“Geishas – A Myth or Reality”, a lecture by Marta Ilieva and Aneta Dimitrova


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27th Days of Japanese Culture in Bulgaria *

On 16 October 2016, the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum (IEFSEM), the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS), hosted a public lecture entitled “Geishas – A Myth or Reality”.

For centuries the geisha (geiko) tradition would be shrouded in secrecy, while the geishas were not allowed to disclose any details about their occupation (under threat of strict sanctions). Nowadays, however, the rules have gradually started to change. Although few in number, the publications on this subject might be helpful for everyone, who is not introduced to this tradition by their family or by any other internal regulations, but wishes to come in touch with it and get to know it.

The reference literature has been used as the basis in the preparation of the lecture “Geishas – A Myth or Reality”. The authors of the lecture and hosts of the event were Marta Ilieva and Aneta Dimitrova – two young ladies who have dedicated more than 10 years already to Japanese arts and traditions, among which: Urasenke – a tea ceremony; Chabana – the arrangement of flowers for display at a tea ceremony, Sho – calligraphy, to mention but a few.


The lecture was related to yet another event from the 27th Days of Japanese Culture in Bulgaria – the exhibition of traditional hair ornaments Kanzashi. The exhibition mottoed “The Unfading Colour of Geishas” officially opened doors on 11 October 2016, also at the IEFSEM, the BAS.

As a link between the exhibition and the lecture, initially Marta Ilieva and Aneta Dimitrova focused the attention of the audience precisely on the Kanzashi tradition. Kanzashi (and more precisely tsumami kanzashi) are hair ornaments in the shape of flowers. These are worked out from fabrics and are part of the geisha accessories, but have an even stronger relation to the clothing of maiko (a girl who is an apprentice geisha). Tsunami Kanzashi is inspired by the seasonal plants and their colours. The flowers are used during the specific month they are typical for, e.g. irises are used in May, maple blossom is used in November, etc. Tsunami Kanzashi is an expression of the reverence for seasons on behalf of the Japanese, who happily tie up their ordinary activities, dressing style, performed rituals, etc. to the specific time of the annual cycle.

Most certainly, Tsunami Kanzashi reflect also the awe for nature, which is deeply rooted into the Japanese perception of the surrounding world, as well as into their aspiration to “transfer” the beauty of nature into the everyday life of people with the help of various traditional Japanese arts.  


Great interest has been sparkled by the fact that the ornaments are meant for women, yet they are worked out by men. What is more, the craftsmanship of kanzashi has been handed down only within the family – from father to son, or grandson. If the family has no son or grandson, a boy can be officially adopted in order to inherit the tradition. The husband of the daughter in the family can also become an artisan of kanzashi, yet he has to adopt the family name of his wife to this end.

This is an illustration of yet another typical feature of the Japanese traditional culture: the rule of continuity of various arts (and crafts) only within the family.  

At the start of the lecture, accompanied by a video presentation, Marta Ilieva and Aneta Dimitrova put in place certain historical knowledge related to the discussed topic by bringing to the foreground the role of Emperor Tokugawa in the unification of Japan at the start of 17th century – “the time when the new social strata of the newly rich was formed”. This is what, according to the lecturers, has created the conditions for the emergence of the first geishas (or geiko).


In the course of their presentation, the authors transported the audience to the world of the Japanese geisha – a world shrouded in mystery, aesthetics and beauty, yet accompanied by hard and strenuous work, strict rules, suffering and deprivation. I will try to recreate (and to some extent complete) their story.

Every girl, who was not of noble origins, but displayed certain talents for music, dance, poetry, etc., could become a geisha. The geishas had to go through a training including everyday practice in: dancing, playing musical instruments, singing, tea ceremony, ancient and modern Japanese literature, calligraphy, keeping up a conversation, finding wise solutions to certain problems, mastering various amusing games, perfecting the gait and grace of her movements, foreign languages and many more other skills. The geishas most often displayed their artistic talents and skills at special establishments – ochaya (tea houses, establishments for tea ceremonies) in front of a small circle of guests. Several times during the year, geiko would join seasonal festivities and holidays, where their beauty and professionalism could be observed by the public.


