There is a limited number of empirical studies and scholarly articles dedicated to the geisha culture. The role was first practiced by male individuals but is mostly known as a female profession in modern Japan.
Geisha culture and practice is a recognized form of elegant art and is considered as one of the trademarks that define Japan. This study aims to weigh the interest of tourists, whether participants have reason to explore the history or enjoy the experience.
Kimono Tea Ceremony Maikoya and Kyoto Geisha Show & Experience Gion Maikoya conducted this study to close the literature gap and also find out positive and negative evaluations of geisha. Results have shown that 3 out of 10 travelers are very interested in Geisha culture, with 15.5% having met or watched a data show while traveling to Japan.
Foreigners tend to be interested in the geisha tradition, history and its unique aspect in comparison to the Western culture.
Those who had a chance to meet a geisha were interested in the history of Geisha because of their portrayal in films, and others found the experience cool. Females, in general, were more interested in geisha than men mostly because of geisha’s outfit, and relatability.
Misunderstanding geisha’s cultural significance was a common theme with disinterested responses. (See the tables and appendixes for open-ended survey responses)
People often use the word geiko and geisha interchangeably because these two words mean the same thing except the fact that the word geiko is only used in Kyoto. Geisha are professional artists who are registered in official geisha associations and excel in traditional Japanese arts and crafts such as shamisen playing, dancing, and tea ceremony.
Geiko is the word that refers to geisha in the Kyoto dialect. Broma-Smenda (2014) defines it as “Geisha (geigi or geiko) is a traditional Japanese female entertainer, whose skills include various arts like dancing, singing, and playing music.
Geishas as male companions at banquets were specialized only in traditional Japanese arts in contrast to courtesans (yujô).
In the first phase of data collection, an online survey measured approximately 3000 visitors to the samurai museum in Kyoto during October 2020 and received 367 responses with a response rate of around 15%. In the second phase, another online survey was sent out during November 2020 to travelers who made a reservation on a major geisha experience provider related to any geisha experience in Kyoto. A total of 47 responses were gathered with a survey response rate of around 13%. The respondents were informed about the purpose of the study, and no individually identifying information was collected.
Study I: In November 2020, an online survey about traveling experiences in Japan was conducted. (N:368 who visited a history museum in Kyoto)
Are foreign travelers interested in geisha?
The study showed that 30% of people were “very interested.” in meeting a geisha or watching a geisha show. However, this interest level was clearly below the interest towards Tea ceremony (38%), sumo watching experience (49%), cooking experience (44%), and ryokan stay experience (63%).
Differences between Males and Females
Results indicated that while 39% of female respondents stated that they were “very interested” in meeting geisha or watching a geisha show, this ratio was only 22% for the male respondents. In the follow up study we analyzed the potential reasons that may cause this difference as can be seen in Appendix 1.
Do foreign travelers actually join a geisha experience while in Japan?
This ratio is difficult to predict as it may vary based on the season and the origin country of the travelers. Our analysis of the responses of 368 people who visited a history museum in Kyoto showed that 15.5% of travelers to Japan “watched a geisha show or participated in geisha tea ceremony experience.” However, once again, this number was below the experiences of Tea ceremony (47%), ryokan stay (46%) and cooking or food tours (30%).
Study II: Survey of geisha experience participants (N:47)
In December 2020, we sent an online survey to those who reserved a geisha experience on Maikoya’s website and asked them the reasons that they decided to join such an experience. The top reasons were related to the personal interest in the tradition and history of geisha while fascination with the actual appearance of the geisha ranked rather low.
Table 2: % of geisha experience participants strongly agreed with the following statements when asked “Why did you join the geisha experience?”
|% of Respondents who strongly agreed with the statement
|Because I wanted to learn about the tradition of geisha
|Because I wanted to learn about the history of geisha and/or the history of Japan
|Because I wanted to participate in a traditional local activity/experience only exists in Japan
|Because having the geisha experience can teach me about Japanese Culture
|Because I wanted to talk to the geisha or ask questions to the geisha
|Because I wanted to join an “exclusive” experience
|Because I wanted to see the makeup and outfit of the geisha closely
|Because the “mystery” of the geisha was appealing to me
|Because I wanted to watch the dance performance of geisha closely
|Because I thought geisha were beautiful and wanted to see them closely
|Because I was fascinated by the “geisha” through movies/books, etc.
Frequency analysis of Open-ended responses
The figure below encompasses the most common themes as stated by the respondents of this study. The bigger the text, the more common it is as a theme.
As seen in the figure, the biggest recurring themes of the responses include learning and experiencing culture and learning history. This suggests that customers who had the Geisha experience are interested in the cultural significance. The next biggest recurring themes are unique, maiko, authenticity, Japanese, and Kyoto.
Regarding the gender difference
We also asked the respondents why they thought females were more interested in geisha than males. The answers mostly mentioned the stereotype that females are more interested in kimono fashion and makeup so they may be more interested in geisha culture for their unique style and iconic looks. Some respondents also mentioned that foreign women may relate to Japanese geishas and sympathize with them with regards to the perceived struggles and challenges the geisha have to go through.
Based on the provided responses, here are the main repeating points:
Cultural Interest and Curiosity:
- Participants, especially women, express a strong interest in understanding the cultural aspects of being a geisha.
- Some believe that women are generally more curious and interested in exploring different cultures, such as Japanese Culture through the geisha experience.
- Women appreciate the beauty of geisha clothing, makeup, hairstyles, and dance. The aesthetic aspects are particularly appealing to women who can relate to or appreciate these elements more than men.
Identification and Empathy:
- Women feel a stronger identification with geisha, imagining themselves in similar situations or appreciating the challenges faced by women in different parts of the world. Feeling affinity towards these people who sacrifice their lives and live in a house with so many constraints.
- Empathy towards the struggles of being a woman, as well as admiration for the poise and grace of geisha, is a recurring theme.
Symbolism and Representation:
- Geisha are seen as symbols of femininity and grace, representing an exclusive and elite group of women.
- Women value the representation of beauty and desire associated with geisha and see them as respected figures.
Connection to Personal Lives:
- Women draw parallels between the geisha lifestyle and their own lives, creating a fascination with the differences and similarities.
- The attention to detail in the geisha’s life, including the elaborate makeup and clothing, draws appreciation and parallels from women.
Interest in Beauty and Lifestyle:
- Women express interest in learning the secrets of beauty from geisha and appreciate the dedication to clothing, makeup, and dancing.
- The geisha lifestyle is perceived as unique and glamorous, attracting women’s desire for beauty and a different way of living.
Cultural Stereotypes and Western Perspective:
- Some participants mention that women, especially from a Western perspective, are more interested in the romanticized idea of geisha, contrasting with stereotypes associated with men.
- Foreigners may be more intrigued by geisha than Japanese men or women due to the novelty of the concept in their home countries.
The online survey conducted last November 2020 shows that 3 out of 10 foreigners who visited Japan are very interested in Geisha culture, with 15.5% having met or watched a data show while in Japan. However, the level of interest is not as high as other traditional experiences such as tea ceremonies, ryokan stays, and other Japanese cultural experiences. We noted that female respondents were more interested in geisha because they cared more about the dress, hair, and make-up of the geisha. It is also noted that negative responses show a general theme of Westerners misinterpreting the culture as prostitution.
Appendix I: Why Females are More Interested in Geisha than Males (Open Ended Responses)
|I think women would like to understand what means to be a Geisha for another woman and what brings someone to chose this path
|I am female and I can only speak from my own experience. I had an extra special interest in her life, her hairstyles, her makeup, her clothes, her education, and her schooling to become a geisha. This may not appeal to men
|I think the beautiful clothing, makeup and dance are so appealing to women because they can appreciate those things more as they partake in these things far more often than men.
|Due to different cultures around the world and the perception of geisha. Women have an interesting position as a geisha. Women also like the aesthetic of geisha – for example the hair, makeup and kimono.
|I don’t know, as what interested most my wife and myself was knowing more about Japanese Culture through the Geisha experience, I don’t think interest in Culture depends on your gender.
|Such an interesting question and I am not sure of the answer! I think that it is maybe because women are interested to understand geisha and feel more connected (e.g. it could be them if their life was different).
|I think from a western perspective geisha remind me of princesses from fairytales, except it’s something closer to reality for most girls and women. That, along with wanting to get to know Japanese Culture, understanding beauty and dance, as well as the elegance of geisha. It just feels magical. I think men might understand this on the surface, but not as deeply as women.
|It’s difficult to say. Personally I admire their poise and grace and I don’t think men notice that as much as women do. I also love their clothing and jewellery and I don’t think men can appreciate it as much.
|I think foreigners are more interested in geisha than Japanese men or women. There’s nothing like geisha in our home countries so this is something that is very interesting to us.
|I think we can relate to geisha easier than men
|Its probably due to the unfortunate gender binary.
|It’s possible because they represent an idea that shows much grace yet much detachment from normal women (i.e. geisha are expected to be chaste and have to live, eat, and move as a geisha for much of their late adolescent, and if they choose to, rest of their adult lives) that allows them to look at their own ideas of femininity in another light.
|Maybe because women study humanities and languages more frequently and these are the subjects where you probably hear about Geisha culture first.
|Intrigued by the culture
|Probably because women tend to see other women with curiosity. Women in general are more curious. Besides the traditional make up and dressing is more appealing to females, women can identify or imagine themselves wearing the same outfit, doing the same thing, unlike men. Identification mechanism is very strong in human mind. People get fascinated by someone with whom they may identify themselves.
|I think they are interested in how women are treated in different parts of the world.
|I think it’s because as women we understand and appreciate each other. As we struggle with the hardships of being born a woman, we want to know about the lives of other women around the world. Being a geisha is being and artist and art at the same time, and they were and are valores from that. When you ask others what they first think of Japan, people always think of geisha and Japanese food, it means geisha are a symbol of your country and I don’t think there another country in the world were women are mentioned first.
|Their performance. Their beauty. Also their gorgeous makeup and clothing.
|Probably because women want to learn from them some secrets to look great and make their men happy
|Because of the romantic idea about Geishas present in all western movies and books. Also because they are beautiful and their femininity.
|The lore and beauty of a geisha and her life. I think women pay more attention to the details which draws a lot more appreciation for what they do. They can also draw some parallels to their own lives and habits while not quite same.
|Because we value beautiful things in each other more.
|I think because while so different from our own experience, there is something that connects all of us as women. Speaking as someone from a western background, the concept of Geisha – them leaving home so young, the years of training, the lifestyle – are very foreign to what my cultural and societal upbringing was – that its fascinating. I personally also love the art of the hair and make up and clothes, as a lover of all these things in my own life, its just so interesting to see the epitome of these things in a Japanese setting.
|Being a geisha is a way of life that is exclusive to women. I believe that this makes geisha more interesting to women.
|Perhaps the elaborate make up and dressing
|Because it is an elite group of women and of course they are beautiful and watching and learning from them, having contacts with men and being appreciated from them, maybe will make women curious about their secrets
|It attracts the desire for beauty and shows a way of living that is few and far between. Geisha are respected and women want to see what that life is like
|I think women can empathise with the ritual of being a geisha more than men, the hours of preparation for the clothing and makeup and the sacrifices made for their way of daily life.
|They are interested in kimono, make-up, hairstyle, movements, behavior, knowledge …
|I wasn’t aware that was the case. They are so beautiful and mysterious.
|Because there is so much work into the clothing, hair and makeup. The dancing and social aspect is also appealing to women more.
|I think men are more interested. Women are interested by the art and make-up but also want to know the daily life of geisha and understand what is their life.
|Perhaps it is to do with being a more traditional part of Japanese Culture. Most men I know are more interested in the more modern tourist attractions like snow sports and tokyo/city night life. Western culture has also associated the geisha image with consorts and “street workers” and perhaps a group of tourist men might feel awkward engaging in geisha activities due to this negative connotation.
|No idea, I’m a dude and I think they’re pretty interesting
|I’m not sure, I think women may see it as a feminine art form that they wish to learn about and show appreciation for
|Because women around the world can better relate to them and their importance in cuture
|Due to their exquisite beauty and uniqueness and glamour.
|Because it’s a level of beauty and desire that most women will never obtain. It’s something to be very interested in and to respect and want to know more about.
|Speaking for my husband and I, I’m more interested in history and culture than my husband. His interest are more aligned with current-day and tech. I think that’s why (at least for us) I was more interested in Geisha.
Appendix II: Open-ended responses of 368 Japanese Visitors to the question “Are you interested in “geisha,” why/why not?
|Don’t know much about geishas I think maybe the mystery is appealing in this case
|I have heard a lot about geisha but don’t know much history about them, so it would be interesting to learn.
|Very cool but expensive
|Geisha dresses are so beautiful & it’s so different from western culture
|Kids uninterested and short attention span
|It is interesting to try something from a new culture
|Have witnessed it before and found it a bit too staged
|Very interested in this unique aspect of Japanese culture
Appendix III: Online Forum Discussions about Geisha
Before the survey studies were conducted, the author posted the question “Why are you interested or uninterested in the geisha tradition?” on several online discussion groups on Facebook and Reddit. The post on Reddit was removed after a short while on Facebook there were about 30 comments in total after cleaning the irrelevant comments and repeating comments. Some of the representative examples are provided below.
