Author: Marzena Ołtarzewska
Institution: Uniwersytet Warszawski
Year of publication: 2008
Source: Show
Pages: 73-86
DOI Address:
PDF: ap/11/ap1105.pdf


Beautiful, charming, well-educated and culture-literate ‘geishas’ bring to mind the picture of the Land of the Rising Sun. Despite the fact that the number of geishas has dramatically declined, they still remain one of the symbols of Japanese culture. What has also remained unchanged is the misperception of their profession, as they are still thought to be prostitutes. The purpose of this essay is to uncover the real portrait of these Japanese women of art.
The word ‘geisha’ was first used in the 18th century by a well-educated prostitute named Kiku, who started to sell not only her body but also her intellectual skills. At the beginning of the 19th century the geisha profession was legalized. In the second part of the century the legal distinction between geishas and prostitutes was established. Until 1957 it was not a girl’s choice to become a geisha. Sold by her parents, who could not afford to support her, she had no other option but to adapt to the difficult conditions of geishas’ kingdom hanamachi. The situation changed after World War II when Japanese women were given voting rights and licensed prostitution was banned.
So, what makes a woman become a geisha? Not only the specific type of clothing but also skills and knowledge. The journey to become a professional geisha is full of difficulties and recantations. It consists of the following stages: shikomi, when a candidate for geisha does cleaning and starts to learn elementary skills; maiko-minarai, when she learns by observing other geishas (after this stage she becomes an apprentice called maiko) and erikea, when she becomes a professional, skillful geisha.
Geishas’ main role is to keep company to guests visiting tea-rooms and traditional Japanese restaurants. ‘Keeping company’ means making them feel comfortable and relaxed by talking to them about various subjects, filling their empty glasses with sake, flirting with them, dancing, reciting poetry or playing instruments.

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