The World of a Geisha

The age -old Japanese institution of the geisha has once again come into limelight with the reported tirade by Mineko Iwasaki, the world’s most famous geisha, against Arthur Golden, author of the bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha, which was inspired by her life. Iwasaki, now retired, is so furious over his depiction of geishas and their life and also for betraying her confidence that she has decided to strike back by publishing The Real Memoirs of a Geisha. The last time, the world Press took notice of the Japanese queen of entertainment, was over a decade ago when a geisha had disclosed her liaison with the Japanese Prime Minister, Sosuke Uno, who was eventually forced to resign, observes Pran Nevile


SO WELL known is the word ‘geisha’ in the world, yet so little understood. The chief attraction of the geisha lies in the world gei (accomplishment). Combined with sha it stands for an accomplished professional entertainer. She is usually highly cultured, exquisitely dressed, delicately mannered and has a knowledge not only of the past but also of contemporary gossip. Her main function is to provide an atmosphere of elegance and gaiety. It is not on their skill in the art of love, but on their skills in singing, dancing, conversation and wit that their reputation rests. It is said that the word geisha is derived from ganika, her counterpart in ancient India. The ganika was an accomplished courtesan who was accomplished in the 64 kalas (arts) which included dancing and singing. To be seen with a ganika was a status symbol. A notable example was Ambapali who interacted on equal terms with the royalty.

Will the tradition see a revival?Traditionally, the training period of a geisha extended over a period of 16 years from the age of six. She was taught etiquette, grace, polite speech, dancing and singing and the art of dressing and looking beautiful. Further, she learnt games, calligraphy, flower arrangement and tea ceremony. She was also taught to play musical instruments, first the little drum tsuzumi and then the samisen — that wondrous three stringed instrument — which, it was said, could utter in the hands of a trained geisha any aesthetic sound heard between heaven and earth.

When she reached 12 or 13, she was already the most charming little creature imaginable and knew how to fill your little sake cup exactly full with a single toss of the bottle and without spilling a drop. By the age of 17 or 18, she would have made her artistic reputation. As a student geisha (called maiko), she would go out to entertain at parties, but only at the age of 20 or 21 would she become a full-fledged geisha, ready for her first patron. Until this age, she would be, more likely than not, a virgin. By that time she would have learnt to drink wine without ever losing her head and to use her charms to her advantage.

The golden age of the geisha dawned with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the geisha boom continued unabated until World War II. Such was the example set by the government leaders that every ambitious student of the early Meiji era had two aims in life; to become a Minister of State and to have a geisha. The Prime Minister of the early post-war era, Kijiro Shidehara, has recorded in his memoirs how as a young diplomat he had to carry official papers to a tea house and hand them to Prime Minister who was seated at a table sipping sake in the company of a charming geisha. In Tokyo, during pre-war days, geisha houses were patronised by the ruling elite and some geishas with high-ranking patrons wielded incredible influence in the political and business world.

Amusement with a geisha was a popular pastime, but in the post-war years, her functions were taken over by the bar hostess who catered to the needs of the ordinary people. As times changed, the geisha came to be associated with tradition as a symbol of its aesthetic culture, and only those appreciative of an old lifestyle and willing to pay the high expense involved, continued to draw upon the services of the geisha for adding grace and charm to their parties. Since the upsurge of Japan in the 50s, geishas have been set aside for the elite.

'Odoreko' (dancing girls) receiving lessons from a geishaThe well-known geisha houses of Shinbashi, Akasaka, etc, in Tokyo were inaccessible to ordinary ‘first customers’. They were shown as “perpetually pre-engaged”. If one wanted to call a geisha from these prestigious houses, it was absolutely necessary to have the introduction and guarantee of a friend who knew her or whom she knew, as well as the explicit assurance of the tea-house mistress, where she was invited to come that the guest was safe and trustworthy. In fact, appointments were taken weeks in advance.

I vividly recall my first visit to a house of traditional geisha entertainment, where I was taken by my Japanese hosts. That was four decades ago. As we entered the premises, we were helped by a beautiful kimono-clad attendant to take off our shoes. We were then profusely greeted with words of welcome by the mamasan, the wise mentor of the geishas. We were surrounded by lovely hostesses who seated us upon the kneeling-cushions. Each guest became the charge of one of them, as she sat noiselessly by his side to serve him. The lacquered services were laid on the low table. They were smiling and flitting as if in a dream while pouring warm sake into the cup of each guest with delightful grace and dexterity. Then all at once, with a little burst of laughter two young beauties entered, made the customary prostration of greeting and sat in the front of us.

