Bebe Taian: 舞子/半玉: Geisha-in-Training

June 10, 2011

舞子/半玉: Geisha-in-Training

Maiko Fukusato, by Onihide
Maiko and Hangyoku: Geisha-in-training.

I thought with this post, if I was going to write about geisha, I might as well start with the beginning of their training. There are quite a few books dedicated to the subject, so I present you with a heavily annotated version of the events leading to becoming a geisha.

Training to be a geisha is different everywhere you go in Japan. It is said that this is partly due to 'aji' of the area where geisha are in demand. Some areas prefer a pretty but silent girl to pour tea, play some music, and otherwise be a symbol of expense and grace while, say, dealing in politics behind closed doors. Others prefer vibrant colours and lively dances and games, leaving all the worries of work behind and simply enjoying a game with a witty, chatty woman with conversations that do not revolve around housework and bills. Some are just looking for higher-educated female company, someone with a taste for finer arts to simply be near for a little while, relaxing and drinking into a floating haze. Different customer tastes mean training for different skills. ^_^

"Training time" can depend on where you are.

Maiko Ichimame, by Onihide
In Kyoto, it is not uncommon for a girl to start working as a maiko-trainee (training to be a maiko) at 14 or 15 years old. If she is good enough and is well-suited to the life, she will become a maiko, or geisha-in-training. This period has a few different stages as the maiko works up ranks, slowly filling out more of her makeup and wearing fewer hairpins. She will first do 'minarai'- learning by watching, picking up how to treat customers, how to move, what to joke about, etc. As she graduates, she will perform a ceremony similar to a wedding ritual, which will "marry" her to the profession. After that point, she will be a full-fledged geisha. If the girl later marries or otherwise decides to retire, she will no longer be able to be a geisha. The role of a wife is incompatible with that of an entertainer of this sort. Maiko training perhaps will depend on things like age when one starts and how quickly they become skilled. Some girls only stay to be maiko and do not go on to become geiko (Kyoto dialect for 'geisha'). A Kyoto geisha who was a maiko has more prestige than someone who entered 'late' and debuted as a geiko.

In Tokyo, training is said to last around six months to a year. A trainee, usually a younger woman, is called a hangyoku- literally, "half-jewel". Because they are unskilled, they earn half the price of a full-fledged geisha. Of course, if the person joining is too old to be a hangyoku, they will debut as a geisha just as they would have in Kyoto. Again, someone who was a hangyoku will have more prestige because they had longer training and more experience.

There is another category of women outside of Kyoto, usually Tokyo-area, called 'furisode-san': girls under 25 who dress up in ofurisode, learn a few dances and songs, and get paid to cheaply entertain. Only very young girls or women wear furisode, so this lifestyle will never last long. But, if you train to become a geisha and are accepted into an okiya, you can have a lifetime of work and study ahead of you. Considering that the Japanese workforce seems to mostly expect women to stop working by their 30s at regular, full-time jobs, this can be a very good prospect. Being a geisha or trainee can mean a lot of money (which they would need to pay for lessons and clothing and everything that goes with the lifestyle), and a lifetime of stability.

In any case, a geisha-in-training must be willing to work hard. In Kyoto, it is not unusual for a girl to work 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week between various arts lessons, ozashiki (geisha parties), dressing and makeup, errand-running and holiday-work such as delivering gifts to all of the places who hosted or otherwise helped them, etc. In Tokyo and other areas, I am not convinced that things are any easier!

In English:
Tokyo Karyukai (not updated in English; intro and photos only)
Translation of Maiko Ichimame's Blog (original blog has expired)
English Article on Ichimame
Maiko: Wikipedia

In Japanese:
Tokyo Karyukai
Geisha Eitarou of Matsunoya

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