Geisha “芸者” also known as Geiko “芸妓”, while often misunderstood, embody a very traditional side of Japanese culture. I am assuming that if you are currently reading this blog, you are already aware of a few things.
- Geisha are essentially entertainers and master of many arts, not prostitutes.
- Becoming a geisha requires years of training and diligence.
- Geisha are not everywhere in Japan and are dwindling as we speak.
To preserve the art form, it is necessary to talk about their lives with respect to the authenticity of it all. Even so, there are ways in which this geisha makeup and style are molding into the contemporary. From my first encounter with geisha and its culture, I will introduce you to a brief history with an explanation of geisha and Maiko makeup!
My Encounter with Geisha: “Memoirs of a Geisha”
I came to know of the existence of geisha when I was in middle school when I started hearing whispers about the controversy over the 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha based on the book by Arthur Golden written in 1997. The geisha had apparently come out saying that a lot of what Arthur Golden had written was skewed, creating a misconception on the reality of geisha. Nonetheless, the geisha fever grew with the release of the movie. This geisha fever has since stayed and is in no danger of dying out as a national symbol of traditional Japanese culture.
I have actually been fortunate enough to meet one of these geisha in Kyoto when I was visiting for the first time as an exchange student with my high school. One of the leaders of our group, a long time resident of Japan originally from the United States, knew of a geisha who was willing to meet our little group. I’m not sure how much they paid, but from the research I have done it seems to me that this was, in fact, a real geisha by the name of Tsunemomo. She was very pleasant, calm, funny, and at ease with herself. We were blown away by her.
History & Theory behind Geisha and Maiko Makeup
Very briefly I would like to mention the origins of the white face makeup customary to geisha and Maiko Makeup. This white face makeup originated from China and was used because in the dim candlelight, wearing thick white makeup created a porcelain look. The mouth looked like lacquer ware—something loved and praised by the Japanese. The whitening effects of whitening powder are still proliferated to this day in modern makeup.
What is Maiko “舞妓”, and how is it different than Geisha?
Traditionally, a trainee geisha is known as a Maiko, an apprentice to geisha. Maiko begin training at the ages of fourteen to sixteen through to their early 20’s in order to become skilled in music, dance, conversation, mannerisms, and even the methods of applying their own makeup. This training stage is very hard, and about only half of Maiko succeed in becoming geisha.
Maiko Makeup and Dress
There are two distinguishing features of a Maiko’s makeup and hair when compared with a geisha:
- Lip: Only the bottom lip of a maiko is painted red (A senior maiko will have half of their upper lip painted red)
- Hana Kanzashi (Hair ornaments with a flower for the first-year Maiko): hair ornaments are more elaborate and the hair is natural compared to geisha, who would wear wigs. Maiko uses their natural hair for their styles.
Back of the neck only half covered in white. If you look closer at the back of their neck, the line that separate white makeup is W-shaped for Maiko and V-shaped for geisha.
Geisha “芸者” Makeup and dress
One notable beautiful aspect about Geisha makeup is its use of natural materials and that most of their makeup items are handmade, and of good quality. There was no commercially available cosmetic kit in Edo period, so women had to use what was in their kitchen or gardens to create their makeup themselves to emphasize their beauty. The most common ingredients include soy, rice, rice bran, camellia oil, and even charcoal, among many others.
Oil as Primer
The application begins with Bintsuke Abura or Kabuki Abura, a special kind of traditional oil made from soy. It is the same oil that Sumo wrestlers use for their hair. The purpose of this delightful oil is to create a barrier between the skin and the harsh makeup, as well as to lock in moisture to not overdry the skin when it is time for removal. Tsai, the creator of Tatcha, an American makeup brand that’s inspired by geisha makeup, says that “Geisha never strip their skin [of moisture] with bubbles and alcohol so they never have to feed the moisture back in”.
Shironuri: White Foundation/Powder
Next step is to mix water and Oshiroi, white makeup powder. Historically, white lead was used for this powder, which caused lead poisoning. Using a flat type makeup brush called Hake, you cover up the whole face and neck. The hairline is not painted to make the makeup look like a mask. Excess water is removed with a sponge.
Red Lips and Eyeliner
The beautiful red lips and eyes of geisha and maiko makeup are made from Beni “紅” which is an extract of the Japanese Safflower. It is also called “Kyoto Red” and the mix contains crystallized sugar. This paint for the eyes and lips first comes in a liquid form and as a cute decor note, the geisha will occasionally put the dried paste into a seashell so that it will cover the inside of the shell to hide the makeup. It makes a beautiful ornament on a makeup table.
Charcoal: Eyes and Eyeliner makeup
Eyebrows and eyes are drawn with charcoal.
Note: Teeth Staining (Ohaguro)
Teeth staining at one time used to be popular using oxidized iron in a solution. There were many purposes for this including protecting the teeth from dental issues, to create an illusion of a wider smile, to avoid having the teeth looking yellow in contrast to the white face makeup, and it was simply a trend until the end of the 19th century.
Geisha sometimes don’t wear makeup. When a maiko transitions to a geisha she wears less makeup because it is believed that she has matured enough for her natural beauty to be seen. The makeup is meant to act like a mask to protect the allure, and possibly, the innocence of the maiko. Once a geisha matures, she will not wear much makeup during the daytime, and only revert to the full white face when she is going to traditional ceremonial or other important events at night.
Makeup Brushes of Japanese Geisha
For reference and incase you were interested, below are the some of the more traditionally-shaped makeup brushes made in Kumano, Hiroshima.
Hake-style makeup brush. While not the exact same model as the brush used by geisha makeup, the flat bristle shape is the same type.
The Hanako brush is a portable but functional powder brush. Ideal for contouring and defining cheeks for flawlessly blended natural results. It comes with a leather pouch.
While it is being called “Kabuki” brush, it is not used by Kabuki actors, but it got its name through the resemblance of the Kabuki bristle shape.
There is so much more to learn about Japanese Geisha and the way they spend time creating this figure of beauty and grace. They are true performers and the makeup is only one part of their act. Geisha are an enigma of the highest caliber but by providing you with some basic information such as geisha and maiko makeup and makeup brushes, we hope you are closer to understanding these gems of Japanese culture.
As always, we at A-Janaika Japan are so thankful for the time you spent reading this article.
See you soon.
Written By Ana Vigueras Edited by Hiro Kano