The Art of Geishas
by William Ryan
There is more to a geisha than meets the eye.
The term geisha refers to traditional, female entertainers, and hostesses and has been an integral part of Japanese culture since the 18th century. While physical beauty and sexual charm are associated with geishas, much more is required. Geisha means artist or performing artist. Proficiency in the Japanese arts of dance and music is an essential prerequisite for this occupation that requires at least one year of formal training. Geishas must also be able to converse intelligently with their clients on a wide range of subjects. In most parts of Japan, apprentices must be 18 years old. Historically, however, geisha training began at around the age of five. There are several stages of training, and each one could last for several years.
Geishas can be traced back to the 8th century. Wandering girls orphaned by tribal warfare sold themselves to survive. Those who were better educated entertained at elite social gatherings. This was the beginning of geisha culture, an occupation of subservience that would eventually, for many, come to signify Japanese female independence. By the mid 1800s, geisha style and fashion was being imitated by well-to-do Japanese women. Geishas flourished until World War II when most women were suddenly needed to work in factories as factory workers. This resulted in a sharp decline in geishas. After the war, Japan embraced Western ways and most geishas did not return to their former occupation. Those who returned were able to revive and preserve the tradition, but with more independence than before. Compulsory education laws effectively ended the traditional geisha apprenticeship. Many women who had learned business skills in teahouses eventually became successful entrepreneurs. They came to represent social independence and economic self-sufficiency for a new generation of Japanese women.