They were pretty and dressed in costly kimonos, made of brocade and silk with golden obis. They were girdled like queens with faces painted white like porcelain. The artistically arranged towering hair of each was decked with fresh flowers, wonderful combs and pins and curious ornaments of gold. They greeted us, as if they had always known us; they jested, laughed and uttered funny little cries. These were geishas, who with their smiles and play of eyes soon created a hallowed atmosphere, making every thing appear wondrous and blissful. To me, they appeared like apsaras from heaven as they dazzled me with their grace and charm.

They joined in a general chat for a few minutes on such topics as sport, kabuki business and even politics, which I could not follow much of, my knowledge of the Japanese language being rather limited. Soon, they glided into the open space at the farther end of the room and began singing and dancing. Their dance consisted wholly of graceful posturing. Two of them were dancing together with such synchronised steps and gestures as only years of training could render possible. It was more like acting,accompanied by a delightful waving of sleeves and fans and with a play of eyes and features, sweet, subtle and subdued. I gathered that they were relating some legend with the accompaniment of the samisen and a tiny drum played by a small girl sitting in a corner.

The maidens in attendance on us continued pouring sake — that warm pale rice wine which filled the veins with soft contentment, creating a faint sense of ecstasy through which the world seemed to become a happier place and the geishas seemed like maids of paradise as their voices rippled out with alluring sweetness, the world of an ancient song. Our happiness grew, but as midnight drew near, the tinkling sound of the samisen faded away and the geishas joined us to resume conversation. I was amazed at their repartee and wit. As we were about to part, I requested my hosts to convey my deep appreciation of their enchanting performance and how I was stirred by their stunning beauty and charm. As we got up to leave, the geishas escorted us to the door with parting bows and laughing cries of sayonara.

Geisha with 'Samisen' (18th century wood block print)The concept of the geisha demonstrates the Japanese ingenuity for gratifying human desire with an illusion of love mixed with youth and grace, but without regrets and responsibilities. A geisha appears at a party only as a “human flower”, to be looked at, not to be touched. She can enchant you with her music and dance, conversation and wit but no sexual advance is permissible. The familiarity which foreign guests at times permit themselves with geishas, though endured with smiling patience, is considered, by the Japanese, as a sign of vulgarity. Companionship with a geisha can lead to a sexual union after one is accepted as a patron or danna who then develops a private and exclusive relationship. The patron has to provide for the maintenance expenses of his playmate and confidante. The actual financial arrangement is handled most discreetly and never revealed to any one. As a rule, the patron pays all the geisha’s bills and when the original arrangement is concluded, he also pays a substantial commission to the mamasan.

This arrangement may be terminated by either party, but many of these relationships are long-lasting. In some cases, a geisha may be more loyal and more of a real partner than a wife. Even after having a patron, she goes on working as a geisha and goes out to entertain at parties, to sing and dance for other men. She usually assumes the name of her patron with a suffix chan and remains faithful to him. A geisha has the reputation of being discreet and trustworthy. She must never utter a word about her clients and their doings. It is also claimed in some quarters that there is a harmonious co-existence between a man’s geisha and his wife. One maintains a man’s home and bears his children, while the other plays with him. In the past, it was also common for the geisha and the wife to know and respect each other, as there was a clear division of their respective social roles.

The changing economic and social environment and easier availability of more casual forms of sex in Japan, have undermined the influence on the ageold geisha system which is now fighting against heavy odds. From over 10,000 during the mid-fifties, the number of geishas is now believed to be only a couple of thousand, almost all in Tokyo and Kyoto. The prestigious Geisha Association of Shinbashi is now reported to have only 100 members, compared to over 1,000 in pre-war days. The Japanese are extraordinary people; while they add western ways to their lifestyle they do not give up their old tastes. There is, therefore, a lingering hope that like their ageold Kabuki theatre, the institution of the geisha will also survive in the Land of the Rising Sun.