Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha

Aimee Heidelberg - November 20, 2023

Geisha live in a mysterious, ethereal world within, yet wholly separate from, everyday society. Historically, girls left home as young children to train as geisha. They embody the perfect entertainer. But behind the porcelain-white face of the apprentice geisha and the art they make look so natural is a long, intense, and often painful process shrouded in a cloak of silence. Books like Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha sold millions of copies and offered a glimpse into the reality of geisha life, but it is ultimately a work of fiction, often criticized for getting things wrong. Books by actual geisha, like Mineko Iwasaki’s Geisha: A Life give voice to their experiences, but the stories they tell are unique to them and cannot represent all geisha. But their books offer insight into the life of geisha, and the hardships, even brutality, they endured to become cultural icons.


Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Diagram of a Dance Room. Utagawa Kunisada, 1859. Public domain.

Geisha Were Men

Although today’s geisha are associated with finely dressed and perfectly coiffed women, the earliest geisha were male. During the Edo period, the term ‘geisha’ simply referred to entertainers and performing artists, without any indication of gender. Male geishas were called taikomochi or hōkan, the original professional entertainers. They specialized in the performing arts, serving as musicians, jesters, storytellers, and singers. The geisha men had a talent for serving as a sort of ‘master of ceremonies’ for parties held by the nobility. They could make each guest at these gatherings feel like the most important person in the room. By the 1600s, geisha expanded their services beyond high society. They kept guests at high-end brothels entertained while the guest waited for time with their chosen courtesan. But the women at these brothels started joining in the singing and dancing, usurping the popularity of the male geisha.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Odari Kafu Style of the Dancer, c. early 1700s. Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain.

Entertaining Becomes a Female Role

By the 1780s, women mostly overtook over the role of entertainer, called odoriko (dancing girls), although the position changed a bit from the era of the taikomochi. The odoriko’s duties expanded. They still provided skilled entertainment at high society parties and upper-crust brothels. But Edo period geisha additionally served as assistants to the oiran, high-ranking, beautiful, respected courtesans of the noble and wealthy living in Japan’s most powerful cities. This didn’t last long, though. Odoriko were entertainers, but that often meant interacting with the oiran clients. This interaction made the courtesans nervous; they feared the entertainers would steal their benefactors. The suspicious courtesans imposed strict rules about how much contact the dancers could have with their customers. They were forbidden to sit near the patrons during meals and other events, nor were they permitted to develop personal relationships with them. These odoriko were the foundation of modern geisha.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Oiran Hanaogi, c. 1794. Utamaro, public domain.

Odoriko Evolve into Geisha

The distinction between the oiran, who continued to serve primarily as courtesans with clients and patrons, and the odoriko, the entertainers, is wide. They were young girls, typically young teenagers hired by the elite as personal performers. The problem with the odoriko is that they would age. Odoriko were supposed to be young and virginal, so when they aged out of the ranks , they had to find another means to support themselves. As time passed, the older performers who had refined their craft stayed on to entertain and perform. These women referred to themselves as geisha, a nod back to the male entertainers of the Edo period. It didn’t take long for geisha to overtake oiran as the entertainer of choice. Intimate favors were not part of the geisha’s official duties, but they were lively companions and performing artists, and captured the heart of Japanese high society.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Geisha in kimono and obi. Raimund von Stillfried (c. pre-1900). Public domain.

Geisha in Demand

Oiran had fallen out of preference by the 1830s in favor of these new geisha. In contrast to the oiran, geisha’s role didn’t include intimate ‘clients.’ It has always been to entertain guests at parties, events, and continue traditional performing arts during public shows. Geisha were, and still are, elite performers. Training for geisha became formalized. Geisha schools and training centers, called kaburenjo, trained geisha in the classical performing arts. The training, experience, and popularity of some geisha resulted in a hierarchy among geisha. Those with particular skills were highly sought after among the clientele at tea houses and entertainment venues. But reaching that level came with challenges. The expensive, grueling, and difficult training required extreme precision and dedication by the girls. It could be brutal for the young girls who dedicated their lives to the performing and entertainment arts.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Tama okiya, Gion koubu, Kyoto. Olivier Lejade (2007, CC 2.0).

