History of Geisha and Maiko

History of Geisha and Maiko
History of Geisha and Maiko
young pretty geisha in kimono with sakura and decoration

Whether or not you know a lot about Japanese culture, there is every chance that you have heard the term ‘geisha,’ even you have made assumptions about what the word means exactly. You might not be so familiar with the word ‘maiko.’ Read on to learn about the History of Geisha and Maiko.

There are several similar terms to geisha, and they mean essentially the same thing with a few tiny differences. They stem from the same word, “Gei,” which means entertainment. It assumes a level of skill in traditional Japanese dance or music. The “sha” element refers to a thing or a person, so “geisha” is a person who entertains. “Gi” is specifically a woman, so “Geigi” is a woman who entertains, and “Geiko” is a child who entertains – “ko” is a child. Men could also entertain, although by the time of the Meiji era, geisha had become a reference to women only.

A geisha wouldn’t entertain for just anyone. If you wanted to have a geisha at your party, you would notify the high end restaurant (ryotei) of your plans and they would organise the entertainers to suit your event and budget. While modern interpretations of a geisha character might assume that she is an adult worker, and some might have blurred lines, the primary role was entertaining.

Trainee Geisha

There is a separate word for a geisha who is still in training and not yet experienced enough to be given the full title, and that is “maiko.” They too would provide entertainment, generally playing music and dancing for guests at banquets and during big festivals up and down the country. A maiko would graduate to a geisha at around 20 years of age. The easiest way to tell the difference between a fully-fledged geisha and a maiko is to look at their hair. A Maiko wears her hair in a bun – ‘momoware’ – with floral decorations, and a geisha has a ‘shimada mage’ which is a more elaborate hairstyle with folds and sweeps. A geisha and a maiko also wear different kimonos. A fully-fledged geisha has a tsumesode kimono, which has deep sleeves we associate with a traditional kimono. A hikizuri is the very formal kimono dress worn by a maiko, and it is easily identified by its long length and padded hems, which trail on the ground.

Make up for Geisha and Maiko

A white face is another feature synonymous with both geisha and maiko. This effect is created using a special white powder, called oshiroi. The entertainers cover their faces and necks with oshiroi, and enhance the contrast with their features by bright red lipstick and eye make-up that consists of black eyeliner and a hint of red eyeshadow at the corner of their eyes. An older geisha might choose to stop wearing oshiroi, and sometimes oshiroi would cause problems for the geisha in later life with health problems caused by the lead content in the powder. Teeth would also be blackened as a sign of beauty, for all women and not just geisha. That is one particular example as to how beauty is often largely defined by culture as most western cultures would want quite the opposite! History of Geisha and Maiko – Today, geisha are cultured, artistic women in charge of their own businesses, and above all, they maintain a high level of professionalism.

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