Geisha’s Traditional Custom: Hassaku

Throughout the world, different groups of people have various kinds of holidays. Some of them, such as Christmas, are celebrated world widely. Others, however, are so unique that only certain group of people celebrate them and carry out the customs. For such a distinctive society as geisha’s karyukai, they for sure have their own special traditional holidays, and one of them is the Hassaku.

Hassaku (八朔) is on August 1. In Japanese, Hachi means eight and saku is the first day of each month. It is also called Tanomi (田の実), which literally means the fructification of fields. Originally, Hassaku meant August 1 of lunar calendar, when the first harvest of rice had occurred. Farmers would give out this first rice to their relatives, friends, and neighbors. One reason behind this custom is to share the joy of harvest. Another reason is to pray for a bigger foison of the second harvest, which is far more important than the first one. As time went on to Edo period, the custom had been changed completely. The day of Hassaku became a day to express your gratitude toward others. People would prepare presents for those who had helped them or taken care of them, especially for people like their teachers or seniors. Nevertheless, the tradition of Hassaku is forgotten and nowadays, most people no longer carry out this meaningful activity.

However, as Japan traditional culture preservers, geisha still perform this little-known custom. Today, on the day of Hassaku in solar calendar, geisha will put on their most formal kimono, the black one with crests on it, to visit various places to show their gratitude. The most important places are where their teachers live. Since arts are a significant part of geisha’s everyday lives and they spend a great amount of time on practicing these arts, teachers are for sure the people they appreciate the most. Aside from their teachers’ houses, they will also go to the teahouses where the banquets they usually attend are held. This is not only to thank the teahouses for always taking care of them, but also to politely ask teahouses to continue their support in the future.

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As the time keeps moving on, more and more traditions are sure to be faded out of people’s memory. Fortunately, Japan has geisha to serve as traditional culture protectors. Otherwise, the meaningful holiday of expressing appreciation might lose forever.


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Shimoda District geishas


In the Shimoda, Shizuoka prefecture, there was an effort to save the traditional art of “Geishas.” “Shimoda city plans to pay the wages of three prospective geisha for six months from October, along with providing training in dance, singing the “nagauta” long epic song and playing the samisen.”(Sakamoto,2011) Tsuyako Kashiwaya, from the only remaining geisha management office in Shimoda stated how grateful she was for the donation made my the city. She also explained how when geishas thrived in the area, there were about up to two hundred geishas but now that number dropped down to only five. Shimoda city planned the project of revitalizing the geisha to allow tourists to see the geisha in training to experience the atmosphere of traditional Japanese culture. “Shimoda’s geisha entertainers have performed famous local dances and songs such as “Tojin Okichi” (Okichi, mistress of a foreigner) and the “Shimoda-bushi” shanty.”(Sakamoto,2011)


Picture of Shimoda District geishas

Talking about geishas in Shimoda, there was a famous story about a geisha who fell in love with a foreigner. At the time(1854) being seventeen, Okichi was the most beautiful and most popular geisha in Shimoda city. Although she was working at a local carpenter called Tsurumatsu, originally, local officers one day ordered her to move to Townsend Harris to work there. Townsend Harris was the “first American Consul to serve in Japan after Commodore Matthew Perry negotiated trading rights between the countries.”(Toyama,2014) Okichi was said to be sent there to serve Perry because by rumor, Perry had very poor health and needed a nurse to serve him.


Picture of Okichi(Age 19)

There is no true fact of how long she served him for but some say for only three days and others say that she served the foreigners until the closure of the American consulate. At the time in Japan, “becoming a mistress of Western men was regarded as shame and Kichi was despised as ‘Toujin’.”(Okada,2010) Due to the fact that she was shunned from society and branded as a traitor for helping foreigners, Okichi slowly indulged herself into alcohol and eventually commit suicide by jumping into the Inouzawa river.

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Dogu for Tea Ceremony

Tea ceremony is one of the necessary skills that a maiko has to acquire in her first few years of training. It is a Japanese tradition that requires knowledge and preparation.

In Japan, tea utensil is called Dogu. Prices of these dogu can be extremely high for those made by famous artist or antique tools, and because even the most basic tea ceremony would need a full list of dogu, it takes a small fortune for geishas to purchase them.

