Geisha are artists, first and foremost. Art, (gei) defines their proffesion and place in Japanese socitey. In fact,the word geisha means, "Artist" or, "Beauty person" A geisha's primary job is, simply, to entertain and comfort men. This duty does not require sex. In fact, the idea of sexual favors being included as part of their "entertainment" is reprehensible to most geisha, at least the serious ones.
The fact that geisha are entertainers to men is ironic, for they are arguably the most free women in Japan. A geisha's "boss" will always be another woman, and despite their purpose, "for a man's pleasure" a geisha is probably the least subservient role for a Japanese woman, especially in years past. A geisha is not a man's plaything, servant, or concubine.
A geisha deals with sexiness, as opposed to sex. A geisha will flirt, tease, and joke with men, but always artfully, with finesse. A geisha will make herself a living work of art, and the goal they work for is one that can never be reached- perfection in their chosen skill, whether of music, dance, or singing. A geisha attempts to make her life art, and polish her character until she shines with it. She sells ideas, dreams, and fantasies. She will hint at her sexuality, but never flaunt it. This is a large part of the ideal that geisha aspire to- a style called "Iki".
To be iki is something every geisha would like to be. Iki is a type of "cool" that developed in the seventeen-hundreds. The ruling class, with their opulance, set rules for what the lower (but still wealthy) merchant classes could wear and have. So, they took on a new attitude, one of scorn towards the ruling classes gaudy clothing and extravagant tastes. They created Iki. Deciding that the elaborate, ornate costume and decoration was tacky, they developed a new aesthetic taste. Iki hinted at things, rather than writing them in blaring neon signs, so to speak. Someone who was iki had more subtle, relaxed tastes. If the earlier fashions had been the Hope Diamond, then iki was a string of exquisite black pearls. Iki was and is (for geisha still strive to be iki) elegant, low-key, and had a more natural, understated feel than earlier modes of dress and behavior.
To become a geisha requires an enormous amount of dicipline. A geisha works every day to perfect her skills, and this dicipline permeates every aspect of her existence. A geisha's movements and voice, her way of walking, sitting, and talking will show this. A true geisha lives by her art; she is a geisha all the time, not just when she puts on her makeup and kimono and steps out to her evening's entertainment.
A classic example of this dedication is called kangeiko (winter practicing, or lessons in the cold) A girl would hold her hands in ice water, and then go outside in freezing weather to practice playing her shamisen until her fingers bled. This was a common practice at the turn of the century, but is not generally done today.
In the past, many geisha were "recruited"- forced into the Flower and Willow World by impoverished families that sold their daughters to a geisha house. These girls lived hard lives, and suffered immensly. The dicipline imposed here was not by choice or love of art.
Now, all geisha enter the proffesion by choice. The usual motive for this is love of the traditional arts, or attraction to the glamour. Only the most dedicated women make good geisha.
The older the geisha, the better. That is because older geisha are the best conversationalists, and repartee is their most important skill. It is the primary art, even before music and dance.
The most important quality of a geisha, in many people's opinion, is her trustworthiness. Anything that her clients do, or tell her, must remain a secret. A geisha's painted lips hold many secrets, and it is said that her face is the gentle guardian of the traditions of Japan- as well as the private lives of her customers. A geisha that gossips about her customers, telling any personal information to anyone else, cannot be considered a true geisha. Geisha even have code names for their favorite customers, and if she tells a story about one of them, she will never, never, reveal their name. Anything said or done at a teahouse will remain anonymous.
It is also said of geisha that they are more affectionate than most people.. and they are also more loyal. A true geisha will never betray you, once you have her friendship or sympathy.
To put it shortly, geisha are artists who use themselves as the canvas
The licensed pleasure districts from the edo period were immortalized in poetry, song, and in woodblock prints. The pleasure quarters were known as the "floating world", and contained everyone from the proudest courtesan to the lowliest prostitute. It was here that the first geisha made their debut.
The first geisha appeared on the scene about four hundred years ago. So you see, they have a very short history compared to much of Japanese culture, which can date back thousands of years.
The first geisha were men. They came to banquets to entertain guests who were spending time with the courtesans.
Courtesans were the highest ranking prostitutes. Their western equivalent would be the kept mistresses in the Demi Monde. They were sophisticated, wore the nicest clothes, but were still prostitutes.
The story of the first female geisha is an odd one. A failing courtesan made herself a geisha in desperation, and became an instant hit. After a while the female geisha outnumbered the men, and eventually, it became the woman's proffession it is today.
Maiko are trainee geisha. It usually takes about five years of training for them to "graduate" to full geisha status.
Maiko must be adopted by a teahouse, and specifically an older geisha "sister" who teaches them the nuances of being a geisha; how to hold your fan, how to walk in kimono, etc. An older geisha sister is responsible for introducing her charge to prominent teahouses, and generally helping them to learn the ropes in the flower and willow world.
To become a geisha, trainees (maiko) go through a period of minarai, or "learning by observation". The maiko, looking like innocent Hello Kitties wrapped in silk kimono, pick up the nuances of proper social behavior by watching the more experienced geisha at banquets.
A maiko wears kimono with brighter colors, and long sleeves (furisode)that reach their ankles when held to the side. Their obi (sash) reach the backs of their knees, and are wide around their waists. A maiko has a difficult time walking around wrapped up like colorful birthday presents in pounds of heavy silk.
A maiko doesn't speak much at banquets, but mainly learns by observing the older, more experienced geisha.