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The Art of Geisha


The geisha culture in Japan is commonly referred to as the flower and the willow world or karyuaki. A geisha can be either a male or a female, whose image comprises a white face, red lips, kimono clad, glorified prostitute among others. The art of geisha requires skill and dedication, to portray its beauty and grace. This culture is a business run by women only, for the pleasure of men. It has been in practise for many centuries, and was a new niche for the Japanese women, whose place was either in the brothel, or in the home.

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The geisha could gain a lot from the culture including the ability to run a business, make money from the art, become independent and pursue romance. Technology advancements are a major threat to the art, though it is still in practise in some Japanese cities like Kyoto and Tokyo. This paper looks at the beauty of the art of geisha (Masuda 34).

Overview of the art of geisha

The original performers danced for the warrior class in the 11th century. During this time, the dancers were often the clients of shoguns and high ranking generals. Most of the common dances performed by the geisha were developed in the nineteenth century.

To become a geisha, the girls had to undergo intensive training in traditional arts including dancing, singing and playing traditional instruments. The girls were also taught to dress perfectly, entertain a room of patrons, to serve alcohol, tea ceremonies and to arrange flowers. With advancements in technology, the girls are also taught English and computer skills (Masuda 45).

The geisha wore different kimonos with complex designs for various seasons, and their hairstyles require that the neck be revealed at all times. Dancing was allowed to the younger geisha. It included cherry dances and Miyako Odori. The geisha also played a three stringed instrument referred to as a shamisen, to accompany a performance.

Most of geisha attire has the color red, signifying its importance to the Japanese society. Red color is associated with splendour and joy, and they believed that red undergarments would keep the reproductive organs of ladies healthy, and keep away the pain associated with monthly periods. The color was also viewed as erotic to men, and was therefore used for lipstick (Masuda 49).

History of geisha

The art began during the Japanese renaissance. During this time, Japan was ruled by the class system, and it was facing reforms. The samurai were restricted from engaging in other forms of employment, and this led to increased debts due to borrowing, and increased profits for the merchants, or money lenders. The merchants were forbidden from using their wealth to build houses or wear expensive clothing so that they would not overtake the samurai.

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This was done in the form of edicts, since taxes had not being introduced. In order to avoid losing their money since they could not purchase luxury items, they opted to squander their money in pleasure quarters. These pleasure quarters then began to prosper, as people enjoyed the company of beautiful women in the elegant environment (Dalby 13).

To ensure that the merchants were entertained and kept going back, the pleasure quarters made sure to bring new girls from the poor sections of the country. Most parents gave up their daughters in order to obtain money to clear their debts, or to reduce the amount of money spent on food. The parents also viewed it as the best option of their daughters, since their standard of living would be improved by obtaining an education, and they would get both food and clothing.

The girls became property of the brothel owner, and they became maids in order to settle their debts. When the girls were older, they were taught to please and never to fall in love, by the older courtesan, through apprenticeship. This skill was taught at the age of thirteen, at which point they lost their virginity in a ceremony that involved a bidding war among the clients, and the winner got the girl. The practise was later outlawed (Dalby 17).

The pleasure quarters were a success due to the unmarried merchants and samurai. The number of women who were skilled at entertaining men began to decline, and this led to the emergence of a new breed of women. These women were independent, and sophisticated, and they sold their art, not their bodies. This marked the beginning of geisha.

Look of a geisha

The most important aspect of a geisha is the kimono. The various kimonos are supposed to be won at particular times, and particular places. The art of geisha is expensive, due to the expensive kimonos, and the requirement for hairdressing on a weekly basis. When most of the clients were shoguns, in the 11th century, the performers wore clothes like a warrior.

They also wore large hats and decorative swords. As time went by, their clothing became more feminine, and they introduced the kimono, whose design and color depended on the season. The kimono was won in three layers which included the outer kimono and two undergarments, irrespective of the season. In winter, the geisha wore a three quarter length overcoat over the kimono. The overcoat was lined with hand painted silk. During spring, the geisha wore a kimono with crimson lining, and a lavishly tinted waistband.

