What is a geisha?

Geisha are traditional entertainers of Japanese arts and music specializing in Japanese dance, singing, and a variety of instruments including hand drum, shoulder drum, shamisen or Japanese flute. They train throughout their lives, are very highly skilled, and some of the older geisha are even “living national treasures”, the highest status of artist in Japan.

Geisha under the age of 20 or so are called maiko in southern Japan, and hangyoku in northern Japan. After a year of preparation, new geisha debut either as hangyoku or as geisha depending on their age at the time they debut.

Geisha are called out to tea-houses or to events, functions and parties, to entertain. This kind of tradition of private entertainment was very common in the West too in previous centuries. Bach or Mozart would have been called out to play at the parties of lords and the nobility. In the West, this former tradition of private entertainment has largely evolved into large-scale public entertainment like ballet, or opera. In Japan, geisha also perform at large public events and annual dances, but the former tradition of small-scale private entertainment, where customers have a private meal at a tea-house with friends or acquaintances and call in geisha to entertain them as they eat and drink – i.e. a geisha banquet – has remained in Japan to the present day.

Geisha are very cultured independent businesswomen with their own customers, some of whom have been patrons for decades, and they often manage younger geisha too. Like any Western artist or musician or actress, they can and do fall in love and have relationships, but this is always entirely a private matter and never part of the job.

This content is also available in: Japanese

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