Perhaps ever since Japan opened its doors to the western world, the West has always been fascinated by the geisha. Although they have always been known as beautiful, intelligent, alluring and mysterious, not much has really been said of geisha because they live closeted in their hanamachi, their "flower and willow world." Imagination has taken hold of what facts left blank, and the common image of the geisha imprinted in the Western mindset is that of the prostitute. But geisha, the true geisha, are not prostitutes. The term geisha is made of two kanji: gei, which is the character for "art"; and sha, the character for "person" or "doer." Literally, the true geisha is an artist. She can play traditional Japanese instruments, sing, dance, hold intelligent and meaningful conversation, make Japanese flower arrangements called ikebana, perform a tea ceremony, write poetry, and other such traditional Japanese arts.
What could be attributed as the reason why geisha have been associated with prostitution may be because when Japan opened itself to the western world in the mid-1800s, prostitutes have advertised themselves as geisha to foreigners who came to Japan. A casual observer may indeed mistake an oiran or prostitute for a maiko, which is the term for the apprentice geisha. Both the oiran and the maiko wear colorful clothes and heavy white makeup accented with small red lips and eyes highlighted with black and red. (Full-fledged geisha only wear makeup on formal occasions and special dances, and are often clad in more somber kimono.) The main difference in their attire, however, is that the oiran wear their obi with the bow at the front to facilitate easier removal and replacement. The maiko and the geisha, on the other hand, have the bows of their obi tied at the back in a more elaborate fashion.
In fact, within the hanamichi, it is known that geisha are forbidden to have sexual contact with their customers. They may make suggestions and innuendos as part of their word-play, but that only serves to heighten their appeal: a customer may desire after or even fall in love with a geisha, but he can never have her. The geisha are expected to remain single for as long as they are geisha. A geisha may have a lover, but that relationship is supposed to be a serious one and not a casual fling. She may also have a danna or a patron, who is supposed to shoulder the cost of her expensive training and clothes, but she is not expected to be in love with her danna or to pay him back through intimate favors. The geisha's good reputation within and outside the hanamachi is taken very seriously. If she decides to get married, she must retire from being a geisha and leave the hanamachi.
Because it is expensive to hire the services of a geisha, the art of becoming and being a geisha is now on the decline in Japan. No one outside of Japan really knows how many geisha are left, but the count varies from 1,000 to 2,000. While originally, geisha are trained from childhood to become what they are, modern geisha enter the hanamachi after finishing junior high school, with most going into training after college. How the hanamachi and its famed geisha will survive, no one really knows.
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