The lining was removed in summer, and the geisha wore kimono with light colours. In autumn, the lining was introduced again, and the design for the kimono was changed. The geisha were barefoot when indoors, though they wore flat-soled sandals when they went outside (Downer 23).

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The ladies are required to style their hair according to the requirements of their level, but they can wear it in a simple chignon or put on a wig when making appearances after they graduate from apprentices to fully fledged geisha. The girls are not allowed to cut their hair, so that the possible hair styles may not be limited.

The girls are seen to obtain premature bald spots on the crown, due to the weekly pulling of hair. The bald spot is regarded as a medal of honor, showing the determination of an apprentice to become a geisha. The hair styles include ponytails and wads of paper, to acquire the right look, since Japanese hair is very thin. In the past, the process took many hours, though it takes less than one hour nowadays (Downer 27).

Geisha are supposed to sleep on an omaku in order to preserve their hairstyle. Before an apprentice completes her training, she wears five hairstyles. The first style is the wareshinobu. It is elaborate and stresses the loveliness and youth of the apprentice. This is followed by the ofuku hairstyle, which marks the development and advancement of the apprentice. The advancement is marked by a ceremony, the mizuage, which takes place when the apprentice turns 18, or after three years of training.

During the last month of the omisedashi ceremony, the apprentice changes her hair style to sakko. A portion of her hair is cut as an indication of her readiness to become a geisha. The other two hairstyles, yakk-shimada and katsuyama, are worn on special occasions. Once an apprentice becomes a geisha, she is allowed to wear a chignon during the day, and a katsura when performing.

This is a relief since she can now sleep on a pillow instead of an omaku, and she does not have to visit the hairdresser on a weekly basis. On the other side, the new requirements require a lot of money (Downer 33).

Hair accessories

The most striking feature of the hair style are the kanzashi, which are won depending on the particular style of hair. There are also some temporary kanzashi won, on different months of the year.


The make-up is a common feature of the geisha. The apprentice are required to wear the full face of white make-up frequently, while the fully fledged geisha put on just a bit of the make-up, when making an appearance, such as dancing for a patron, or when requested to make a performance. Professional make-up artistes apply the make-up for the apprentice, but they are expected to do it themselves afterwards.

The application of the make-up is a delicate procedure that requires precision and caution, since any mistakes would require one to wash their face and repeat the process. Depending on how skilful an apprentice is, she can take close to two hours applying her make-up (Downer 46).

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The first step requires the application of binstuke-abura on both her face and upper chest, in order for the make-up to stick on her skin, and prevent it from getting on the kimono. The white powder made from modern cosmetic powder is then mixed with water to make a paste. Some red make-up is added to the paste, so that the mask does not appear to be thin, under light.

The paste is then applied to the face neck and chest. A thin line of skin is left around the hairline, so that it appears like a mask. Two or three pongs are usually left unpainted at the back of the neck. Next, a finishing powder is applied to help it set before adding touches of color. Initially, the geisha shaved their eye brows and applied black pencil, but they leave them today, and fill them with black pencil before drawing an outline in red color. The eyes are also lined with black and red (Downer 47).

They are also required to paint their lips using a small stick of color that is melted in water and mixed with crystallized sugar for lustre. The apprentice paints only a small portion of her lower lip for the first year. The make up for the eyes and eyebrows, as well as the lips changes as the apprentice gains the skill and approaches being a fully fledged geisha.


The most vital feature of a geisha is the kimono, which is also very costly, going for hundreds of thousands of yen. The apprentice borrows her kimonos from her okiya until she becomes independent, after which she can obtain her own. The high cost of the kimonos is due to their fabric, which is japans’ best quality of silk.

An ordinary woman and a geisha wear the kimono differently. A geisha can be identified since the collar of her kimono is lower than the others, in order to expose the nape of her neck, to increase her sensuality. The obi of a geisha is also observed to sit lower on her hips and her under kimono shows at the collar, sleeve and hem (James).

A geisha needs at least twelve kimonos and the corresponding undergarments, obis and accessories, since the elements change every season. The geishas do not wear underwear, because it disrupts the line of the kimono. The kimono entails a first layer comprising the hada-juban and the naga-juban, the most intimate layers of the geisha. Attached to it is the eri, which is white for the geisha and red for the apprentice. The additional clothing to the kimono are dependent on the season, in terms of the climate conditions (James).

