Japan is a nation rich in history and old, venerated traditions. The enigmatic geisha are considered as one of the cornerstones of that iconic Japanese tradition, and are certainly admired all over the world. The geisha can trace their origins way back in time, and were initially male entertainers. T
he role changed over time, and was eventually reserved only for ladies. Devoted young women would train patiently to master the skills of high social etiquette, dancing, singing, and playing instruments. These skilled geisha were admired and highly sought after in Japan’s highest social circles.
A young girl desiring to become a beautiful geisha would have to devote years of her life to achieve that goal. In recent times, the geisha received a somewhat skewed portrayal in western society, even though their esteemed role has been unchanged for centuries. Who are these enigmatic female entertainers, and how has history shaped their role in society?
How Did the Geisha Come to Be?
The geisha is a woman surrounded in mystery. In Japan’s history, they were always the heart and soul of every high-ranking social gathering – and that was the very role for which they were trained. Their skills are both outward and inward.
On the outside, they are admired for their elaborate traditional Japanese costumes, which are often multi-layered, intricately patterned, and quite heavy. They also wear heavy makeup that is supposed to accentuate their beauty even further, alongside unique hairstyles and realistic wigs. On the inside however, lies the true skill of the geisha. She is the master of social etiquette and many artistic skills.
As in many other parts of the world, Japan too placed high emphasis on distinguished social gatherings. When samurais, shoguns, and other high-ranking individuals gathered for a traditional “party”, the geisha was there to entertain them, to become the heart and soul of the gathering.
She’d liven up the meeting with entertaining conversations, she’d engage every person and amuse even the most serious guests. Also, the geisha was the master player of shamisen, the enigmatic Japanese traditional instrument. Every woman wanted to be as elegant and skilled as a geisha. To be a beautiful master of complex Japanese social skills and traditions was a mastery reserved only for the select women.
Until the Second World War, the practices surrounding geisha training were still pretty much unchanged after centuries. Poor peasants would often send their young daughters – some as young as nine – to be trained in the ways of geisha, simply because they could not afford to care for them. Nowadays, girls can begin this training once they are at least fifteen.
Either way, the training is a path of devotion, sacrifice, and can last a lifetime. Many girls that begin this path simply cannot endure it – the dropout rate is extremely high. In the 21st century, being a geisha is a difficult task. A girl becomes deeply connected with her geisha “mother” (teacher), and the particular house she serves. During her career, a geisha can incur high debts – paying off her training and investing into elaborate new kimono dresses that she needs to wear.
An Entertainer, Trendsetter, and a Custodian of Traditions
Explaining the role of the geisha is no easy task. In simplest terms, this elegant woman is a hostess, an entertainer, a lady, and a custodian of Japan’s oldest traditions. During her lengthy training, a geisha becomes a master of many traditional performances that are deeply steeped in classical Japanese art.
Being involved in the highest social circles – in the past these were the elite samurai and the shogun lords – the geisha is exposed to many sensitive secrets: she is expected to maintain strict confidentiality.
But one of the most important roles of the geisha – and one that led to many misconceptions – is her connection with men. The geisha were often the heart and soul of parties attended solely by high-ranking men. However, she was not alike other women – she was a woman in control, a powerful source of beauty that dazzled and inspired.
But for the men gathered around her, the geisha was a way to experience a more personal, private environment that was non-existent on the “outside”. In the complex ways of Japanese society, emotions are not displayed freely in the outside world, i.e. in regular society.
Even in the family household, a sense of strict rules is followed. However, in the private atmosphere created by the geisha, and thanks to her strict confidentiality, the male attendees would be able to display their emotions – a version of themselves which did not exist outside the geisha house.