In their lifetimes, most Japanese people never meet a geisha (GAY-shah), a woman trained to provide lighthearted company and entertainment to men. Yet to many outsiders, the geisha is a symbol of Japanese culture. Today, in fact, there are fewer than two thousand geishas, and they live mostly in Tokyo, Kyoto, and a few resort areas in Japan. They charge men as much as one thousand dollars an hour for their company. Geisha are not prostitutes, as many westerners believe, but classical artists whose art involves entertaining men. While prostitution has been illegal in Japan since 1957, being a geisha is a legal profession because it is presumed to be an important cultural practice.

The arts, or "gei," that the geisha practice are classical Japanese dance, called "Nihon buyo," and music. Art is life for the geisha and to polish one's life into a work of art is the geisha's ideal. Their practices are called "shikitari" and are a very specific kind of custom and method for poised living and communication. Many in Japan consider geishas to be the opposite of wives. They are artistic rather than practical, sexy rather than proper, and witty rather than serious.

The separate society of the geisha is called the "flower and willow world." The rules of the flower and willow world demand proper conduct, a sense of obligation to the men served, duty, and discipline. These strict rules keep most modern Japanese women from pursuing it as a career. A third of geishas are the daughters of geishas. Their training includes years of "minari," or learning by observation. Geishas work from a "ryotei," a teahouse licensed to provide geisha entertainment. Men who go to ryotei are usually very wealthy and also very culturally refined and educated to appreciate classical arts.

The first geishas were actually men. From about 1600, customers who frequented geishas were actually visiting prostitutes, but they also went to parties that included sociable conversation, eating, drinking, and dance and music performed by male geishas, or "otoko geisha." By 1780, however, the female geishas, or "onna geisha," greatly outnumbered male geishas and by 1800 a geisha was presumed to be a female.

The geishas have long been known as fashion leaders. Among the fashion innovations of geisha are the wide band obi, or sash, and the customs of women wearing either hakama (loose trousers or split skirt) and haori (an outer garment) over the base kimono. Over the years many of the conventions of feminine fashion were invented in the flower and willow world, and then abandoned by the geisha society when they entered the mainstream. The profession of the geisha has survived into the twenty-first century by evolving into something quite different than what it had once been. Once cultural innovators, today geisha are caretakers of traditions of Japanese classical music, dance, manners, and fashion.

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