The True Face of Geisha

Culture Alison Muir Alison Muir

G'Day Japan! / Culture / The True Face of Geisha

The world of geisha is one steeped in mystery. The training of a geisha is a strict and demanding process, and the women who undergo this training are discouraged from revealing the secrets of this world to outsiders. Access to this world even by clients is restricted, and is generally only possible through introduction. The exact number of currently active geisha is unknown to outsiders, but high estimates put the current geisha population at about 2,000 members – a drastic decrease from the 1920s, when there were more than 80,000 geisha Japan-wide.

The world of geisha is one steeped in mystery. The training of a geisha is a strict and demanding process, and the women who undergo this training are discouraged from revealing the secrets of this world to outsiders. Access to this world even by clients is restricted, and is generally only possible through introduction. The exact number of currently active geisha is unknown to outsiders, but high estimates put the current geisha population at about 2,000 members – a drastic decrease from the 1920s, when there were more than 80,000 geisha Japan-wide.

There are many rites of passage associated with being a geisha. One of the most globally-recognised rites of passage is ‘mizuage’, a rite of passage for maiko, which was featured in the popular movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. This ceremony is one way a young geisha-in-training can transition from being the financial responsibility of her okiya. Thus, mizuage is a ritual representation of the beginning of a geisha’s relationship with a patron – her ‘danna’. Sponsorship would allow a young geisha to achieve independence from her okiya earlier than she otherwise might be able to alone, since even after her debut, she remains tied to the house until all debts from her training have been repaid. The mizuage ceremony plays a large role in international misunderstanding of geisha as simply fancy prostitutes.

When a maiko undergoes mizuage, the way she wears her hair will be changed to the style that indicates she has come of age, called ‘ofuku’. It’s unclear to what extent maiko were traditionally expected to give up their virginity to their danna upon undergoing mizuage. Understanding of this event is tainted somewhat by the rite of passage undertaken by courtesans, who also called their coming of age and beginning to take clients ‘mizuage’. In the case of actual geisha, it seems likely that, due to the complex nature of the geisha-danna relationship, the event of mizuage gave a geisha’s danna the right to request a night with her, rather than sponsorship being dependant on the giving up of her virginity. However, the rite of mizuage in recent years is celebrated by a party, and if ever geisha were expected to give up their virginity if they desired sponsorship, this practise has been made illegal by the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1956.

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These days, the geisha world is desperately trying to hold on to the old traditions and remain as unaffected by modern society as possible. The demanding and intensive training – during which aspiring geisha are contractually obliged to serve the full term of their training no matter how difficult, and are typically unpaid with no access to modern luxuries like a private cellphone – is understandably becoming less and less attractive to young Japanese women. Geisha training no longer starts as early as it used to, with the typical age of beginning training being 15 years in Kyoto, and 18 in Tokyo. Geisha who debut as a maiko will be more highly regarded, but this option is generally not available to those who join the profession after the age of 21.

Although non-Japanese geisha are extremely rare, there have been several non-Japanese women accepted into the ranks of the Geisha over the years. In fact, the very first Caucasian geisha is Australian. Sayuki – Dr. Fiona Graham, originally from Melbourne – debuted in the Asakusa district of Tokyo in late 2007. A social anthropologist, Dr. Graham was granted permission to train as a geisha for a period of one year, in order to study their culture. Due to her age – she debuted as a geisha, not a maiko. Long infatuated with Japanese culture, when her period of study expired, she elected to stay on, and was allowed to formally debut. She worked as a geisha in the okiya she was trained in for a little more than three years, but experienced a falling out with the Asakusa Geisha Association early in 2011.

Dr. Graham is hugely passionate about the world of geisha, and about educating non-Japanese people about geisha culture. She continues to practice as a geisha, as well as guest speaking at conferences (both as a geisha and as an anthropologist), and even operates her own independent okiya. However, due to her lack of affiliation with a geisha association, the continuing legitimacy of her claim to being a geisha is unclear. Sayuki and her associates are certainly much more accessible than most geisha. Anyone who can afford it has the option of booking her services through her website – geisha on demand, if you will.

See more information
http://www.sayuki.net/

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