Japan’s Geisha Is at the Risk of Disappearing

Once a bustling tradition, a sign of opulence and high culture, the Geisha or Geiko’s of Japan are now dwindling in numbers as years progress. 

Donned in expensive Kimono, with a white painted face full of near-perfect makeup, Geisha’s are one of the oldest and vital art forms celebrated in Japan until today. Their affluent traditional art is often performed in front of rich or high-class people and in specific settings. This nature of their performance, modern culture obliterating traditional art forms as well as the grotesque COVID-19 pandemic, all these factors have a fair share in the hindrance of Geisha culture as the artists are forced to quit their profession. The age-old tradition is now at the risk of disappearing.

Who is a Geisha?

Geisha are professional Japanese female entertainers. The word literally translates into “? (gei) meaning “art” and ? (sha) meaning “person” or “doer”. They are trained in ‘Japanese traditional arts, such as dancing, singing, flute, and shamisen (a traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument), as well as the art of hospitality.’ Although the art is celebrated across the country, it flourishes and remains prestigious in Kyoto, where the artists are called Geiko, not Geisha. 

The road to becoming a Geisha is quite long and cumbersome. Young girls of 14 or 15 years of age enter the field as apprentices, they are called Maiko and are trained at Geisha houses (Okiya). They spend their next few years perfecting the art of conversation, entertainment, learning instruments, and more directly by their seniors or by observing them. The training is quite expensive, leaving many new Geisha highly in debt to their Okiya since they provide Maikos with clothing, food, and other necessary means required to survive. A newly debuted Geisha can only move out and perform the art independently from their Okiya once they settle their debt to every last bit.

Image for representative purposes from Pexels.

This art form, more intricate in its teachings and working, started somewhere in the 1800s. Initially dominated by men, the profession was soon taken over by women, and it continues to be so. Geisha are exclusive performers made available only to the wealthy. They are responsible for the hospitality and entertainment at luxurious hotels called “ryotei” or previously at banquets where political or business meetings were held. 

A Disappearing Tradition

Seeing a Geisha perform is still a rare sight to an extent. Formerly, the rigid rules of luxurious hotels only let the rich and influential witness a Geisha perform at their establishment. As per their rules, only trusted customers were permitted to enter their hotels. Instead of letting their customers pay the bills after each visit, they cumulated the amount and charged them monthly. This practice worked solely on trust, and therefore the establishments remained private.

But as the years advanced, business meetings and events shifted from traditional hotels to modern nightclubs and pubs. To keep the business afloat, traditional hotels mended the rigidity of their rules. The flexibility works in favor of the resident Geisha who struggle to practice a dying, expensive art form. The kimono alone donned by Geisha could cost around USD 10,000 (INR 7,44,260) each, while the rest of the ensemble – the hair, makeup, accessories – are crafted next to perfection.

The sumptuous profession refrains young girls from entering the field. In Toyko’s Akasaka district, there once used to be 400 Geishas but only 21 remain. 

“Geishas, once praised as ‘flowers of Tokyo,’ are fading to become nothing, like other traditional cultures,” said an expert in Geisha culture to CNN. “Geishas used to be a big business and part of life, but now it is only surviving as a culture to preserve.”

The Perils of the pandemic

Coronavirus left a gaping hole in their profession, and they continue to struggle to fill it. Even as operations resumed, the nature of their workings and mandated rules make it hard to fulfill their job. They have to abide by the rules that dictate them to not pour drinks for their customers, touching or shaking hands with them, and staying 2 meters apart. “When you sit close, you can talk with feeling, your passion comes through,” said a Geisha explaining the situation. “When you’re 2 meters apart, conversation breaks down.”

“We arrange things in the largest room possible,” said an owner of a luxurious restaurant where the geisha entertain. “Anything to keep this culture alive.”

Even if their business picks up, at this rate, most Geishas are fastly depleting their savings with no pension to fall back to. Despite the uncertainties, they are focused to disseminate their rich culture to future generations and the world.

“A big challenge is to make ends meet, but the other challenge is sustaining the craftspeople for this culture,” said a Geisha.


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Feature Image Via Pexels.

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