Portrait d'une geisha, vers 1880

About this photograph

From the Japanese gei (art) and Sha (person), a geisha is literally a person who practices the arts. Reserved for a very wealthy clientele, she is a refined female companion dedicating her life to the best practice of Japanese arts like dancing, singing or the art of conversation. The origin of geishas goes back to the 16 th century and is practised bymen, the Taiko-mochi (drum holders) or Hôkan (equivalent of the European jestersin the Middle Age). From 1800, all the geishas were women and from 1860 to 1890 was the Golden Age of Geishas. The samurai found the support of geishas in Hanamachi in Kyoto. Becoming a geisha is a long and difficult apprenticeship. Trainee geishas called Shikomi must belong to a house (Okiya) to be trained. In exchange for heavy domestic duties, they watch the Maikos (Geishas in training) and learn the rudimentsof their future profession. When they reach the age of 17, they can become Maiko and are then assigned to a geisha who passes on her knowledge and experience. The Maiko becomes a geisha at the end of an exam sanctioning her perfect command of a set of artistic subjects and the Mizu-age ceremony. The Mizu-age means coming of age. During this ceremony, the virginity of the apprentice geisha is given a price. A sponsor can then pay out a large sum of money to purchase this virginity. In fact, this purchase doesn?t necessarily imply a sexual relationship. During this ceremony, the bun worn by the Maiko is cut. Festivities are held in honour of the new geisha. This ceremony can only be held if the geisha in charge of the Maiko?s training considers her pupil competent. Geishas still exist in contemporary Japan although the number of them continues to diminish. The Mizu-age ceremony no longer exists. The last representatives of this profession live mainly in Kyoto in the Gion district. Becoming a geisha today is completely voluntary, generally taking place at the age of 17. The apprenticeship remains nonetheless long and difficult.

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