The Evolving Role of the Geisha
Japan History

Research Report
Web Resources


Painting of ancient geisha

 Japanese culture is very distinctive, from the prestige of the samurai to the art of kabuki theatre; the traditions of Japan are numerous and have developed throughout the various eras.  One aspect of the Japanese culture that is unique is the geisha. The traditions of the geisha are beautiful and create an environment for Japanese women that empowered them during the time when the women of the rest of the world were unable to have power.  This paper discusses the history of the geisha from its beginning form and what has affected the geisha to change during the years up to its decline.

Research Report

    The word geisha literally means performance person.  The geisha are the entertainment people of Japan that date back to the 1600s during the Edo Period.  The Japanese view geisha as professional entertainers.  However, the majority of the world thinks of a geisha as a white-faced lady with her hair in a bun and a kimono on.  The geisha are much more than women with too much make-up on.  To become a geisha, it takes years of training that begins when a young teenager is slowly transformed into an entertainer of high society.

    The roles of a geisha are intricate and numerous.  The first step in becoming a geisha is the actual decision.  Before, training would start as young as thirteen, but now due to mandatory education laws, geisha training starts around sixteen (Dalby).  In deciding to become a geisha one has to be willing to commit herself to living away from home, having intense schooling in geisha studies and working in a teahouse.  The teahouse is the traditional place for geisha entertainment.   Once the choice is made, the girl is then sent to live in an okiya, a geisha house, the place where the geisha of a certain teahouse live together.

    During the years of learning to be a geisha, the trainees are called maiko.  The maiko learns how to sing, dance and play traditional Japanese instruments during the day.  One such instrument is the shamisen, which is a three-stringed instrument that the geisha play during dinner entertainment at the teahouse.  Another instrument that the maiko may learn to play is the shakuhachi, a thick bamboo clarinet.  Learning to play these instruments makes one very prestigious in the geisha world.
The young girl also learns the proper customs and social skills that the geisha use in their teahouses.  When the maiko first start out in an okiya, they are given an onesan, or an older sister.  The bond that is to ensue is a lifelong bond that will result in the proper training of a geisha as well as a strong sisterhood between the older and younger geisha (Siegle).

    The maiko learns the social skills from her onesan by accompanying her to the teahouse to meet the customers.  It is here that the maiko observe how to be a geisha.  The focus of the geisha are to entertain the customers through their ability in the field of arts (Mishima). This entails not only stage performances of song, dance and instrument playing, but also interaction with the customers.  Making a conversation out of nothing and playing games to keep the customer amused are skills that are learned during the apprenticeship as a maiko.

Photo of geisha     The history of the geisha dates back to the early 1600s.  During this time of the Edo Period, the Japanese government was very focused on upholding morality.  This meant that entertainers and prostitutes were allowed to work if they were licensed and in a specific area of a city.  These areas of the city, usually located on the outskirts, were called the pleasure quarters.  This was the safe zone for fantasy, frivolity and luxurious display (Downer).  These pleasure quarters had walls built around them and were strictly controlled by the government.  These pleasure quarters of the different cities would later be famous for the geisha.

    When geisha entertainment first started, it was performed solely by men. The transition of male to female geisha varied depending on the city. It was not until after 1750 that the majority of geisha were female.  During this time, and even today, the association of a geisha and a prostitute are mistakenly blurred.  Through the years, there has been tight control of the geisha due to the strict regulation on entertainers and prostitutes.  The geisha worked mainly in teahouses; these teahouses were strictly for the geisha to entertain their customers.  The government established reforms in 1842, known as the Tempo Reforms.  These reforms were established in order maintain public morality.  The reforms wanted all “ladies of pleasure” to seek proper employment (Dalby). This led to the strict governing of the pleasure quarters until 1851.  The geisha were able to bypass the stipulation by learning to do the man’s job of setting up the tables of the teahouses.  Since the women learned how to set the tables, they were allowed to work in the teahouses and they would reappear during the meal to keep the men company.

    The 1860s is referred to as the beginning of the golden age of the geisha (Dalby). During this time in Japan, social status was very important to people.  The teahouses of the geisha offered a high-class environment in which the geisha presented women in a desirable yet respectable way.  The geisha were very fashionable, usually setting the trends for the Japanese women.  Besides this, the women were also popular for being loyal to their regular customers.  They made them feel that their company was truly what the geisha wanted as opposed to prostitutes who did their job solely for the money.

    The Proclamation of the Emancipation of Geisha and Prostitutes was established in October of 1872(Downer).  Once again, the government wanted the women of the pleasure quarters to look for occupations that were more proper. The geisha as well as the prostitutes’ debts were cleared and they were "allowed" to go home. However, the reason behind these reforms had to do with the fact that Japan wanted to uphold an image for itself as a nation worthy of stature in the world community.  These reforms were necessary in order to accomplish a bigger goal, to have other nations view Japan as a modern industrial power.

