When Cio-Cio-San is first introduced to Pinkerton, her former profession was that of a Geisha. Pronounced “gay-sha,” the word translates as “art person” or “person of the arts.” Spanning over three centuries, geisha are masters of the arts, having undergone rigorous training in music, dance, calligraphy, the tea ceremony, as well as conversational and social graces. Geisha are skilled story tellers and singers, as well as proficient accompanists on their three-stringed shamisen.
Misunderstanding and lack of knowledge about the geisha lifestyle has led to confusion throughout history. In regard to the story of MADAME BUTTERFLY, the character of Cio-Cio-San resents her previous geisha lifestyle because all her training was for the purpose of entertaining men. She was considered a professional entertainer, but only for the indulgence of the men who employed her services.
The geisha system had its beginning during the Tokugawa era (17th century), when Japan was at peace. Isolated from the outside world, the Japanese upper class (including merchants and samurai) had enough time and money to indulge themselves. The first geisha to appear at parties and celebrations were men. Women began challenging the male entertainers and by mid-17th century, the female geisha had attained dominance. The beauty, gentility, grace and skill that women brought to the geisha scene served to inspire countless musicians, poets and artists who sought to capture the spirit and images of the geisha.
The Geisha must undergo a long apprenticeship before she can officially attain the status of “Geisha.” In early times, girls began this apprenticeship while still pre-teens; today the age for entering Geisha training is fifteen. Kyoto is the center for the Geisha business. That city has two main districts for Geisha, Gion and Pontocho (Gion is the more traditional of the two). In Gion, the geisha perform and entertain guests in tea houses (called ochaya). The ochaya manager, called okasan, arranges entertainment and orders food for guests. The customers usually have an ongoing relationship with okasan, who does not generally take new customers without thorough introduction.
Young women are first enlisted into the trade as maiko and move into dorm-like facilities called okiya. Here, there are managers who act like the maiko’s mother: they set up lessons, make sure the girls come home on time, and generally attend to the maiko’s affairs. Maiko are first taught the Kyoto dialect if they do not already know it. Then they undergo substantial training in dance, singing, and general social rules. Maiko wear heavy white makeup; most of them are very young. Historically, in a ritual called Erigaishi, when a maiko found a patron, she would move out of the okiya and into the patron’s home. Today, maiko move out of the okiya into individual living quarters. Erigaishi also involves cutting their hair and using a wig (which they can remove when they sleep), changing their clothing to simpler adult kimonos, and changing their makeup from white-with-bright-red-lipstick to a more modern look. Recently, this has taken place among maiko at around the age of eighteen, but the okiya manager usually decides the time depending on the individual’s maturity.
In Gion, most maiko’s names start with either “mame” or “ichi” — acknowledging the two main maiko lineages from two very famous geisha. Ichisuzu is a representative from the “ichi” group and Mamehide is from the “mame” lineage. In the late 1970’s, the number of registered geisha fell to around 1,500 and today, there are probably fewer than a thousand women practicing the profession and lifestyle of a geisha.