Asian Heritage Month Blog Event:
The Japanese Geisha: Part 2
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez
The Stages of Training for Geisha
The hangyoku are girls young as nine-years-old who begin their training to become geisha and are usually bonded to geisha houses called the okiya. This eventually disappeared in the 1950’s with the outlawing of child labour.
Otherwise, daughters of geisha were often brought up as geisha themselves becoming the atotori (“heiress”) and successor or msume-bun (“daughter-role”) to the okiya.
A maiko is a geisha apprentice and is bonded under a contract to her okiya. The okiya supplies her with food, board, kimonos, obis (sashes), and other tools for her training. Her debt must be repaid to the okiya with her earnings and may continue after she becomes a full-fledged geisha. She is only permitted to move out of the okiya to live and work independently once her debts are settled.
A maiko will start her formal training as a minarai, which means “learning by watching.” But she must first find an onee-san (“older sister”), an older geisha who will act as her mentor.
Minarai usually work with a particular minarai-jaya (tea house) learning from the okaa-san (“mother”), the proprietress of the house. This stage lasts about a month.
In the final stage of training, the students are called maiko (“dance girl”) who are apprentice geisha. This stage can last for years while the maiko learn from their senior geisha mentor. The onee-san (“older sister”) and imouto-san (“younger sister”) relationship is crucial. The onee-san teaches her maiko everything about working in the hanamachi (“flower street,” which refers to a geisha district) and will teach the proper ways of serving tea, dancing, the art of conversation and more. She will also help pick the maiko’s new professional name with kanji (Japanese characters).
Maiko look very different from fully qualified Geisha:
The collar of a maiko’s kimono hangs very loosely in the back to accentuate the nape of the neck, which is considered a primary erotic area in Japanese sexuality. She wears the same white makeup for her face and on her neck, leaving two or three stripes of bare skin exposed. Her kimono is elaborately tied with obi hanging down to her ankles. She takes very small steps and wears traditional wooden shoes called okobo which stand almost ten cm high.
There are five different hairstyles that a maiko wears that mark the different stages of her apprenticeship:
The Nihongami (traditionally, two sides of the hair stick out until it curves to the back) hairstyle is with kanzashi (hair-ornamentation strips) and is associated with the maiko’s womanhood, as it came from a pulled knot in the ofuku hairstyle that a maiko would wear after her mizuage (her first sexual experience). Before that, the maiden wareshinobu style was worn.
Around the age of 20–22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha in a ceremony called erikae (“turning of the collar”) and can now charge full price for her skills and her time.
Here is a video clip of a maiko or geisha putting on her makeup:
Here are more excellent books on the geisha:
Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda
Geisha: A Photographic History, 1872-1912 by Stanley B. Burns and Elizabeth A. Burns
To see my collection of images of Geisha, you can visit the My Geisha board on Pinterest.
To see more postings for the Asian Heritage Month Blog Event, please visit here.