JLPT BC 97 | The Geisha Misconception

JLPT BC 97 | The Geisha Misconception post image
geisha misconception

For better or worse, these things are not equal.

The word geisha tends to conjure up a certain image.  A lot of people have the misconception that geisha are professional prostitutes, but that actually really isn’t the case.  They have a pretty long history that doesn’t involve the world’s oldest profession.

In fact, the word geisha is written with two kanji, 芸 and 者.  The first kanji, 芸, has a basic meaning of art or artistic skill. And the second kanji, 者, is a kanji that is often used as a suffix to mean ‘a professional who does ~’  So together, the word geisha, has the literal translation of a professional art doer or more simply, artist.


And their profession requires a significant amount of training that can take several years and a lot of money.  Originally, girls started training to be geisha at the age of 4.  This was obviously more of a choice of the parents than what the girls really wanted.

In modern Japan, the decision to become a geisha is a personal choice made by girls that want to go into the profession.  They can start geisha training after middle school, high school, or college.

The training involves learning a lot of the traditional arts like playing the shamisen, shakuhachi, and drums.  They also learn other traditional arts like calligraphy, dances and tea ceremony.

A Rare Sight

The number of geisha used to be around 80,000 in the 1920s, but that number has significantly dwindled.  There are no reliable statistics,but the number is general believed to be between 1,000 and 2,000 geisha today.

You’ll sometimes see ‘geisha’ in the Gion district or around Kyoto in general.  These ‘geisha’ are usually just tourists that have paid to dress up like geisha.  There are a few places in Kyoto where they will dress up like geisha or if you are guy, a samurai, so that you can walk around in style.

The Business

Geisha now perform at tea houses, called お茶屋 in Japanese, or traditional Japanese restaurants called  料亭.  They are paid by the number of incense sticks that burn during their performance and different geisha have different 線香代 or incense stick fee that patrons pay.

There have been a few non-Japanese geisha.  The most notable westerner is Fiona Graham from Australia.  She trained to become a geisha as part of an anthropological study.  She was unfortunately disaffiliated by the Asakusa Geisha association, apparently because they didn’t believe she was going to be a full-time geisha.

Geisha = prostitutes?

So, you might be wondering where this misconception of geisha being prostitutes comes from.  Well, during the occupation of Japan after World War II, very few geisha were working because no one could really afford geisha in a time of reconstruction.

And also during this time, prostitution was still legal in Japan, so there were professional prostitutes that fashioned themselves as ‘geisha girls’.  And that is how, unfortunately, geisha became synonymous with prostitution.

What do you think?

Would you want to be a geisha?  Do you think it is a dying art that should be preserved?  Let me know in the comments below.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • annab October 28, 2012, 9:24 am

    Sayuki (http://www.sayuki.net) is still working as an independent geisha in Tokyo. She debuted in Asakusa and worked there for nearly four years until her geisha mother retired. Now she is working with geisha from all the districts in Tokyo. She is working to make it easier for first-time customers to meet geisha and you can book banquets through her web-site apparently. She also lectures at Keio University on traditional Japanese culture.

    • Mac October 28, 2012, 10:47 am

      Yeah, I saw her site. I saw that she is operating as an ‘independent geisha internationally and the world’, but the site seems a little dead, comments have been turned off, and the comments on the gallery have gone unanswered, so I’m not sure how active she is. Even her Facebook is a little quiet:


      Anyway, it would be interesting to see her make progress for non-Japanese entering the geisha world, but I’m not sure how active she is.

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