Pictures of Japanese Geisha

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Two Geishas, 1777

Late 18th century geisha in beautiful kimonos
This 1777 woodblock print shows two geisha in elaborate silk kimonos, one carrying a wooden box that may contain a musical instrument. By Kitao Shigemasa / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

This print shows two Japanese geishas in beautiful layered silk kimonos. Created in 1777, the woodblock print captures the early emergence of the geisha in Japan; the first woman to call herself a geisha worked in Fukagawa just twenty years before this print was made.

During this time, Tokugawa Japan had been at peace for well over a century. Bored samurai and increasingly wealthy merchants sought to while away their time by enjoying the company of beautiful and talented women, such as these geisha. The geishas' quarters were called the "flower and willow world," because a geisha was beautiful like a flower but tough and resilient like a willow wand.

The flower and willow world was part of a larger Tokugawa world of entertainment and ennui, called ukiyo. Ukiyo, or the "floating world," was an escape for samurai and merchants who were trapped within the strict confines of the Tokugawa shogunate's four-tiered class system.

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Four Geishas in Elaborate Kimonos, 1791

These women have their obis tied in the front, so they may actually be prostitutes.
Four geishas in multiple layers of silk kimono, 1791. Hosoda Eishi / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Each of these four geishas is wearing six layers of gorgeous silk kimonos, the top-most of which is hand-painted with lovely scenes inspired by nature. Each obi, or sash, has a separate nature print.

Although this print is labeled as depicting geishas, their obi are tied in the front rather than the back. This picture is from the early years of geisha history, when the line between prostitutes and geishas was less clear. Usually, in Tokugawa Japan, women who tied their sashes in the front were prostitutes, while those who tied them in the back were geishas.

Each of these women has an elaborate hairstyle, including numerous combs and wooden pins. The double-topknot style in called gikei, while the single topknot is a mage.

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Geishas Pouring Sake, 1801

Pouring sake and tea in a graceful manner is an essential skill for geishas.
Two geishas pouring sake, 1801. Kitagawa Utamoro / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

In this woodcut print, two geishas pour sake (Japanese rice wine) from a pot into a sake cup. Geisha training includes not only dancing and singing, but also conversation and pouring tea or sake. Particularly skilled and high-payed geisha also could improvise clever or beautiful poetry on the spot, play the koto or flute well, or paint landscapes or calligraphy particularly well.

A trainee geisha is called a maiko. Traditionally, they began their training at the age of six or seven. Today, however, young women must finish middle school before they enroll as maiko, so they are usually in their mid- to late teens.

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Four Geishas Painting, 1900

In this print from about 1900, four Japanese geishas paint pictures in the courtyard. Three of them sit on tatami mats outdoors to paint or critique, while one stands, holding a cage with two pet crickets in it. In the background, other geisha practice different skills such as performing the tea ceremony.

The word geisha actually means "artist." Geishas coined the word to distinguish themselves from other residents of the pleasure quarters - the prostitutes.

This picture was created after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which brought down the Tokugawa shogunate. Although the four-tiered class system was destroyed by the new Meiji government, the geisha survived. However, their numbers have been dwindling ever since.

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Portrait of a Geisha, 1904

This geisha was photographed just prior to victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War.
Photo of a geisha in Japan, 1904. Gerhard Sisters / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

In this black and white photograph from the beginning of the twentieth century, a geisha poses in her beautiful kimono and wig. From this angle, it is difficult to determine whether or not she is wearing the typical white makeup and red lipstick.

After the Meiji Restoration, the four-tier social hierarchy in Japan was abolished. This seems like a positive change for the geishas, who were considered outside and beneath the feudal Japanese social system, like most other entertainers. However, the dissolution of the ukiyo also may have reduced their customer base among the samurai and the merchant classes.

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A Geisha and Her Attendant

Photograph of a Japanese geisha and her attendant from 1904.
1904 photo of a geisha and her attendant in Japan. Gerhard Sisters / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

In this lovely 1904 photograph, a seated geisha in gorgeously-patterned silk is accompanied by a much more simply dressed attendant. The attendant, who stands beside the geisha's chair, also has a much simpler hairstyle; however, despite the influence of western fashions on Japan by this point in the Meiji era, she also wears a traditional kimono.

Young geisha trainees would join a particular geisha house at the age of five or six. There, they received new professional names. If a girl was appointed as an atotori, or successor, her family name would also be changed to that of the proprietor of the geisha house.

Once the girls were sufficiently well-trained to begin performing in public, usually in their mid-teens, they became maiko or apprentice geishas. Maiko literally means "woman of dance," demonstrating the importance of dancing skills for geisha trainees.

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Geisha Trainees Dance and Play, 1906

An apprentice geisha learns to dance, accompanied by others on shamisen.
A geisha's dancing lesson, 1906. H.C. White & Co. / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

An apprentice geisha, or maiko, learns to dance, accompanied by other apprentices playing the shamisen. Very young geisha trainees join in on percussion.

The earliest phase of geisha training is called minarai, which means "learning by observation." The trainees learn from their "mother geisha," or okasan, and "older sisters," or onesan. In a very real sense, the girls leave their birth families behind when they are adopted into a geisha house for training in the ways of the flower and willow world.