The followings are some of the most important and basic dogu for holding a tea ceremony:

The first dogu is a tea caddy. It is a tall and thin container for tea power and is usually ceramic. When a caddy is not being used, it is stored in decorative bags known as Shifuku as protection from breaking.

Second is a tea bowl. This is the bowl where tea power is put in. Hot water will be poured in and mixed to make tea. Tea bowls can vary in sizes and styles. For example, because shallow bowls allow tea to cool faster, they are used in the summer. And deeper bowls are used in the winter to keep the tea hot for longer. Best bowls are made my hand, and some artist would even add powered gold for design.

Third is a tea scoop. Tea scoop is used to scoop the tea powder from tea caddy into the tea bowl. It is either a thin piece of bamboo or ivory.

The fourth dogu is a tea whisk. Geishas use these tea whisks to mix the tea powder with hot water. They are made from bamboos, but it which kind of bamboos used depends on the kind of tea served.

Then comes the Fukusa. It is a square silk cloth used to clean the guest’s cup and the tea scoop in the beginning of the ceremony. There are different colors for men and women, and are also made with different quality of silk.

Similarly, a white linen cloth is also needed for the ceremony but to clean the tea bowl and dry the bowl after use.

Six is the long bamboo ladle that carries water from the pot to the tea bowl. Different sizes of ladles are used during different ceremonies and different seasons.

Iron pots are the next to contain hot water for making tea. They are usually rounded and have diverse shapes of mouths. They often have shape of an ogre face, biting lion, mountains, or bamboo shoots.

Last is a waste water replacement. In the beginning, the geisha would clean the tea caddy with hot water in the tea bowl. And the waste water will be poured into this waste water replacement. It is made of metal, clay, or wood.




Summer Placement of Utensils


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The FIRST Geisha

Although what comes up in people’s mind is usually a woman dancing in kimono when they hear the word “Geisha”, the first geisha in history was actually men. Called taikomochi or houkan, the first geisha’s role was similar to those of jester’s in the 13th century Japan.

Taikomochi focused mainly on dancing, but they also entertained their lords with playing shamisen, performing tea ceremony, and storytelling that included humor and conversation. In addition, taikomochi acted as advisors of the army in strategizing, and would sometimes fight along with their lords in battle.



However, during the 17th century where Japan was in peace, those taikomochi were no longer as useful to their lords. Because the need for military advising lessened tremendously, taikomochi became pure entertainers, who were then employed along with high-class female courtesans.

Oiran_in_Japan_in_1917(Japanese Courtesans)

Within the courtesans, many offered their lords more than sex. They also became skilled in singing, dancing, and music similar to those male geishas. Around the mid 17th century, the first female geisha called a geiko emerged. Named Kikuya, she was a proficient singer and shamisen player which made her a prominent success.

Because of this, more females and many of the courtesans decided to work as pure entertainers. Their popularity grew so quickly that in less then 25 years, geiko outnumbered taikomochi. Male geishas even had to use the name of otoko geisha in order to not get confused with female geishas. As female reign took over, taikomochi’s job slowly turned into supporting the geikos, and the role of a geisha became widely considered as a female’s vocation.



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Katy Perry’s Geisha-inspried AMAs Performance

Katy Perry’s performance at the American Musical Awards on November 24th, 2013 triggered a huge racial debate. Inspired my geisha, she appeared in powdery white makeup and a cleavage-baring kimono to perform her new song “Unconditionally”. While some people believed it is a clear act of racism against Japanese, others enjoyed and celebrated her success.

People in opposition to Katy’s performance thought she was mocking Japanese culture and repeating the stereotype on Japanese women. First, her appearance did not qualify as geisha at all. Her make up was for fashion rather than professional geisha make-up, and the kimono she was wearing was also inappropriate. It was not in formal patterns, and real geishas do not reveal their bodies since it is improper. However, Katy’s did not only show her cleavage, but opened her legs widely while singing.

197f8sq0t0y7ijpg Second, many people thought Katy specifically choose to dress in Japanese style for the lyric of her song:

[Unconditional, unconditionally
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally

So come just as you are to me
Don’t need apologies
Know that you are all worthy
I’ll take your bad days with your good
Walk through the storm I would
I do it all because I love you
I love you l love you]

This song is basically about being submissive and self-sacrificing to your lover, which presented the stereotype of how Asian women, especially Japanese and geishas would present themselves as servile and passive for other men, and pay any price just to keep him satisfied.