Entering the Geisha World

Today’s geisha don’t start their training until they are in their mid-teens. But for early geisha, their lifelong career started when they were young children. Parents would sell their daughters at around age six to an okiya, who would support her as she trained in the geisha arts. Once set up in the okiya, she became part of that family. Okiya were female households operated by an okāsan, a ‘mother,’ who may have once been a geisha herself. Other women in the household may be aunties (non-geisha but in a prominent role in the household) and staff that helped keep the okiya running. Working geisha and apprentice geisha became ‘sisters’ to the new girl. Becoming a geisha is voluntary today, but this sale of daughters to an okiya for geisha training shows demonstrates brutal economic conditions in Japan’s history.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Geisha entertainers, c. 1900 and 1940. OSU Special Collections and Archives, public domain.

Paying for Geisha Training

The years between entering the okiya and starting service as a maiko could be extremely expensive. The okiya covered geisha schools, food, housing, clothing and accessories, instruments, and other living expenses. Successful okiya managers, often former geisha themselves, kept meticulous records of how much they invested in training and living expenses for the girls in the household. Every massive debt had to be paid back when the girl started working as a maiko (apprentice geisha). Geisha could only leave the okiya when her debts were completely paid. Girls favored by the okāsan, the adopted or okāsan ‘s biological daughter might become atotori, or heiress to the okiya. Atotori had a less costly entrance into geisha life. Her debts would be absorbed by the okiya, but it meant lifelong dedication to the house and eventual service as okāsan.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Shkikomi (left, with more subtle attire) walks with maiko Takamari. fortherock (2010, CC 2,0).

Geisha Shikomi

The first step toward geisha training started when the girl became shikomi, an observer and servant for the okiya and the working geisha of the household. Shikomi were given a heavy load of household chores to instill discipline and obedience. Shikomi had to be ‘on call’ for the working geisha in case they needed anything, no matter how late at night. They had to learn how to sit, stand, kneel, speak and control their expressions and emotions the “right way,” to learn the discipline it took to perform geisha duties. According to former geisha Fumika Tamura, she could not cry or contradict her ‘older sister,’ her geisha mentor. When senior geisha passed, they were to bow, kneel, or otherwise greet them respectfully. After a certain period, the shikomi would enter the training school and begin training for their debut as a working geisha.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Geisha in Tokyo with shamisen (stringed instrument), c. 1870. Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain.

Geisha Training Schools

Geisha train rigorously in the arts, in entertaining, and social etiquette. Aspiring geisha attended Nyokoba, a geisha training school. She would spend all day at school, then do her ‘home’ duties in the evening, often well into the night, trying to practice her lessons in her meager down time. At school, students learned the performing arts; how to dance without a flaw, how to play an instrument like the shamisen or shimedaiko to perfection, how to sing on pitch every time. Students learned the art of entertaining, not just the ritual tea ceremonies, but how to speak to guests and interact with large groups. She studied visual arts like flower arranging, ikebana, and calligraphy, or shodoh. Although the geisha trained in all these areas, she would eventually choose a specialty. She would dedicate most of her time to perfecting her chosen art, much like a college student chooses a major.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Portrait of a Geisha, 1904. Library of Congress, public domain.

Constructing the Geisha from the Inside Out

Some of the most rigorous training, though, restructures the girl from the inside, out. She had to learn how to sit the geisha way. She had to learn how to speak in an old dialect from her okiya’s district. Students learned how to walk in the restricting kimono and extra-long sleeves and pour sake without spilling it. As part of entertainment training, she learned the hierarchy of the guests, and who to speak to first at parties. Training to be a geisha meant fighting natural instinct to react with annoyance or impatience. They had to lose the accent and dialect they used since birth. They had to learn to express themselves the geisha way, with wit, diplomacy, intelligence, and grace. These skills are vital to a geisha’s success. But they don’t come naturally to every young girl stepping inside the nyokoba.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Ambrotype of Geisha with attendant, c. 1860s. Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC 1.0.