In the past, girls would be sold by their poor families as early as the age of three or four to a house – okiya, where they would learn about the tradition. The most well-renowned houses were located in specific districts of Tokyo and Kyoto. There, the children would first become maiko – girls, who were trained to become geishas. Nowadays, the state has imposed a requirement under which the girls must have graduated high school before becoming maiko. While they are at school, the future maiko can learn how to play musical instruments, dancing, calligraphy, literature and other arts, which will make it easier for them after they graduate high school, as each maiko makes a debut as geiko at the age of 21, while the time designated for mastering the tradition cannot be further extended. In the past, due to the subordinate role of the woman in the Japanese family, it was possible for a husband to sell his wife to such house (okiya), in order to pay family debt. Once the wife joined the okiya, the marital vows were dissolved because the geisha had no right to have a family until the moment she decided to stop practicing the profession.


In every okiya there is a “mother” – okaasan, who is in charge of the accounting of the house, as well as the training of the girls, etc. Okaasan takes care also of the working schedules of geiko, because the more popular geishas may have up to 4 artistic performances per night.  Also, Okaasan, as in other traditions, has to make sure there is an heir – atotori. In this case, due to the specifics of the profession, the heir has to be a girl: a daughter or adopted child, who as early as the age of 5 has to be aware that it will inherit the management and care for the okiya. If okaasan does not have her own daughter, she will have to find and pick an heiress, listening to her intuition and counting on her keen observation, because she will have to see in a small child the gift and potential and turn that child into a successful okaasan. If the child is adopted, it is forbidden to enter into contact with the birth family, while it is quite the opposite for the maiko – the girls are encouraged to meet their relatives.

Girls are admitted to the okiya after the conclusion of a contract as per which the education continues for a certain amount of time during which the okiya covers all costs for the needs of maiko. It is possible that these funds, which include also the purchase of hand-made kimonos, kanzashi, etc., may reach very high amounts (e.g., USD 500 thousand). Once the young woman becomes a geisha, she is expected within a term of five or mostly seven years to refund the financial expenses. The return of the investment may take place within even shorter period of time (e.g., one or two years) depending on the reputation and skills of the geisha. Only later, geiko may choose her ways to continue her life. There are mainly three options: she can continue working the profession, establish her own okiya or stop practicing and set up a family. The oldest geishas are 70 years old. At the same time, some geishas stop practicing the profession even before they turn 30.


The typical geisha clothing includes kimono. It may take up to three years to work out some of the most beautiful hand-made kimonos, decorated with exquisite embroidery. The clothing is stylish and simple. Geishas can wear a top kimono (in different colours) and undergarments kimono (longer and red in colour, parts of which are visible only during a dance).  A typical part of the geisha clothing is the belt – obi, which is tied into a special knot – darari, tied in the rear part of the kimono. Obi is worked out from about 6 meters of fabric and can be very heavy. The total outfit of the geisha may reach a weight of up to 20 kg, which turns her artistic performance and the process of putting the clothing on a very difficult process. This is why, it is admissible that geiko can be dressed by men, who are specially trained for this. This is the only exception in which men are allowed to enter okiya at night. Men are strictly forbidden to have access to the okiya on any other occasion. Only artisans of kimonos, or masters of kanzashi, etc., are allowed to enter, but only in the mornings, after 10 a.m., and for a very short period of time.

Despite beliefs that natural beauty is an indispensable prerequisite for a girl to become a maiko, quite often physical features are less important than inherent talents, their development and manifestation. Most popular are those geishas, who can dance skilfully, play musical instruments, sing and can come up with impromptu verse.

Geiko are skillful in traditional Japanese dance – buyo, borrowed from the dance of the Japanese traditional theatre. The three main types of dance, which the geishas perform, include: mai – slow, expressive, aristocratic dance, typical of the Noh theatre and Bugaku theatre; odori ­– energetic dance with jumps performed at various festivals and introduced in the Kabuki theatre; and furi – a sign dance in which each movement has a symbolic meaning, furi is a dance typical for the Kabuki theatre as well.

