicemen brought home after being stationed abroad in Japan following the end of World War II. Wild and unflattering rumors about the “services” provided by Geisha to male customers seem to have taken root in the modern day western consciousness, forming an incorrect notion that Geisha are prostitutes.

In 18th century Japan, scores of women from different levels of society—including noble families—had already long been displaced due to different forms of social upheaval. Many of these women were forced to wander from their homes, looking for any means of survival. Owing to the difficult economic times and the disparity of women’s ability to make ends meet, pleasure quarters sprung up in different major cities, including the ancient national capital of Kyoto.

These pleasure quarters were areas for exactly what their name suggests—drinking, gambling, and women. Many of the socially displaced women found a way to make a living by garnering male customers who would visit them on a regular basis. The Geisha were among them.

ENCHANTING STYLE: Two Japanese “Maikos” prepare to tie paper fortunes to a tree on the first business day of the new year at Yasaka Jinja on January 9, 2005 in Kyoto, Japan. Geikos and Maikos visit Shinto shrines at the start of the New Year to pray for good health and good luck. The length of the sash the women are wearing, called an “obi,” indicates their rank as apprentice Geisha, or Maiko. The traditional Japanese dress they are wearing is called a Kimono. (Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)
High-resolution image (2336 x 3504 px, 300 dpi) By 1779, the Geisha, who were for the most part highly educated, cultured, and accomplished musicians and singers, rivaled the popularity of courtesans in the brothels. An edict was created to put a code of conduct, or kenban, into place to control the activities of the Geisha and reduce the level of competition they were bringing to the courtesans.

Some of the rules imposed on Geisha during the 18th century included strict curfews and areas where they were allowed to entertain customers, as well as clothing and hairstyle regulations to identify them and set them apart from courtesans. Geisha were also prohibited from entertaining guests alone, and it was required that they were hired only in groups of two or three for parties and social gatherings.

Any offense regarding their moral code of conduct was taken seriously, and offending Geisha were prohibited from working for one or two days.

The kenban stuck and ushered in a new era, paving the way for a more refined Geisha class. The women were hired for parties and special occasions to entertain with conversation and the skillful singing, playing of musical instruments, or dancing. This is the form that the few remaining Geisha in modern-day Japan still observe.

CAPTIVATING DANCERS: An apprentice Geisha, or Maiko, performs a dance at the Expo Plaza during Japan Week "Maiko Hospitality" at the 2005 World Exposition on June 7, 2005 in Nagakute, Japan. The genuine Maiko is an apprentice Geisha who undergoes a five-year period of training during which she will learn the various “gei” (arts) such as dancing, singing and music before she becomes a Geisha. (Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)
High-resolution image (1975 x 3000 px, 300 dpi) Japan’s last major bastion of Geisha is in the old capital of Kyoto (the capital was later moved to Tokyo, also called Edo). They can sometimes be glimpsed walking down the street or making appearances at extremely special occasions of national or regional significance, displaying and preserving the rich art and dance of the Japanese culture.

For curious tourists, Kyoto has also preserved the tradition of the Geisha with “Geisha tours,” that take you through the secret world these highly acclaimed and rarely seen women live in.

IF YOU GO: Join a walking tour of Kyoto and the secret world of the Geisha with world famous Peter MacIntosh, one of the few westerners in the world who lives and learns among the Geisha. Tours with Mr. MacIntosh in English are available on an ongoing basis. See Kyoto Sights and Nights for cost and reservation details:

The tour briefly: A 90-minute walk through the ancient back streets of Kyoto and the alleyways of the world renowned Geisha districts, led by Mr. MacIntosh, followed by a Geisha party with song and dance to the accompaniment of the Japanese shamisen.


What is a Geisha? Geisha is a word that consists of two characters borrowed from the Chinese language, gei or art, and sha or person. The literal translation is an artful person, and is also described as women of arts. Geisha are women who are highly trained in the traditional Japanese arts such as dance, music, singing, and conversation, among others.

What is a Maiko? Maiko literally translates as mai or dance, and ko or child, to dancing child, and is also referred to as dancing girl. Maiko are apprentice Geisha who undergo a period of training that generally lasts 5 years. During this time she learns the various arts of her trade, usually specializing in one or two areas, such as a specific musical instrument.

What is a Geiko? Geiko is a colloquial word used in the dialect Kansai region of Japan in the districts of Kyoto. It is predominately used by Geisha in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. Kyoto is the region where Geisha originated, and remains the predominate area of Japan where modern-day Geisha train and live out their careers.

Are Geisha and Maiko prostitutes? No—Geisha and Maiko are part of an ancient profession that revolves around preserving traditional Japanese arts of singing, dance, music, and entertaining at parties with their skilled conversation.

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