Geisha Minarai

Once settled into the nyokoba, the girls entered the next phase of geisha training. They began the minarai, period, or ‘learning by watching.’ Minarai had their household chores, keeping the okiya clean and in order, and were at the beck-and-call of the okiya ‘mother.’ They served as attendants to the higher-ranking geisha in the okiya, helping them prepare for their appointments, get their shoes on, running errands, and other chores. While acting as a servant, the minarai developed a special relationship with the higher-ranking geisha, who became her mentor, her onēsan. They followed their mentors to appointments to observe their techniques and conduct in a formal setting. Minarai saw their onēsan in action, observing how she interacted with clients, and began networking with clients herself. She dressed similar to her onēsan, but a little less decoratively, indicating her lower rank.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha

Apprentice Geisha: Maiko

At about age 15, a minarai has her misedashi, the ceremony marking her transition to maiko, an apprentice geisha. She goes to the hairdresser to have her hair sculpted into the special maiko style. For the first time, she puts on full makeup, covering her face and neck except for three points extending down from her hairline in the back of her head. She changes from her girlish costume to that of a young woman, a black kuromontsuki. The kuromontsuki is a black kimono embroidered with the okiya crest used for the highest formal ceremonies. Once ready to present herself in her new status, the maiko stepped into the specially decorated okiya to make her official debut. She and her mentor visited the tea houses and her instructors. After a sansankudo ceremony between the girl, her mentor, and a senior maiko, the girl has made her debut as a maiko.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Two young maiko in Seirai-in Temple. Takaaki Kawai (2021, CC 2.0).

A new geisha apprentice ready for work

After the misedashi, with all its ceremonies and celebrations, the maiko’s work really began. And work she did – she needed to start paying back the debts she accumulated for her training. As an apprentice geisha, any money maiko earned belonged to the okiya. The okiya mother recorded all of the money invested in the maikos training. The maiko had to pay back every cent. The maiko had only an allowance given to her by the okiya. A maiko could earn the okiya substantial income if she were popular enough to book many engagements. To enhance her popularity, she had to keep up the proper appearance. There is a certain expected look to a maiko, a look that has come to symbolize the collective understanding of a geisha. But as beautiful as the maiko appeared, achieving it had lasting consequences for pre-World War II geisha.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Whether maiko (apprentice) or geiko (full geisha), dressing required an assistant. Burns Archive, c. 1890, public domian.

Dressing a Maiko

A maiko’s kimono and massive obi were works of art, and a signal of her rank. The colors adapted to the season, from bright colors to deep jewel tones. Kimono were tied with a large, decorative obi selected to compliment the kimono and reflect the season. The maiko obi, a sort of thick fabric belt about five meters long, is tied high along her chest, with the excess fabric tied in the back in an artistic mass. Most kimono were owned by the okiya, the maiko borrowed them for their duties. The maiko wore wear extremely thick-soled sandals, called okobo, to give her height and a stride made up of small, careful steps. While the maiko carried the heavy kimono and obi with grace, her garb was challenging and dangerous. The fabrics could become quite heavy. The sleeves were long and cumbersome. And the okobo sandals were a tripping hazard.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Miyagawa-cho maiko attending to her lipstick. Japanexperterna, (2014, CC 3.0).

Maiko Makeup

Maiko are famous not only for their stunning kimono, but for their unique makeup aesthetic. They achieved this look by using oshiroi, the ethereal looking white powder makeup. Geisha historically painted their faces white to make their features appear vivid and porcelain-like even in dim light. It kept up a façade of impenetrable grace and beauty, giving them an air of mystery and intrigue. Maiko accented their lips with a bright red lipstick, beni. Even the lipstick indicated status. Newcomer maiko used lipstick only on their lower lip. Upper level maiko, the ones who had performance and hosting experience, painted both their lips. Older maiko might also paint their teeth black, as even the most carefully tended teeth could appear yellow against pure white base makeup. From white foundation to rosy eye accents, the process took about half an hour to an hour to complete the maiko look.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Geisha playing a Shamisen, wearing white makeup that has a good chance of having white lead in its ingredients. Kazumasa Ogawa (1897, CC BY 4.0). J. Paul Getty Museum.