Trainees are not required to be maiko, or apprentice geisha, before they become full-fledged members of the guild; however, those who do go through four or five years as maiko have higher status once they become geisha. Those who go on to be okasan can join the ranks of the most successful businesswomen in Japan, despite the anti-modern setting of the teahouse. During the Tokugawa period, being an okasan was one of the few business opportunities for an enterprising woman.

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A Geisha is Fitted with Her Wig, 1950

Delicate geisha girls were expected to bear heavy wigs and silks with grace.
A geisha gets fitted with her wig, 1950. Evans via Hulton Archive / Getty Images

An assistant prepares to attach the geisha's waxed-hair wig. Between the heavy wigs and the even heavier layers of silk kimono, a geisha's costume could weigh 40 pounds. Despite this burden, a 90- or 100-pound geisha was expected to float lightly when walking or dancing - quite a feat of physical strength and training!

Traditional Japanese wig-making is a highly specialized skill. Today, only two shops in Kyoto make top-quality geisha wigs. Each of the wigs is fashioned from human hair which is attached to a metal frame; sections of hair are fastened with hidden strips of paper. The hair is treated with camellia oil and styled with heated spatulas, then decorated with a tortoise-shell comb and coral hairpins.

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A Geisha and Her Shamisen, 1955

Shamisens are three-stringed plucked lutes, traditionally favored by geisha (and their customers)
A geisha plays the shamisen, 1955. Orlando, Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The traditional musical instrument of choice for geisha is the shamisen, a three-stringed lute that is plucked with the fingers or with a fan-shaped plectrum (pick) called a bachi. The hollow sounding-board of the instrument is covered on the back and front with skin. Lower-cost shamisens often are covered with dog skin, while the higher end models have cat skin covers. Traditionally, the string pegs were made of ivory, but international laws against trade in elephant ivory mean that most modern shamisen pegs are made of plastic or wood.

Professional grade shamisen strings are made of delicate silk. However, student shamisen players learn on far more durable nylon strings.

The shamisen is a relatively new musical instrument in Japan. It was introduced into Osaka from China via the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa) in the 16th century. The Chinese model, called the sanxian, is similar in design and sound, but has a longer neck and a snake-skin cover. Geisha adopted the shamisen as their primary instrument; their favored genre of shamisen music is the kouta or "short song."

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Formal Geisha Dance Performance, 2010

A geisha performs a traditional dance in Kyoto, Japan, in 2010. Koichi Kamoshida / Getty Images

Geisha dance performances, such as the one shown here, usually include at least one number from kabuki theater. Interestingly, there is a gender role reversal; while all of the roles in kabuki, male and female, are played by men, all of the roles in geisha dance are played by women. Thus, a geisha may end up portraying a samurai or an army general in her dance.

Interestingly, the social roles of the kabuki theater and the geisha have evolved in similar ways. Both started out as aspects of the disreputable entertainment world during the Tokugawa era, in which kabuki actors and early geisha were considered to be outside of (and below) the four-tiered social hierarchy.

Geisha and kabuki both attracted a higher and higher class of clientele during the late Tokugawa period. Relationships between kabuki actors and geisha were a gossip mainstay at the time, similar to the role that pairings of sports stars and actors or pop singers fills today. Although their love lives are no longer the subject of public whispering, modern geishas and kabuki actors are considered treasured icons of traditional Japanese culture - a far cry from their former status as non-people.

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Four Maiko Pose for an Advertisement, 2010

High-quality silk kimono such as these are extremely expensive.
Four modern-day maiko, or apprentice geisha, in Kyoto, Japan. Peter Adams / Image Bank via Getty Images

These four young apprentice geishas wear glorious silk kimonos painted with floral patterns in vivid colors. Their wigs are elaborately decorated with pins and flowers, as they pose for advertising photos before the 2010 Kyoto dance festival.

Traditionally, these advertisements would have been hand-carved from wood blocks, then printed into posters. The woodcut prints of maiko and geisha were hugely popular during the Tokugawa era, and today they are collectors items. Modern-day maiko simply have their photos taken - a much quicker, but perhaps less enduring, form of advertising.

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Close-up of Geishas' Faces, 2010

These geisha have the traditional stark white skin and red lips.
Coy-looking geishas in Kyoto, Japan. 2010. Peter Adams / Image Bank via Getty Images

This close-up photograph shows the elaborate make-up worn by geishas. Their faces and necks are covered with a stark white foundation. Then, the make-up artists paints their lips bright red. More accents of red are painted onto the outer corners of their eyes, and the inner ends of their eyebrows. A faint blush of pink on the cheeks and eyelids completes the look.

The white makeup used today is similar to greasepaint, and is non-toxic. Traditional geisha makeup, however, was made with a lead compound, and would cause lead poisoning over time.

Have you ever wondered why geisha always hide their teeth when they laugh or smile? The custom arose because of their white face-paint. Even the cleanest teeth will look yellow and unattractive next to such a bright white skin color.

Interestingly, Japanese women in the Heian era had a different solution to this skin/teeth contrast problem. Rather than keeping their lips tight over their teeth to keep them from looking yellow, they simply painted their teeth black. Problem solved!