The kimono of an apprentice varies from that of the geisha in that an apprentice’s kimono has long swinging sleeves, while that of the geisha is more restrained. This is because the geisha is supposed to be skilled on attracting clients. An obi is placed over the kimono, to keep it closed. It is as costly as the kimono, and its price can be as high as several million yen. An obi-age is placed on top of the obi for an apprentice. It is also clearly visible as it is red in color. That of the geisha is light blue or pink in color, and is usually placed inside the obi.

The obi of an apprentice is approximately 17 feet in length, and contains silver and gold thread decorations. The obi of a geisha is about 13 feet in length, and is usually double folded, added and tied into a box knot. To keep the obi closed, an obijime or silk braid is tied over it.

The obijime of an apprentice is wider and more colorful. A pocchiri, obi-dome, is used to attach the obi to the obi-dome. It is a silver frame comprising coral, amethyst, jade, diamond and agate. It is heavy and quite expensive. That of the geisha is much smaller. It is made from coral and tortoise shell (James).

Both the apprentice and geisha wear tabi socks. Their design separates the big toe from the others, making it easier to wear the sandals. A tabi is not elastic, but it moulds itself to a person’s foot and retains the shape. To ensure a good fit, the geisha prefer to make orders for their tabi.

The apprentice wears okobo sandals, while the geisha can wear zori, made of leather, accompanied by yukata or komon. The okobo are made of wood. Those of an apprentice measure about four inches in thickness, while the sandals of a geisha are much lower. The thong on the okobo is red for a new apprentice, and changes to pink and then purple, as she acquires the skill and approaches becoming a fully fledged geisha (James).


The most important item for a geisha is the ozashiki-kago. They carry it when attending banquets, and use it to carry their necessities including a hand mirror, lip color, a binkaki, a folding fan for dancing and pocket towels.


The geisha have been a part of Japanese culture for a long period of time, though their image has been distorted. Their place in society is threatened by the obsolete practises, the difficulty posed to entry in the community and the high cost of becoming a geisha. In addition to this, the people have shifted their focus and energy, almost entirely, to technology.

Alternative entertainment includes video games and karaoke bars. People also prefer to enjoy themselves in hostess bars, which are cheaper, as opposed to spending more with a banquet. Becoming a geisha also demands dedication, which few girls are able to provide. There are very few geisha in the present time, just over 1,000, compared to over 70,000 before the involvement of Japan in the Second World War (Underwood 64).

The art of geisha is also commonly mistaken for prostitution due to similar practises; though it should be save from extinction. Geisha are women who are in no way comparable to prostitutes, since the process of becoming a geisha requires skill, patience and commitment, since it is a continuous process of self improvement.


Binkaki-A boxwood comb

Bintsuke-Abura-A type of wax that is used to style the hair; also, a type of wax that is used to adhere the make-up to the skin.

Hada-Juban-Undergarment worn under the kimono to which the eri is attached.

Kanzashi-Hair ornaments

Katsura-A special made, human hair worn by a geisha during banquets and performances.

Komon– A type of Japanese wood

Naga-Juban– Undergarment worn under the kimono; the hem will be seen at the bottom of the kimono.

Okiya– The residence where apprentice and full geisha live together; similar to a sorority house

Okobo-A high sandal worn by an apprentice.

Omaku– A high lacquer-painted wooden box topped by a small cushion on which an apprentice will sleep to preserve the style of her hair.

Ozashiki-Kago-A small handbag that apprentice and geisha take to banquets.

Tabi-Socks worn by apprentices and geisha; separate the big toe from the rest to make sandal wearing easier.

Yukata-An informal summer kimono, made of cotton, and worn on informal occasions and at home.

Zori-A type of sandal worn by the geisha.

Works Cited

Dalby, Liza. Kimono: Fashioning Culture. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993. Print.

Downer, Lesley. Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha. New York: Broadway Books, 2001. Print.

James. “The History of the Geisha.” 2008. Web.

Masuda, Sayo. Autobiography of a Geisha. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957. Print.

Underwood, Eleanor. The Life of a Geisha. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1999. Print.

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