Maiko Makeup was Deadly

The, oshiroi makeup gave maiko their distinctive look. But it had a toxic secret. Manufacturers used white lead. Throughout history, white lead has been favored for its smooth application and the purity of its tint. But it can result in headaches, cramping, muscle pain, and high blood pressure. Over time, the lead would age the skin, making it wrinkled, yellow, pitted, and leathery. Hair fell out, as would teeth. In 1877, the Japanese government outlawed lead-based face powder to address lead poisoning among geisha and others who used lead-based cosmetics, but for many, the damage had already happened. A powder made without lead hit the market in 1904. Lead based geisha makeup fell out of favor, bringing an end to the horrifying visible and internal effects of lead poisoning among geisha and others who used lead-based cosmetics in Japan.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Maiko in Gion Kyoto Geisha District, showing elaborate hairstyle of the maiko. Harald Johnsen (2015, CC 3.0).

Maiko Hair

When a trainee began her career as a maiko, one of the first rites of passage included having her hair styled in the exquisite hairstyle most associated with geisha culture. She went to the hairdresser once a week to have her hair refreshed, a painstaking process. Her hair is separated into sections, then tied into a bun. The bun is split in the back, revealing a hint of red silk. A maiko’s hair, the miokuri, indicates her rank; as she moves from early apprentice to higher-ranking maiko to geisha, her style changes. To finish the look, geisha wore floral decorations such as kanzashi, or silver fringes called Bira Ōgi to add movement and decoration to the already delicate hairstyle. While getting the artistic hairstyle was a maiko rite of passage and something to be proud of, the process included getting used to pain.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Gion Higashi maiko Hinayū in Seirai-in Temple with sakkō, the last style before she becomes a geiko. Kumi Yasukawa (2018, CC 2.0)

The Complicated and Painful Maiko Hair

Maiko hairstyling started with brushing out the hair. Stylists then pressed, teased, tied it into the style appropriate for the girl’s rank, such as wareshinobu style. The wareshinobu style included two padded silk pieces added into the hair, with a large bun (Kanokodome) is formed around that, split so the red piece is visible. The color and style of the cloth changes as the maiko advances. A red cloth, the chinkoro, tied into the front of the maiko hairstyle. Finally, the stylist set the hair with bintsuke, a waxy pomade, stiffening the hair and holding it in place. And keeping it in place is vital; if the Maiko messed up her hairstyle, she had to undergo the process again. The maiko so dreaded the process that they went for long stretches of time without washing her hair to avoid another trip to the stylist beyond their once-a-week visit.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
The beautiful Maiko hair holds secrets of its own. Yiannis Theologos Michellis (2011, CC 1.0).

Maiko Hair Caused Bald Spots

The maiko hair style is work of art. After the hairdresser tied up her natural hair, set it in place with wax, and decorated it with ornaments, it became a heavy sculpture. To achieve the maiko look, stylists pulled the maiko’s hair tight to create the foundation for the style. Over time, tightly pulling the hair caused it to fall out in a small spot, leaving it permanently bald. In a display of professional diplomacy, the geisha community put a positive spin on this. They declared it a symbol of the demanding work a maiko invested into her training. The spot was about the size of a five yen coin, and Despite being a badge of honor, the hair never grew back, even years after leaving geisha service. Some geisha had surgery to cut out the bald spot and ‘close’ the hair back together.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Taka-makura pillow, wood block with padding to support the neck and base of the head. Milica Djukic (2012, CC 3.0)

Sleeping Through the Pain

New maiko had to learn how to sleep without destroying their new hairdo. Maiko received small, hard, raised pillows, called taka-makura, that held the base of her head and neck above her sleeping mat. Her housemates at the okiya would help train her not to move at night, because one slip of the head would crush the hardened hair. Having to re-do the styling process was enough to make a maiko willing to learn how to sleep balanced on the small pillow. Her housemates, usually senior geisha or her house mother, would lay the pillow down, then pour rice around it. If the maiko slipped and her head fell off the little pillow, the rice would stick to her hair, and she had to have it combed out and set again. That process ensured the maiko quickly learned her new sleeping technique.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
A senior maiko prepares teacups for a Gion tea party. sweet_redbird (2010, CC 2.0).

