What is a geisha's job description?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff Mom Never Told You from Howstuffworks.com.

Cristen Conger: Hey there, and welcome to the podcast. This is Cristen.

Molly Edmonds: And this is Molly.

Cristen Conger: So Molly, I don't know about you but I think in 11th grade, maybe 10th grade, there were two books that were going around all the girls in my grade. Everyone was passing around Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which I will just bury and let rest, and Memoirs of a Geisha.

Molly Edmonds: I remember that one.

Cristen Conger: Yeah. I think they made it into a movie a couple years ago. Everyone just loved it. They were like, oh, you gotta read Memoirs of a Geisha, so I borrowed my friend's copy, read it, and thought it was just this magical world. But, come to find out that the person who the memoir was based on actually ended up suing the author because of all the misrepresentations of the life of a geisha.

Molly Edmonds: Right. She thought that he kind of missed the mark, and I think it's very easy to miss the mark with geisha. I think they're pretty misunderstood. A lot of people seem to associate them with prostitutes.

Cristen Conger: Right, but the fact of the matter is they aren't prostitutes at all. But people are still enamored with this idea of the geisha because they have the kimono, the white make-up, and just look like something out of another time that are still around. They're mostly concentrated today in Kyoto and Tokyo, but tourists have become so obsessed with trying to get a photo of them that the government officials in Kyoto have had to put up signs telling people to leave the geisha's alone.

Molly Edmonds: Right, and so I think that people think they're getting this photo of an extravagant Japanese prostitute, but today we're gonna take a more accurate look at what a geisha's job description actually is.

Cristen Conger: Right, and I just caught myself saying geishas, but in fact, geisha is both singular and plural, so I should have said geisha. So here on out, geisha.

Molly Edmonds: Geisha, and I'm just gonna go ahead and say that while we did look up how to pronounce a lot of these Japanese words, I don't know if we're gonna get them all exactly right.

Cristen Conger: But we will give it a solid effort.

Molly Edmonds: We are going to try.

Cristen Conger: So geisha is a Japanese word for a person of art, and basically, a geisha is a professional hostess who spends many, many years mastering musical instruments, singing, dancing, and all of the art of being a perfect hostess.

Molly Edmonds: And that word is key, Cristen, perfect. They basically have to be the representation of the perfect woman.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, this all harkens back to the time when Japanese women were really excluded from mainstream society, and the original geisha were actually men because women wouldn't have been allowed to be associating with businessmen like they do today.

Molly Edmonds: That's correct, Cristen. So there are few theories on how geisha became female rather than male. One story is that there were these female artists who wanted to steal business from prostitutes by hiring themselves out to sing and dance. Instead of hiring a prostitute for your party, you would hire a geisha. Another one has a failing prostitute taking a job as a geisha to make some extra money, and she was more successful as a geisha than she was as a prostitute. I mean, I don't know what that says about her, but I basically, I think that's where the association with prostitution came up. They were aiming for the same business.

Cristen Conger: Right, but the government actually set up really strict rules for geisha concerning how they had to dress, where they could go, and the hours that they could keep, kind of, to delineate them from prostitutes.

Molly Edmonds: But that only made them more popular because it made them sort of more restricted, more unavailable, more exotic, so this was a very popular career choice for women, especially when they didn't have many paths to travel as working women.

Cristen Conger: Yeah. A lot of poor families would send their daughters to geisha houses to learn the art, and eventually hopefully take over the geisha house. So let's talk a little bit about the training process of becoming a geisha because it takes about as much time to become a geisha as it does to be trained as a doctor. It's very intensive.

Molly Edmonds: Right, like you think you left college with a four-year degree in music. Try being a geisha who spent six years studying the arts in music, dance, tea ceremony, language, hostessing; that's a lot of study.

Cristen Conger: It is a lot of work. When a potential geisha first arrives at the okiya or the teahouse, or the geisha house, she first becomes an apprentice. You have to go through - much like a doctor, you have to go through a period of apprenticeship, learning all of these things before you can do the real deal.

Molly Edmonds: And it's all sort of overseen by kind of like a housemother and a big sister. So you come in and you are in this very female dominated society, and that's how you're going to learn these very traditional arts.

Cristen Conger: You're going to study singing, as we mentioned, and traditional Japanese dances, tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, a variety of instruments. I think there's a three-stringed banjo, and other types, maybe like a flute or other wind instruments that a geisha might study as well.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, that's the thing I remember from reading Memoirs of a Geisha. She was always playing her shamisen, the three-string banjo.

Cristen Conger: Right because they have to be perfect. Even once you become a maiko, or an apprentice geisha, you then start having to wear, sort of, prep clothes. You wear these oversized kimonos with sleeves that reach all the way down to the floor so you can learn how to pour tea or sake without getting your sleeve into the tea or sake, and you wear these really elaborate headdresses that are very heavy, very confining shoes. It's not an easy outfit to wear.

Molly Edmonds: Yeah, you're all, sort of, decked out in this, and you have to know all these things so that if you're called on to do any of them, you can just do them at a drop of the hat. This is one thing that geisha learned that I wish that I could learn somehow is they have these classes where you learn how to flatter a shy man, an arrogant man, or a disinterested man. You learn how to deal with every single type of guy you're going to possibly encounter in your line of work, and that takes some skill to be able to deal with every type of person in a society.

Cristen Conger: Sure, right because as we mentioned earlier, the ultimate role of a geisha is to reflect this illusion of the perfect woman.

Molly Edmonds: Yes, the flattering woman at a party. So when you're in the midst of your training, when you are a maiko, as Cristen said, you're gonna go out to these parties with your older sister and kind of observe, learn how to play the part of the perfect hostess. And then, eventually, after a few years of being the apprentice geisha, you can become the full-fledged thing, a full-fledged entertainer. It's symbolized in a lot of ceremonies where you change your collar, you drink sake with your older sister, and then you can be hired out for these parties. It is not cheap to be hired out for a party.

Cristen Conger: No. A geisha party can cost between $200.00 and $300.00 per guest for every two hours that the geisha are present. And for that reason, because it's such a high price tag, Japanese businessmen use geisha parties to impress potential clients and really, kind of, kick back with the boys because it's a chance to break away from the more rigid aspects of Japanese society.

Molly Edmonds: All while showing how wealthy and cultured you are to have these lovely ladies coming in and entertaining.

Cristen Conger: Right, but Molly, you can't just call up a geisha and say, hey geisha, let's have a party. No, it's very strict. If you want a geisha to host a party, you have to either go through the geisha house, or call a teahouse where geisha entertain. Each geisha has a booking agent, if you will, that will send her out to different appointments.

Molly Edmonds: It kind of sounds glamorous to go to parties , entertain for two hours, and walk home with hundreds of dollars, but it is a lot of work. You are working every minute to make sure every guest feels special; they always have a full cup of sake. All of a sudden you've gotta stop everything to dance, sing, and play your shamisen.

Cristen Conger: And Molly, the kicker for me, you can't eat.

Molly Edmonds: No eating at the parties.

Cristen Conger: Geisha can't eat while they work, so they have to be on-point all the time. I mean, for all of this hard work, a geisha will receive a number of generous tips probably from these businessmen, but Molly, that kind of still sounds like a form of at least escorting, maybe?

Molly Edmonds: Right, that's what was going through my mind. This does sound a bit like prostitution, but actually, there's sort of a very rigid dating code in the geisha world. When you find a man, it's a fairly monogamous thing. He's sort of your patron, he's termed the danna of you, and there's a very specific ceremony performed where you kind of unite yourself with this guy, very similar to a marriage, and you're faithful to him until a time when you perform another ceremony that says, you know, we're not exclusive anymore.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, so there are options, formal options for a geisha to have a monogamous sexual relationship with a client.

Molly Edmonds: But it's not like you're probably gonna go home with a client every night; you don't have time. Part of the reason you have no time, Cristen, is that there is a lot of work involved in just getting ready for one party. This is another reason why I don't think that geisha probably become immediate millionaires from all these tips and this hourly wage. So much of their time and money goes to their upkeep. If you're a living work of art, then you've got to look like a living work of art at all times.

Cristen Conger: Right. On top of the money that goes back to the geisha house, the geisha also has to buy very expensive kimonos, makeup, and hair accessories to make themselves into that gorgeous doll.

Molly Edmonds: Right, so let's go through a little bit of what getting ready to entertain might be like. It's not like you can just get dressed by yourself. You are putting on these very heavy robes, you've got to have, basically, a dresser who knows how to do under layers and over layers, and tie sashes certain ways. Then, it's time for makeup. You know, a fun fact, originally the makeup, that white makeup they put on was poisonous.

Cristen Conger: Yeah, but now it is harmless. It starts with a layer of oil and then wax on the face to smooth out all imperfections. And then, on top of that goes the white powder that we think of when we think of the geisha makeup. Then, you apply the red lipstick just to the lower lip.

Molly Edmonds: If you're an apprentice.

Cristen Conger: If you're an apprentice, right.

Molly Edmonds: Then, once you're a full-fledged geisha, it's both lips. If you don't notice the lip thing, you can tell which kind of geisha is which based on their hairstyle because these women spend hours at the hairstylist getting a very specific type of hairstyle to note their status.

Cristen Conger: In fact, some women will sleep on special pillows that have a hole in the middle so they don't ruin their fancy hairstyles while they sleep, which is pretty ingenious, I guess. But another way, Molly, to tell the difference between an apprentice geisha and a full-fledged geisha is to look at the neckline. They actually call the ceremony when an apprentice becomes a geisha the changing of the collar because a geisha will actually reveal her neckline with the kimono, unlike the apprentice because the Japanese find a woman's neckline to be very, very alluring.

Molly Edmonds: So there's that, the collar also plays a role, and the hairstyle, which again, we can't really describe very well in a podcast, but basically, they're saying a man would be able to walk into a room, see all the hairstyles of all the women, and know who was who.

Cristen Conger: Um-hum, and another interesting thing I noticed from looking at photos of geisha, if you look at the back of a geisha's neck, you'll see a little bit of skin that they leave without the white makeup on it just below the neckline. It looked like, almost, two triangles right below - or sorry, right below their hairline, not their neckline.

Molly Edmonds: Now, isn't this description getting ready present in one of your favorite books, Cristen?

Cristen Conger: Well, Molly, in fact it is. There's a lot of details of this in Memoirs of a Geisha, which as we mentioned, it's not exactly a perfect history, but it is a fun read.

Molly Edmonds: And if you do happen to go over to Japan, will you see a geisha today? That's what The New York Times was saying, you know, you can't threaten the geisha in their natural habitat. They're on their way to work, but what is a geisha like today?

Cristen Conger: Well, Molly, a geisha today isn't that much different from a geisha back in the day. They still go through the same process of the training that involves mastering music, dance, and current events, and everything to make them into the perfect hostess.

Molly Edmonds: Right, there's just far fewer of them. In the height of the geisha period in the 1920s, there were 80,000 registered geisha.

Cristen Conger: And the number has steadily dropped to now, there are probably around only 1,000 geisha left in Japan. That's probably one of the reasons why Kyoto had to put up those warnings to stay away from the geisha because sine there's so few of them, people are just camped out waiting to see the illusive geisha going to one of her appointment.

Molly Edmonds: When we were researching this, one fun thing that you found is if you were sitting there with your camera, be sure that you've got a real geisha in your sight because a very popular tourist thing to do right now in Japan is to go to a studio where they, essentially, for $300.00 about, they'll dress you up in the kimono, they'll do your hair, put on the makeup, and take photos of you dressed as a geisha.

Cristen Conger: Um-hum. It's supposedly a pretty booming industry around Kyoto. For an extra fee, they'll even let you walk around the streets as though you are a geisha, so if that's your thing and you've got a few hundred bucks laying around, you might be able to live your own life as a geisha.

Molly Edmonds: So I think that that does sort of show that people understand that it's not just glorified prostitution. People recognize it now as a piece of Japan's history, something worth emulating, something worth striving for to be, sort of, this beautiful, educated, cultured woman.

Cristen Conger: And there was an article recently in The Guardian newspaper that reported a small resurgence in geisha. They're saying that since Japan is trying less and less to emulate western culture, they're coming back to embracing this idea of the geisha, and a lot more girls are signing up to be trained as geisha.

Molly Edmonds: It's very interesting. If you want to learn more about how that process works, we've got a great article on our site, How Geisha Work by Julia Layton.

Cristen Conger: And if you want to send me or Molly a question or comment, you can email us at momstuff@howstuffworks.com.

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