In Japan, the beautiful and enigmatic Geisha represents one of the most iconic cultural images in the country. They have been around since as early as 600 A.D. where they served as entertainers and companions, but the look we can easily recognize today became prominent in the 17th century. Trained in fine arts such as dance, singing, playing the shamisen, dining manners, and friendly conversation, the Geisha has become an icon of Japanese culture. Extremely popular among foreign visitors who hope to catch a glimpse of them on their travels, Geishas can still be seen on the winding streets of Kyoto and in other parts of Japan, and do seem to continue many of the traditions of Geisha training and performance which have continued for hundreds of years in this fascinating country.
A common question among visitors is “Why do Geishas paint white makeup on their faces?” Indeed, you will no doubt be familiar with the thick coating of white foundation which is perhaps the most recognizable characteristic of a Geisha, emphasizing the redness of their lips and the blackness of their elaborate hair. Read on to find out why they wear this makeup, and what it means in Japanese culture.
A Geisha is a female entertainer and performer with origins dating back thousands of years in Japan. Traditionally, they performed for and hosted wealthy Japanese nobility, and achieved their status after a grueling training process which takes years. There exists a geisha hierarchy, and the highest of the Geishas are said to reside in Gion Kobu, Pontocho, the Kamishichiken districts in Kyoto. Beginners train hard as Maikos for years before achieving the higher rank of a “true” Geisha, and it is common for girls to start training at as young as 15 years old.
Their training teaches them how to dance, sing, play musical instruments, and make entertaining conversation with customers. In the past, Geishas were known to be mistreated, imprisoned, or employed as concubines. Today, this has thankfully died out and what remains is a community of traditional professional Geishas who offer great entertainment in elegant dining establishments.
It is still possible to spend time with a real Geisha today. Some restaurants in areas of Kyoto, Gifu, and Tokyo offer dining experiences with some time to engage in “Asobi” (games) with the Geisha, where they will also chat to you, pour your drinks, and make you feel welcome. It is a great chance to see these charming and beautiful entertainers up close.
The origins of this unique tradition can be seen across the pond in China. During the Heian Period (794 to 1185 A.D.), Chinese culture was hugely influential in Japan. This included beauty trends and practices. Chinese courtesan women took to wearing thick white makeup because it looked better in the light, particularly if they were to perform to or entertain nobles.
Of course, in this period, there was no artificial lighting to enhance a face or a figure, only candlelight. Both Chinese courtesans and Geishas took to wearing white makeup and creating a porcelain look, for the purpose of creating prominent facial expressions which could be clearly visible. This was especially important as Geisha women were mainly entertainers, dancing and singing for their clients way into the evening and therefore could not rely on natural sunlight. It was incredibly important for their faces to be visible and recognizable.
Although now this practice is no longer necessary with today’s modern technology and lighting effects, modern-day Geishas still continue this practice, as they do with other traditional aspects of a Geishas appearance such as the kimono and accessories.
Nowadays, we live in a world where brilliant lighting effects and top-notch filters are accessible to everyone with a smartphone. We can take a picture of ourselves tired and hungover on a Sunday morning and still make ourselves look perfectly pruned and flawless. For this reason, perhaps it is easy to overlook the fact that until relatively recently, a significant amount of makeup was needed to create a certain appearance.
This may explain the myths surrounding the thick and unnaturally white makeup used by Geisha women, both in the past and today. One common theory is that Japanese people adored the naturally fair skin of many European cultures and that this Geisha makeup was supposed to try to achieve the same look. It is arguably very easy to reach this conclusion, since Japanese modern beauty products include many whitening powers designed to make Japanese skin appear paler. This preference for whitening of the skin actually took off after World War II, when western cosmetics were imported to Japan and set a beauty standard for Japanese women to follow. You may be surprised to hear that the fascination with pale skin came about long after Geisha girls’ white makeup became the norm.
This trend has, perhaps controversially, continued into the modern day, and the Japanese cosmetics market is saturated with whitening masks, pale foundation, and even pills you can take to appear paler. This is prevalent not only in Japan but also in other Asian countries such as China and South Korea. It may seem extreme and outdated to westerners, and also ironic seeing as in the West, people tend to strive for brown, tanned skin, and will spend huge amounts of time and money on sunbeds and tanning salons.
However, despite this obvious cultural influence of western beauty standards, it seems the Geishas’ white makeup did originate from a different place altogether and was actually used for practical purposes; it was not intended to make their faces look more “European”.
Here is another interesting fact about Geishas. A Geisha’s clothes are arguably modest – they don’t show much skin such as legs, chest, or even shoulders. However, the nape of the neck is clearly visible in the traditional Geisha kimono. It is said to be one of the most beautiful parts of the female body, and although it’s mainly for tradition now, one could argue that the back of the neck was shown to make the look more alluring to male clients.
For visitors to Japan that want to meet a real Geisha and watch her perform, dance, sing, and play games, there are some popular and reliable spots where you can do this easily, provided you don’t mind spending a bit of extra money if you want a professional performance, or if you don’t mind relying on your good luck if you want to catch a glimpse of one for free.
Perhaps the most widely known place where Geisha appear frequently is an area in Kyoto called the Gion District. On Hanami-koji Street, you can spot Geishas and Maikos (Geishas in training), in full dress, walking the streets to get to appointments and preparing for local Geisha performances. A word of caution, however: although it is fine to go “geisha spotting”, as it is widely referred to, some locals may not take kindly to tourists endlessly snapping pictures or getting in the way of busy Geishas trying to get on with their day. It is easy to get excited and try to get the perfect photograph, but please be mindful that they are working and mustn’t be interrupted.
There is also the option of going to a number of Kaiseki Restaurants, some of which provide traditional Japanese cuisine and Geisha performances. Although an evening with Geisha and Maiko entertainment is not going to be cheap, it is the only way to truly witness a Geisha performance and appreciate the immense training that goes into their music, dancing, and hospitality, and everything from their complex makeup and hairstyle to the elegant way in which they move. Be prepared for your glass being continually filled, Geisha drinking games, beautiful performances, and lots of fun!
Like many other people, I once held the belief that Geishas wore white makeup because of European influence and a preference for fairer skin. However, a quick look back at history has provided a much more logical explanation for this trend which has been understandably misunderstood. What do you think of the Geishas’ pale skin? Do you think it is beautiful, or do you think they should drop the tradition now that light-reflecting makeup is no longer necessary?