Mizuage, Officially, Isn’t What It Used To Be

When a maiko is around twenty years old and has proven her skills, she is ready to become a geiko, a full geisha. To mark this transition, she undergoes a ceremony, called erikae, or “turning of the collar,” today. Historically, however, the coming of age event, called ‘mizuage,’ is a momentous occasion marked by changing her maiko’s collar. Maiko removed the embroidered red collar and replaced it with a white one to indicate her more mature status. She visited the tea houses and her benefactors to hand out gifts and announce her new status, much like she did when she became a maiko. The mizuage is a geisha’s graduation, a rite of passage from innocent apprentice to grown woman. But according to a hushed legend, for geisha in the pre-World War II era, this transition from maiko to geiko came with a very heavy price.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Drawing of a Geisha by Hideho Yamakawa (c. pre-1944). Public domain.

The Brutal Side of a Geisha’s mizuage

The transition from maiko (apprentice) to geiko (full geisha) is, according to rumor, a much darker ceremony. Under the surface, mizuage meant a bidding war for the maiko’s virginity to court the patronage of a danna, or lifetime sponsor. Historically, when a maiko prepared for her debut, her clients bid to become her danna-sama. Men vied for the opportunity to sponsor the ceremony; expecting to be granted her virginity. While profitable for the okiya (being a danna cost a lot; only the elite could afford it), maiko has little or no say in who wins. Nor would she receive money; it went to the okiya toward her debts. While the money wasn’t directly for physical gratification, but the sensual favors came as an unspoken fringe benefit for the danna. This put it in a gray area for the anti-prostitution legislation in the 1950s.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Kiyoka of Shimbashi, Tokyo, illustrative image, 1902 (CC 2.0.

Mizuage: A Raging Debate

A debate rages as to whether the loss of virginity was actually a part of mizuage, an actual historic occurrence, something only done by oiran, or just a dramatic scene concocted for Arthur Golden’s bestselling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. Former geisha Mineko Iwasaki has denies the loss of virginity during mizuage. Yet Kiyoha Kiritaka claims otherwise. Kiritaka trained as a maiko but left service in 2016 after continuous physical aggression from clients and a ‘mother’ who tried to sell her virginity. Japan outlawed trading coitus for patronage during mizuage in the 1950s, although the rumor is this practice still covertly takes place. The geisha’s secret world is so well concealed that the debate continues. The discussion continues about whether the loss of virginity is fact or fiction driven by Golden’s book and the s*x workers posing as geisha in post- World War II Japan.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Kyoto geiko Toshimana playing shamisen. Sawai Susao (2018, CC 2.0).

Geisha Income

Maiko receive only an allowance from the okiya instead of a salary. They were expected to pay off the cost of training and living expenses. But once the maiko has “turned her collar” and become geiko, or full geisha, she may start earning her own money and has more financial freedom. She earned income by attending banquets, appearing at parties at a favored tea house, and receiving tips from wealthy customers. Popular geisha could earn quite a bit of money, although the cost of doing business could be quite burdensome. Working geisha purchased kimono, had their hair done (and redone), bought makeup, and continued with the geisha training. It was geisha professional development, to keep their skills up to date.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Kanegawa geisha wearing subtle, dark kimono. National Museum of Denmark (2007, public domain).

Geiko Attire

When a maiko debuted as a geisha, she adopted a whole distinctive look. Gone were the heavy obi binding a kimono as delicate as a tissue. Instead of brightly colored kimono, she wore a more demure color, with subtle embroidery, if there is any at all. Gone was the beautiful torture of the maiko’s hairstyle. Geiko donned a topknot, with fewer waxed sections (today’s geiko wear wigs to avoid the hairdressing pain altogether). She wore geta, sandals similar to the general population, instead of high platform okobo. Even her makeup changed. Instead of painting her face in full white, geiko would only paint it for performances and rare occasions. And when she did, new geiko only painted their top lips to show their rank. If a geiko continued active geisha work into her 30s, she stopped painting her face altogether to allow her natural beauty to shine through.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Four Yoshiwara geisha just before WWII, c. 1939 – 1940. Public domain.