|Not interested. I do appreciate they train and pick up traditional dancing/music but how is the role of a geisha different from that of a kyabajo. Feels it’s demeaning as a whole
|I’m interested in Geisha. I’ve always been fond of theater and dance and appreciate the training that Geisha go through. I remember reading the autobiography of Mineko Iwasaki for one of my history projects and being enamored with her story.
|Neither interested nor disinterested. I feel a large part of my disinterest stems from the Western perception of geisha as a prostitute and from the Western fascination with them. Like the ninja, geisha are misunderstood in the West. My interest lies in the historical geisha and what life must have been like during those days. To go to a tea house and be entertained with traditional music and song. Fascinating.
|I’m not interested in them. I know that they exist and have an idea of what they do, past that I don’t put any thought into it.
|I got interested in Geisha because of the memoirs of a geisha, but I was fascinated to see how the movie changed the kimono, and how a normal housewife would wear a kimono, so that was what started me on learning about Japan, and kimono. Geisha wear the most complicated kimono and know the most about how to move beautifully in a susohiki furisode
|I’m vaguely interested but it’s not my favorite part of Japan’s culture.
|I’m not interested in it at all personally. I have a great distaste for make-up, so I don’t like looking at geisha either. And because of that, I don’t bother looking into it nor have I ever heard anything about it that would interest me.
|Yes it’s important to keep the Japanese culture of geisha I studied the geisha culture from the feudal era to the Edo period 1250ad to 1889 of Japan geisha was originally prostitutes now geisha is a housewife or a beautiful lady of the house and tourism of entertainment nowadays
|No, because it is an outdated lifestyle.
|I love it. It represents a unique culture and tradition of song dance and hospitality.
Those ladies study all forms of traditional singing, dancing, and service.
They study good manners and how to deal with people from various cultures
What I don’t like at all is the wrong view of western countries, especially the Americans that label them as prostitutes. This is a sad misrepresentation of a noble and traditional culture
|Sexual immorality and prostitution were a part of it. That makes it questionable.
|Most definitely. I love the beauty, the tradition of what they do, the dedication to serving.
Appendix IV: Some open-ended responses to “Why did you join the geisha experience?”
|My wife and I are passionate about Japanese culture and having a chance to see and speak to a Geisha was really interesting for us.
It’s very unique to Japanese culture and I had never met a Geisha before, so I was very interested in finding out more! I really enjoyed being able to ask her questions about her routine, her journey and her life as a Geisha. It was great to have a translator present! It was an amazing experience and I really enjoyed having my hair done and dressing up for the occasion.
The experience was one of the best things we did whilst visiting Japan. Our Tea ceremony with a Meiko was just incredible and gave a glimpse into one of the most fascinating traditions in Japan.
My husband and I booked a private dinner with unlimited drinks and a Maiko performance in Kyoto last December. It was truly a beautiful experience. The food was great, the performance felt very authentic and the service was impeccable. We wanted to experience the geisha culture up close and personal and we felt that this experience allowed us to do that.
I had a tea ceremony in late December last year, I wanted to do it to discover more traditional Japan as i was in Tokyo before coming to Kyoto and for me this tea ceremony is still an amazing memory
I wanted to meet and see an authentic geisha performance and understand the cultural significance behind it. It was great. Got to ask questions through the translator, and maiko-san was very kind. I also got to do a traditional tea ceremony which was lovely.
Baughn, T., & Furman, K. (2008). The Evolution and Resurgence of the Geisha Profession 1937-1965.
Johnston, W. (2004). Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan. Columbia University Press.
Downer, L. (2002). Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha. Crown.
Kimono Tea Ceremony Maikoya
Maikoya is one of Japan’s leading cultural experience providers with branches in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. The company specializes in cultural and traditional activities such as tea ceremony, sushi and other cooking classes, calligraphy, flower arrangement, taiko drumming, and the like.
Maikoya accommodates sessions in English, Chinese, and Japanese. The activities are designed to accommodate groups for school trips, company trips, international conferences, vacationers, and other miscellaneous companies.
Maikoya is also the only venue that offers a geisha tea ceremony experience every day in central Kyoto. The geisha tea ceremony also includes sweets tasting, wearing a traditional kimono, and asking questions to the geisha.
Samurai & Ninja Museum
The Samurai & Ninja Museum Kyoto is a leading samurai museum in Japan that offers a variety of experiences that inform and educate visitors on the history and relevance of samurais and ninjas in Japan. Some of these experiences will range from sword cutting, historical tours in Kyoto, and a crash course on ninja training.
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