    In 1875, the geisha took on another role. The mayor of Kyoto wanted to revive the spirit of the city with a Spring Festival.  One of the main attractions that was advertised nationally as well as internationally were the dances performed by the geisha. This established the geisha as more than just entertainers at teahouses, but also as public entertainers.

    The standardization of geisha fees was established in 1886(Dalby).  Prior to the implementation, the government did not regulate how the teahouses charged for the services. The fee was often determined by the individual customer and the teahouse.  This regulation allowed the customers to be charged the same fee and the geisha all earned the same salary for working the same amount of time.  By setting income parameters, the geisha industry was taking a step towards becoming a more professional and presentable business.  Also in 1886, the government established a set of regulations in order to maintain control and tax the entertainment in the pleasure quarters.  The teahouses now had to record the customers that visited, how much they paid and how long the customers stayed.  During this time in Japan, the Meiji government focused more on changing the pleasure quarters into a legal way to spend leisure time and money.  It was during the Meiji period that the geisha was able to begin modernizing itself (Diaz).

    In 1895, the geisha established itself as a group.  For the first time, the individual geisha teahouses around Japan united to form commonplaces for wartime entertainment.  The victory of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 caused an increase in demand for entertainment.  This wartime entertainment took place at the teahouses and restaurants where geisha worked.  The National Conference of the Confederation of the Geisha Houses was formed in order to coordinate wartime activities of the teahouses in the different pleasure quarters of the Japanese cities (Downer).

    A few years later, the National Confederation of Geisha Houses was formed.  The Confederation established nationwide rules and standards for the geisha.  The geisha were officially considered public entertainers with specific guidelines that the women created themselves. The 1890’s were very prosperous for the geisha.  The geisha were known for their “true Japanese spirit”(Yamata).   The population of the geisha reached 25,000 in 1898.  Between the years of 1905 and 1920, there was a significant increase in the geisha population.  At the end of this groth spurt, the geisha reached its highest population.  Due to the large number of geisha, the confederation was slowly beginning to unravel.

    The 1920s brought on a struggle of what a geisha should be.   The modernization of the country questioned the role of the geisha once again.  However, unlike earlier, the geisha were unable to find common ground.  The confederation established  thirty-five years earlier was dismantled.  Japan as a country wanted to become westernized in order to become modernized.  This meant that the traditional Japanese ways were no longer desired.  From 1920 to 1930, the geisha slowly lost their fashion status due to the introduction of Western style clothing.  What used to be geisha was no more.  Since the 1930s, the main role of the geisha has gone from a high-class night entertainer to a curator of tradition.  The way of the geisha is still present today, but it appears to be slowly dying out due to the differences in social norms.  Traditional dress and entertainment are put aside and only appear for a holiday or special occasion.

    Today, the geisha are greatly shrinking in number.  They still have active roles as entertainers for hotels, nightclubs and special  traditional high-class restaurants called ryotei.  However, there is less demand for geisha in the modern society.  Young women now have many more opportunities in society to be independent and self-supportive.  One of the reasons that becoming a geisha was so desirable before was the highly prestigious and mysterious view that the people of the society had on the geisha.  It was one of the only jobs that women could hold that was acceptable and at the same time allowed the woman to be independent of her family and a male counterpart.

    With the fading out of the geisha comes the risk of the loss of the Japanese culture (Yamata).  The geisha have always played a significant role in keeping traditional Japanese entertainment alive.  The modernization of Japan puts the geisha at risk of vanishing in the creation of a new Japanese “pop” culture.  Although this may be the concern of many, I believe that the beauty and uniqueness of the geisha will allow it to never completely die out. However, the geisha have evolved into a new role within the Japanese culture, one of historic cultural identity.

Historical Significance

    The geisha of Japan have played a significant role in defining the culture of the country.  They leave a distinct mark on the minds of the international world. Their unique mannerisms and high demand as entertainers have allowed them to be a part of the Japanese culture for the last four centruies, slowling evolving to meet the demands of the upper-class in Japan as well as the regulations of the government.  Without these pressures, the geisha could not have evolved into the prestigious role it has today.  At a time when women in the world were unable to have control in a male dominated society, the geisha were able to lead an independent lifestyle in an undegrading way, thus further proving the uniqueness of Japan.


Dalby,Liza. Geisha. University of California Press, California. 1983.

Downer, Lesley. Women of the Pleasure Quarters . Broadway Books. NY. 2001

Siegle, Cecelia Segawa. Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of Japanese Courtesean.  University of Hawaii Press. Honolulu.1993.

Yamata, Kikou. Three Geishas.  The John Day Company. NY.1956.

Web Resources

Diaz, Naomi-Grahm. . January 2002. April 2002

Hakone Geisha Association. . April 2002

Mishima, Shizuko.JapaneseGeisha. April 2002.

Seawright, Caroline. Geisha-My Story. December 17, 2000. . April 2002.

Toth, Katalin. Decline of the Geisha Institution. 1997. . April 2002.

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