The main musical instruments studied by maiko include: shamisen, shakuhachi, koto and taiko. Shamisen is a three-string lute, shakuhachi is a bamboo flute, koto is a zither, and taiko – a drum. Each of the listed musical instruments is used in the Japanese traditional theater. Most often, during their performances geishas play the shamisen, the most typical musical instrument for the Kabuki theatre as well. Looking beautifully with its body covered in snake skin and its tall exquisite fingerboard, shamisen is a technical instrument, which can be used to play intricate tunes.  Geishas most frequently perform kouta – ballads in the accompaniment of shamisen. The kouta genre emerged in the 14th century, but became part of the traditional Japanese theatre Kabuki during the reign of Emperor Tokugawa – i.e. at the start of the 17th century.

The lecture “Geishas – A Myth and Reality” closed with a few words about where and when nowadays one can observe and marvel the geiko tradition:  geiko and maiko make public appearance several times during each calendar year – at the Baika-sai Plum Blossom Festival, when they perform a tea ceremony, at the Miyako Odori Festival in April, when they traditionally give dance recital performances, etc. The most well-known and renowned district of Kyoto, where geishas live and work till this date, is Gion.

Marta Ilieva and Aneta Dimitrova further presented brief information about the interest of representatives of other nations and cultures in the traditions of geishas: several foreigners have been also initiated in the tradition of geishas. Most of them have only studied about the tradition – based on personal anthropological or ethno-cultural interest, yet they have not made a debut or worked as geishas. The only foreigner who has ever debuted as a geisha (in Tokyo in 2007) is the Australian Fiona Graham.

After the end of the lecture, the audience had the opportunity to ask Marta Ilieva and Aneta Dimitrova questions, to have a closer look at the displayed kimono with long sleeves – furisode, worn by maiko (and never by geiko), as well as to enjoy the exhibition of tsunami kanzashi. Actually, the exhibition “The Unfading Colour of Geishas” can be visited by 25 October 2016.

* Other sources of reference have been used in the preparation of this article: Descutner, Janet W. “Japanese Performing Arts”, pp. 102-127. In: Descutner, Janet W. Asian Dance. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009, 164 p. ISBN 9781438124285; Ortolani, Benito. The Japanese Theatre: From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995, 375 p. ISBN 9780691043333; Iwasaki, Mineko, Rande Brown. Geisha оf Gion: The True Story оf Japan’s Foremost Geisha. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012, 352 p. ISBN 9781471105739; Dalby, Liza Crihfield. Geisha. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 1983, 347 p. ISBN 9780520047426; Kalman, Bobbie. Japan the Culture. Crabtree Publishing Company, 2008. 32 p. ISBN 9780778792987; Sasaki, Sanmi, Shaun McCabe, Satoko Iwasaki. Chado: The Way of Tea. Translated by Shaun McCabe, Satoko Iwasaki. North Clarendon, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 2002, 742 p. ISBN 9780804832724; Earnshaw, Christopher. Sho Japanese Calligraphy: An In-Depth Introduction to the Art of Writing Characters. Boston, Rutland, Vermont, Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1989, 176 p. ISBN 9781462907823; Gilleland, Diane. Kanzashi in Bloom: 20 Simple Fold-and-Sew Projects to Wear and Give. Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony, 2012, 144 p. ISBN 9780770434274; Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Translated by Sonja Arntzen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008, 1255 p. ISBN 9780231136976;Winkler, Lawrence. Samurai Road. Bellatrix, 2016, 770 p. ISBN 9780991694181, etc. The photos from the lecture and the exhibition have been kindly provided by Marta Ilieva. The Illustrations of public performances of geiko and maiko have been taken from the electronic publication:  Dave, Ronin, “Baika-sai: Plum Blossom Tea Festival with Geisha”, Taiken Japan, May 22, 2015, https://taiken.co/single/baika-sai-plum-blossom-tea-festival-with-geisha. Video fragment: 京の春を彩る, Miyako Odori in Gion, Kiyoto, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jm–yxNLMFU.

Translated by Miglena Tzenova-Nusheva

“Geishas – A Myth or Reality”, a lecture by Marta Ilieva and Aneta Dimitrova

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