The term geisha (芸者) emphasizes entertainment, artistry, and performance. The first character, gei, is the same found in words for the arts (芸術), artist (芸術家), performing arts (芸能), and so on.

“It can’t be overemphasized that the image that geisha would almost automatically conjure up today—especially abroad but not exclusively so—is rather irregular when we try historicizing the term,” Maki Isaka, a professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in Japanese performance and gender studies. “Geisha means ‘that which (sha)’ do ‘gei (acquired artistic technique),’ a term that was used in that exact manner in the past, but was even broader to include even martial arts practitioners.”

The term itself is not necessarily even gendered. Historians note that the first geisha were actually men who worked in what was then called Edo, now modern-day Tokyo. “Depending on regions, geisha as a ‘gender-neutral’ term indicates male geisha, and a gender signifier would be necessary to signify female counterparts,” Isaka says.

Geisha is also not a monolithic word, it is simply the word that was carried over into English; in other cities, like Kyoto, the term geiko is used instead.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *