What is a Geisha?

Japanese Robe

“What’s a Geisha?” asked my twelve-year-old daughter at the breakfast table the other morning.


“Hmm” I thought, “do I really know what a Geisha is?” I responded vaguely, as I wasn’t completely confident about my knowledge on the subject. Not wanting to give misinformation about the centuries old Japanese custom, I Googled the question.


Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, topped the list. I often use Wiki’s resources and have wondered about its reliability, considering the “anyone can edit” format. I’ve cross-referenced its material with other sources and everyone seems to be consistent. Wikipedia has been an informative online resource for quick answers.


Geisha’s date back to the 1600’s in which its been recorded that the first Geisha were men. The custom has developed through many eras of Japanese culture, some of which have not been so savory. The modern Geisha is a female Japanese entertainer whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music and dance. They serve tea in teahouses as well as making polite conversation at banquets and parties. They are not prostitutes, do not serve food, and are not wives.


In the West, the connotation of Geisha with prostitutes came after World War II during the Allied Occupation of Japan. American GI’s incorrectly called prostitutes “Geesha Girls” and this image and mispronunciation have persisted to this day. A Geisha is free to pursue personal relationships with men she meets through her work, but they are carefully chosen and not casual. A Geisha’s good reputation is not taken lightly.


The image of Geisha is one of colorful kimonos, chignon’s adorned with extravagant combs, and stark white faces with bright red lipstick. We watched a YouTube video as a Maiko, or apprentice Geisha, applied her makeup. It was really quite fascinating watching her smear rice powder paste around her face, chest, and back, skillfully coming up the nape of her neck leaving an unwhitened “W”. All of this creates an illusion that Japanese men find alluring.


Here are some interesting facts that you may not know:


  • The white base was originally made with lead until it was discovered to be poisonous
  • A line of bare skin is left around the hairline to create a mask effect
  • Geisha’s wear white split-toed socks
  • Some color their teeth black. Teeth look yellow in contrast to the white make-up. Black teeth appear to fade into the darkness of the mouth


It used to be that when a question was asked, one had to go look it up. Sometimes this was done in a timely fashion, sometimes not. With high-speed Internet and easy access to a wealth of information, these answers need not be put off. As the saying goes, inquiring minds want to know.