World War II Demolished the Geisha Districts

Before World War II, there were roughly 80,000 geishas working in Japan. As Japan fought its war across Asia and against Allied forces during WWII, tea houses shut down and okiya closed as the nation struggled to provide basic needs, much less luxurious extravagance. Geisha districts closed down, many never reopened. Geisha who trained their whole life in the performing arts and entertainment sector had to stow their kimono for the duration of the war. They left their okiya to take on labor jobs. They flocked to factories for stable work to support themselves with a steady income, despite the vastly different conditions and skills they had to use. Even after the war, many geisha stayed at their factory jobs for the steady, stable pay. Some never went back to geisha life.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Portrait of a geisha (n.d.). National Museum of Denmark, public domain.

Geisha After World War II

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Allied forces occupied the island nation. Tea houses and entertainment venues opened back up, and some geishas were able to return to their newly reopened okiya, and for the first time in years, put on the silk kimonos and white makeup of their trade. Some of the old traditions continued in earnest, like finding a danna to support them and retiring through marriage or finding a patron. But American troops brought western fashion and culture to Japan. Geisha weren’t the icons of style any more as women turned to more western fashions. Geisha started adapting to these western fashions and served cocktails instead of sake. But a new, even greater threat loomed, even worse than setting aside some of the old traditions. There were some trying to usurp the name and reputation of the geisha industry.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Yasuura House, a Recreation and Amusement Association house of ‘water trade’ (allegedly including ‘comfort women’ ) c. 1945 – 1946. Public domain. – Copy

Non-Geisha Tarnish Geisha Reputation

Women claiming to be geisha approached Allied occupying forces dressed in knock-off finery, hair and makeup styled like a geisha. But they were not geisha. They were s*x workers capitalizing on the American desire for new experiences. They presented themselves as geisha to attract customers, much to the irritation of actual geisha. Brothels helped muddy the name “geisha.’ Brothel operators noticed geisha didn’t fall under Japanese anti-prostitution laws because of their ‘entertainer’ status. To retain clients, brothel owners put on a “geisha face” to the public, continuing their trade in secret. This co-opting of the title gave the west a misconception about geisha, that they were part of the sensual “adult” industry. This was the hardest hit of all, even worse than the brutal training and torture in the name of beauty. Geisha are not s*x workers, but have had to struggle against this misunderstanding for nearly eighty years.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Retired Gion geisha Yuki Kato Morgan, who married wealthy American George Denison Morgan (1912). Public domain.

Geisha Could Retire Wealthy

Despite the blow to the trade’s reputation in the mid-1900s, the industry prevailed, and geisha made a lifelong career in their craft. But geisha can choose to retire at any time. Geisha had several avenues for retirement. Some geisha conducted long-term affairs with their danna. Danna, upon winning his bid, paid off the geisha’s remaining debt to the okiya, carefully tracked through the years by the ‘mother.’ Danna provided everything a geisha needed to operate independently – or retire altogether in wealth and style. Some danna relationships were physical; to what extent this occurred is undocumented. Former maiko Kiyaho Kiritaka says this type of relationship still happens. Geisha could retire with the support of a wealthy client. Geisha were also free to marry, and could leave the life on her own terms. But she had to be debt free and marrying meant leaving service forever – geisha cannot be married.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Experienced geisha in Nagasaki. Barry Silver (2008, CC 2.0).

Geisha in their Later Years

Some geisha retired soon after her mizuage, thanks to her danna. Others continue for decades, working into their later years, such as Ikuko Akasaka, an 83-year-old geisha in Tokyo’s geisha distric. Akasaka has over fifty years of geisha service. In 2018, Yuko Asakusa became the oldest geisha still working at 94 years old. She started when she sixteen. The 94-year-old became highly sought after (and highly paid) to entertain politicians and wealthy businesspeople seeking a talented and well-experienced geisha. Asakusa is concerned about the future of the profession, with so few new maiko. In 1990, Tokyo’s six districts still had hundreds of working geishas, the Akasaka district had 120 alone. Now all six districts have roughly 230 geishas. When Yuko Asakusa started in 1964, there were 400 working geisha in her Tokyo district, “so many I couldn’t remember their names” she told CNN. In 2020, there were twenty.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Portrait of a Maiko by Aoki Shigeru (Seimei Kaikan). 1903, public domain.

