Japan’s strong influence from Chinese beauty trends, as well as a lack of artificial lighting in previous eras, are the predominant reasons that Geishas’s faces were painted a thick coat of white. Today the tradition continues although performances can now be seen under the intense lighting of today.
Geisha’s have been a cultural symbol for Japan, representing beauty and grace, dating as far back as the Heian Period. Having entertained the Japanese elite for centuries, their unique attributes, such as their white makeup, red lips, and kimonos, are a recognizable symbol of Japanese culture, and their poise and elegance live on to this day.
What is a Geisha?
A Geisha is a female hostess in Japan whose original focus is to entertain wealthy men, and training to become one is no easy feat.
With some girls starting training as young as 14 years old, Geisha’s are put through years of strenuous and demanding teachings, ranging from dancing and singing to learning musical instruments, while being able to carry an enchanting conversation with their male clientele.
Geisha’s advance overtime on a hierarchy system, starting out as “Maikos” before ascending into the prestigious role of a Geisha. To this day, Maiko’s primarily reside in Kyoto, with the highest qualification of Geisha residing in the Kamishichiken districts.
Problematic mistreatment of Geishas in the past included imprisonment and being forced to work as concubines. Fortunately, these standards of treatment no longer remain and Geisha is a respected community of women entertainers in Japan.
Why do Geisha’s paint their faces white?
Back in the Heian period, which took place between 794 A.D – 1185 A.D, Japan had a strong penchant for Chinese beauty practices.
The layering of white makeup on the skin achieved a bright, porcelain-like complexion, which was necessary for being able to stand out during performances since modern-day artificial lighting had not yet been invented and venues still were performed with dim candlelight.
The white face makeup also contrasted well with the characteristic, bright red lip, which helped to further hide any variance within their facial expressions so that they would always appear happy.
It is a common myth that Geisha’s reasoning for painting their faces white was centered around European beauty standards of having fair skin, and it’s a misconception that is still prevalent today.
Some other elements to a Geisha’s distinct looks also include a set of three expensive silk Kimonos along with hairpins and inner bindings which can weigh as heavy as 6.5 pounds.
The entire process of getting ready can take hours per day and can be quite daunting.
How do you become a Geisha?
To begin training as a Maiko, you must first audition to a Geisha training home. If accepted, you become a part of the family’s household and begin training rigorously for many years.
Maiko’s will train and work for up to 18 hours a day throughout the duration of their learning, and live in a dorm-like setting until they are deemed ready for their debut.
Once you are ready for your debut, your mother (who is the senior, retired Geisha of the household) will take you all around Kyoto to meet different clientele to build your book of business for your new career.
These young women work as Maiko’s for their first few years (typically until they turn twenty), before they have the choice to either retire or become an independent Geisha, also known as a Geiko.
While working as a Maiko, all proceeds go back to the family in exchange for room and board, and as reparation for their training. Once independent, Geisha’s can begin to keep their own hard-earned money.
They must keep in mind, however, that they are unable to get married and have children until they retire from the training or as a full Geisha.
What is a day-in-the-life of a Geisha?
Maiko’s typically serviced several clients per day and work 6 days a week. They must also always uphold their poise and charm in their day-to-day, as Geisha is considered to be a type of celebrity in Kyoto, so their every move is being watched.
It is a lot of work per day for very little pay, so many Maiko’s retires once they reach the age where they can do so. If you do become a Geiko, you have more independence with your schedule.
A typical Geisha or Maiko evening includes masterful conversation, followed by a performance playing a traditional shamisen (a three-stringed instrument, which bears resemblance to a banjo), as well as a fue flute.
Other responsibilities include singing and performing dance numbers, as well as showcasing their artistic talents and hosting games.
At the end of the day, a Geisha’s main purpose is to entertain and to obey the client’s demands contentedly and without fuss. They service their predominantly wealthy male clientele throughout restaurants and tea houses all over Kyoto.
Geisha’s and the modern world
Geisha are still a treasured part of Japanese culture. In fact, anyone visiting Kyoto can have the opportunity to meet a Geisha in real life (although, be prepared to pay a significant price for the opportunity).
While you may be able to catch a glimpse of one of the streets, please keep in mind that they are likely on their way to work, and it is disrespectful to disrupt their day or harass them with photos.
To witness a stunning and genuine Geisha performance, some Kaiseki Restaurants host frequent evening shows where you can enjoy an authentic Japanese meal and drinks while bearing witness first hand to all the hard work that is put into being a Geisha.
The nights tend to be high-energy and a lot of fun, making them a highlight for many visiting Japan who gets the rare opportunity to attend a performance.
Geisha continues to this day to be symbolic of feminine allure, mystery, and talent. Many Geisha’s make a very decent living, and although it is a lot of work, it allows them to maintain their sense of independence and is a source of pride within their community.
Overall, there are currently about 270 Geisha’s and Maiko’s working in the Gion District of Kyoto.