Others who appreciated Katy’s performance believed that she did not have the racist intention but simply wanted to gain attention, or show the audience what she is passionate in. According to Katy’s response, she thought geishas are masters of loving unconditionally and she was just trying to give a performance about a place with much love. Many young Japanese people on twitter also showed they were proud that Katy “gave a nod to Jpn culture” and thought it was a “tasteful, visual feast.”



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Perception of Geisha in Modern Japan

In their book “Bad Girls of Japan” published in November 2005, anthropologist Laura Miller and professor of Japanese humanities, Jan Bardsley highlighted several reasons which may have contributed to the negative perception of Geisha in modern Japan since their initial emergence. Their perceived negative influence was so severe that in 1629, the top Kyoto government administration placed a ban on female performers as they were deemed to have brought about detrimental changes to the ideal social dynamics. Although this was primarily due to men were spending too much money, time and emotional attention on the female performers than they should on their own family, the reasons below were thought to have also played a part in the construction of a geisha’s poor public image.

1. Geishas do not conform to their expected feminine roles.

From the shirabyoshi imperial dancers in the 700s to the modern performers, women who dedicate themselves to art and fame ignite doubt and disapproval. Geishas were especially susceptible to such scrutiny as they stay involved in this profession that is otherwise preferred to be taken up by men, practically for their whole life. Geisha usually do not form or attend to their own families in order to fully present themselves to their arts trainers and the customs of the ryu, and more glaring is this symbolism when a Geisha adopts the name of the ryu instead of their husband’s family name. This issue is especially magnified in modern Japan today. As the country fearing over the shrinkage in potential tax base scrambles to find a solution to the declining birthrate, women who do not bear offspring are commonly perceived as self-centred and not contributing to the society.

2. Geishas play musical instruments traditionally played by men.

The shamisen has predominantly been viewed as a male-oriented instrument since it came to prominence at around 1563. It was the signature instrument of blind male performers (hoshi) influenced by the biwa tradition, and even though it was women who introduced the shamisen into the short-lived period of women Kabuki, the themes for the Kabuki (nagauta) has always been and is still reserved for men as players, teachers, conductors and writers. The only elements going against the grain are the geisha, who have traditionally played the shamisen within zones frequented by men, teahouses as well in areas not permitted by law. Owing to the poor association that the shamisen has with geisha, women married to, or born in financially abled and educated families would avoid the instrument. Even in modern Japan, girls from upper-class families might be encouraged to pick up the koto, violin, or piano, but they would likely be discouraged from learning shamisen, even though there are increasing numbers of high-ranking female (non-geisha) professional concert performers.

3. Geishas are perceived to be promiscuous.

Despite widespread acknowledgement that geishas are immensely talented in their field of artistic expression, their very profession that requires them to perform for different men instead of one leads to the unfounded notion that they develop personal relationships with multiple patrons. While societies across the globe may be more forgiving towards men with more than one sexual partner, women tend to receive even harsher criticism if she received compensation of any sort. Geishas were particularly prone to prostitution claims if she was sexually involved with a man from whom she receives money, shelter, or presents. Some of the uneasiness the public feels toward geisha traces from the fact that their patrons are often married men, evoking sympathy for the wives home alone, and inspiring contempt towards the geishas who are portrayed as irresistible sex objects that no man can refuse. Those who have actually witnessed ozashiki are often surprised, however, to see that wives (as well as other women) actually join these gatherings and that the mood is usually lighthearted.

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Free Topic – Of Geisha and Sex

During the Edo-period, the constitution of legal prostitution was a complex hierarchy of women who provided sexual services for a reward. Those nesting at the top of the hierarchy were lauded the same way A-list entertainers are today, while those at the foot were seen as mere streetwalkers. Geishas were, however, never place in a category near any of these women, on account that their form of entertainment was entirely different from prostitution. Henceforth in 1958, when the orderly of regulated (and legal) sex-for-sale was abolished, the practices of a geisha suffered no disturbance owing to the legacy of their profession, that geisha were never licensed as prostitutes by definition.

However, it is not a given that all geisha were code abiding and free of improper conduct. They were found to have engaged in underhand dealings, vying with courtesans and licensed prostitutes, prompting the feudal government to issue edicts consistently to reinforce their understanding of their social position. Their role as geisha, which directly translates to “a person of art”, was to perform for the courtesans and their clients, providing entertainment in the form of music, dance, and light social banters. Geisha were not permitted to have a rendezvous with a client on their own, despite the prevalence of such rule bending – or it would have been completely unnecessary for the flood of edicts. However, sexual relations with a geisha were never of a sex-for-money kind of simplicity. With families traditionally dictating marriages, prostitutes and courtesans readily abound, geisha offered the possibility of that rarest of commodities, romance.