Geisha Culture Suffering Behind the Artistry

Despite the historic traditions of geisha being artists and entertainers and definitely not adult entertainment workers, modern geisha are speaking up about the culture of selling their bodies within the geisha ranks. Former apprentice geisha Kiyoha Kiritaka quit her maiko career after hearing her mother (her employer) discuss selling her virginity. She had already been left on her own to deal with intimate advances and groping, but this was next-level horror. While critics say Kiritaka worked for a bad employer and this treatment is uncommon, other geishas have spoken out. Fumika Tamura spoke out about this treatment thirty years ago and believes the claims. She had her virginity sold to a winning bidder, and says of Kiritaka’s claims, “Looking at the online reactions to her allegations, it seems like some people thought she made this up, because the stories are just too horrible. But frankly speaking, this is totally normal.”

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Mineko Iwasaki, former geisha and author. Inspiration for bestselling book, “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Sergey Korneev (2008, CC 3.0).

Geisha’s dark side

Kiritaka’s claims of assault and harassment face a wall of silence from the modern Geisha community. This raises the question of how common similar things were in the pre-World War II era, when geisha protected their own in a tight community dedicated to preserving Japanese culture and tradition. But other geisha are joining the outcry against the abuses of these treasured artisans. Mineko Iwasaki, former geisha and author of Geisha: A Life, joins Kiritaka and Tamura in speaking out about this dark aspect of the geisha experience. She included it in her book, Geisha of Gion. Kiritaka says that despite criticism, “dozens of former maikos” have contacted her wanting to support her claims with their own stories.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
Maiko Tomitsuyu bowing after a performance. (2014, CC BY-SA 2.0).

Protecting the Geisha

Kiritaka acknowledges that not all okiya ignore the safety and security of their geisha. Not every house is dangerous. And she stresses that the “essence of the geisha” is something to be cultivated and preserved. She hopes the industry rebuilds to be everything geisha have come to stand for; skilled entertainers, artists, and performing artists of the highest level. She hopes that tradition continues to be passed down. Some tea houses have enacted safety measures to avoid such problems in the future. The tea houses are training maiko on deflecting unwanted advances. Tea houses concerned about the safety of their geisha hold self-defense courses. It is in their best interest to protect the few geishas remaining in Japan and ensure the reputation of their tea house remains untainted.

Brutal Beauty: The Dark Reality Behind The Life Of A Geisha
A Maiko in Eishoin Temple. ZacharyOakes (2019, CC 2.0).

Geisha Today

The geisha world is alive and well, but it has changed. Instead of the tens of thousands of geisha working in Japan, here are only about 1,000 geishas as of 2023. The Japanese government enacted compulsory education laws. Girls cannot enter geisha service at the traditional six to eight years old, they had to wait until age 14 or 15 and complete a formal education. Instead of serving an exclusive group of curated patrons at an intimate tea house, they often entertain tourists. While some geisha worry that they, too, are a sort of living tourist attraction, others are pleased to perform for people and demonstrate their skills to a worldwide audience. Geisha artistry still captivates a wide audience. The hidden side of a geisha’s experience still hides behind the kimono, the world seeing only what the geisha permits them to see.

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Brief Overview of Geisha. (n.a.) Encyclopedia Japan (n.d.).

Former maiko exposes the dark side of geisha in Japan. CTN News, 14 November 2022.

Is Memoirs of a Geisha based on a true story? Adam Acar, PhD. Kimono Tea Ceremony, Maikoya, (n.d.).

“It’ll take all of our body and soul” – geisha struggle to survive in the shadow of coronavirus., Elaine Lies, 24 July 2020

Japan’s prostitution prevention law: The case of the missing geisha. Tenica Peterfreund, Seton Hall Law eRepository: Law school student scholarship, 2010.

Japanese geisha and maiko: From past to present. Krys Suzuki, Unseen Japan, 6 January 2020.

She trained to be a Geisha, until her boss tried to sell her virginity. Hanako Montgomery, VICE news, 15 September 2022.

The Japanese geisha culture was actually ruined WWII. Krishna V. Chaudhary, 23 November 2022.

The Maiko’s bald spot and repair party. Janice Bardsley, Jan Bardsley, Professor Emerita, UNC Chapel Hill, 8 April 2021.