It has been about 60 years since the Allied Occupation of Japan, the period which plays a prominent role in constructing the image of geishas as universal sex symbol. Fast-forward to modern Japan after several cycles of economic boom and gloom, a geisha’s sex life appears to be just as mysterious now as it was back then. The rumor mill never stops churning stories on the availability of a geisha, the activities behind closed-door banquets, including the sale of their virginity to the most generous buyer – no thanks in part to the widespread popularity of half-fictitious novels such as Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.

A direct and definitive equation between geisha and sex might never be derived. One reason is that there just isn’t an establishment in the western society that can be closely compared to that of the geisha. Similarities can be drawn between certain professions in the west to that of a geisha, but nothing will match as close to level of cultural relevance and authenticity. A deconstructive analysis of the geisha community may allow us to see them as a religious order. Geisha do not wed, but they may have offspring. They live in structured professional communities comprising of only females – complete with a wide sisterhood and a mother. But contrastingly, it is in more ways than one unlike a religion as geisha often entice men into extramarital affairs, and may engage in sexual tryst at their own discretion. After all, they make their living from performing and engaging in conversations with men at banquets. They dedicate most of their private time to acquiring and practicing various forms of traditional art, and their prescribed dress code for work is the kimono, although not always in full battle gear. And in case of the latter, most Westerners would not even be able to tell that they are geisha.

There is no denying that pressurized sex and auction of a new geisha’s virginity took place in the period before the Second World War, the backdrop to Golden’s novel. After Japan was defeated, most geishas had packed their bags and the particular culture was in ruins. When they reassemble during the Occupation and garnered further attention to the art in the 1960s as Japan’s economy thrived, the essence of being a geisha has evolved. In modern Japan, girls are no longer tied down by obligatory debts, nor are they pressured into any kind of sexual relation. A geisha’s sex life is, and will always remain her private affair.


Peabody Essex Museum (2004). Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile. Salem, MA: George Braziller

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Geisha District – Kamaishi

The birthplace of Japan’s first steel mill blast furnace, Kamaishi began blooming even before the Meiji Restoration began Japan’s transition into a modern, industrial society. Built in 1857, the furnace was initially established to provide the steel needed for modern weaponry to protect the country.

The peak of the city’s prosperity was most likely in the 1950 and 1960s, when approximately 12,000 people were hired by the mill, and the town had a population count of more than 90,000. Post-Edo period, the Meiji Government concentrated Kamaishi’s iron works and redeveloped the infrastructure by improving the port capabilities and building one of the country’s first railway track, hence producing what would be known today as a milestone for the iron and steel industry in Japan.

The collective existence of a once-bustling steel industry, a port, and a pioneering railroad access possibly laid the foundation for a Geisha district to bloom in Kamaishi. In its heydays, there used to be about 100 or so geisha working in Kamaishi. However, Nippon Steel winded its business in 1988, as the steel mills was faced with a series of poor economic growth and increased competition from foreign rivals, putting thousands out of work. The town’s population has steadily declined to about 40,000 now.

With the dwindling amount of residents, its former steel-making glory settled to dust, and insufficient tourist traffic, the number of Geishas working the Kamaishi naturally declined as a result. It also did not help that Kamaishi was overly exposed to conflicts and disasters – having ploughed through devastating US air raids in World War II and three major tsunamis.

Tsuyako Ito attracted global media attention immediately after the 2011 tsunami, when she was duded “the last working geisha in Kamaishi”. According to Ito, all the Geishas have since left and she was the only one keeping the art alive in Kamaishi.

Ito, now 89, experienced all three tsunamis and the bombardments during the war. But it was the 2011 tsunami that proved the most devastating. Her home and her prized possessions – including kimonos and musical instruments used in her performances – and more tragically, her past patrons, were swept away by the disaster. She vowed to continue working as a Geisha then, but only until she retires at 88.


Can Kamaishi, Japan recover from the Tsunami? (2013, October 18). Retrieved from

Kamaishi (2014, August 27). Retrieved from

Japan steel city’s ‘last geisha’ defies tsunami (2011, March 29). AFP News. Retrieved from

Japanese geisha, 85, vows to continue performing in tsunami-hit home town (2011, March 23). The Guardian. Retrieved from

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How to become a Geisha these days?

1. Respond to Print Ads

By the early 90s, and for the first time in their 400-year history, Kyoto’s geisha houses began advertising in the mainstream media, in the form of print advertising. “How about maiko-san as a next career?” said a Kyoto ad in the popular magazine Travel Hand-book. “If you’re interested in becoming maiko-san, please give us a call”. Kazuo Seto, head of a geisha association in the Kamishichiken district, said that a chronic shortage of geishas forced him to take the ad in the travel magazine, a move that was otherwise unheard of up till that point.

2. Internet Recruitment

The teahouses of Gion have also caught up with the wave and ease of using technology as a recruitment instrument. According to a recent report in the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper, the use of the Internet has helped increase the number of maikos who entered an okiya teahouse this spring. Like most Japanese businesses, the teahouses in Gion and the other pleasure quarters hire their new employees once a year, in April, and the current number in the city totals 75, the most in a decade.

3. By contacting the guild

The Kyoto Traditional Musical Art Foundation (Ookini Zaidan) was founded with the vision to pass on the music and dance distinct of Kyoto to younger generations. The Ookini Zaidan’s website lists several requirements for those seeking a career as a maiko, and subsequently a geisha. Applicants must have graduated from junior high school, be less than 18 years old, and obtained parental consent. In addition, the list emphasizes the importance of “overwhelming patience” and gumption. If the guild recognizes an applicant to possess potential to be a good candidate, they will recommend the applicant to an Okiya which that might be interested in grooming the applicant to be a geisha.

4. Enrolling to specialized schools

Higashiyama Joshi Gakuen is an all-girl high school located in Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, and supported by the Hanamachi business. Graduates from the school should not expect to get a high school proficiency certificate as it is a specialized school for maiko-in-training, as well as girls with immense interest in traditional Japanese performance art. In the school, students will learn various types of dance, music instruments, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement. The entire term of study in this school will require 5 years, and maikos are allowed to exceed this stipulated term length. While graduation from Higashiyama Joshi Gakuen does not guarantee a student’s transition to a full-fledged geisha, it is considerably as close an experience as it can get to the authentic rigor and artistic knowledge a geisha would acquire during her training.


Japan tries to recruit geishas (1991, June 23). The Bulletin. Retrieved from,5540433&hl=en

Maiko: Internet Recruitment (2006, April 25). Retrieved from

‘Maiko’ fever strikes Kyoto (2008, May 25). The Asahi Shimbun. Retrieved from

東山女子学園. Retrieved from

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Ganrin-in Geisha District of Nara

Nara was the former capital of Japan before Kyoto in Nara period (around 1300 years ago) and later then developed into a big commerce city in Edo period. The city is in the neighborhood of Kyoto and famous for its UNESCO World Heritage Site of seven great buddhist temples. As geisha always gathered in these kind of prosperous area, those wealthy merchants back then and the historical attractions nowadays are the primary reasons that keep a geisha district be able to maintain its business there even until now.

Sarusawa Pond view

Ganrin-in geisha district is a hidden gem that not many people know about in Nara, situated in the south of Kofuku-ji temple (one of the World Heritage) and laid nearby the Sarusawa Pond. It was once flourished as the home to capital geishas in the early Meiji period. The district in its blossom days used to have popularity rivaled with that of Gion – the most prestigious geisha district in Kyoto. Piture below shows once there were more than 200 geishas and maikos in Nara at its peak.


However, its glory unfortunately did not last long. Those lively days began to fade as Nara was left behind in the Kanto region modernization. As a result, the number of wealthy merchants who pay for banquets decreased each year, the local citizens also gradually adapted to typical quiet lifestyle inside the city, where not many young people interested in becoming a geisha anymore. Lack of young maiko supplement is an inevitably sign that the geisha district is dying out. In order to preserve this valuable long-tradition district, an academic from Tezukayama University and a senior Nara’s geisha named Kikuno have worked on various projects to seek for supporters and help Ganrin-in district regained its attentions from the old days.

Video:  The traditional Geisha of Nara may be saved by groups of patrons

(Please click the tab “Shortlist” in the right side of the video for translated script.)



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