Geisha and Religion

As in modern times Geisha have become the “curators of tradition” (Dalby 2000, 80), it is relatively unsurprising that there would exist a variety of associations between them and Buddhist and Shinto institutions. As the largest and oldest religions still extant in Japan, Buddhist and Shinto institutions can also be referred to as “curators of tradition”. Housing many of Japans most prized National Treasures, offering matsuri as a venue for viewing and participating in traditional activities, and being the source of many of Japan’s customs and etiquettes, religion is indeed one of, if not, the largest and strongest ties to tradition and values of the past remnant in Japan. The intention of this paper is to explore connections between Geisha and these religious institutions and speculate on possible reasons for these connections.

Japan has had some form of religion and ceremony since the earliest of its known human cultures. The Jomon Period, arguably the first period of Japan’s cultural history, has produced a variety of items, most notably the Dogu figurines and elaborately decorated pottery from which this period takes its name, which are believed to be ritual objects (Habu 2004). It should therefore be of little surprise that Japanese culture and etiquette has borrowed many of its everyday aspects of life from beliefs stemmed in its multiple religions. It also follows suite that, as supposed experts on etiquette, the life of a Geisha would be tied in a variety of ways to these religions.

Many of what would be considered the basic mores of Japanese society are rooted in Shinto and Buddhist traditions. While these mores are continually practiced today, their origin, in some cases even their purpose, have long been forgotten by the average Japanese person. For instance, the reason for the elevated floor of the traditional Japanese home comes from the Shinto belief that one must remove their shoes before entering the home so as not to pollute the abode with the impurities of the outdoors (Covell 2008). The same rule applies to the reason for use of bathroom slippers. A less mundane example can be seen in the reason for various holidays, and the practices of those holidays.

As Geisha tend to be superstitious (Graham 2010), it follows that they tend to abide by various practices said to augment ones luck and good fortune. One such tradition is performed on Setsubun, a holiday based on the lunar calendar designed to bring in a prosperous new year (Dalby 2000. 125-127). With roots in Shintoism, this holiday is a time for both pilgrimage, to collect talismans for the protection of one’s home from evil and misfortune, as well as celebration of opposition. The tradition of dressing up as the opposite of oneself on this day, in a spirit similar to that of Halloween yet with a more comical than frightening energy, has been all but lost in modern society (Dalby 2000. 126). It is Geisha who continue to practice this ritual, in the hopes of bringing in a prosperous new year. Though even Geisha are said to be forgetting the reason for this practice the knowledge that it is to be performed on Setsubun and its performance, while others forget it, is an aspect of how religion is tied to Geisha’s knowledge and mastery of Japanese etiquette (Dalby 2000. 126).

In the same way, many Japanese are inadequately versed in the intricacies of commonly practiced ceremonies like funerals. Though every culture has a great deal of practices and traditions that must be abided by at a funeral, Japanese culture takes them to the next level. Proper etiquette for hosting a funeral has become so complex that how to videos have been made to help guide individuals through the process. It is here again that Geisha may stand apart from other Japanese as keepers of etiquette. “Because Geisha are expected to know social etiquette, and because their clients tend to be older, they are especially well versed in the intricate rules pertaining to Japanese funerals (Dalby 2000, 174)”.

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One of the traits a geisha is expected to possess is a deep knowledge of social etiquette. It is in the attainment of this trait that we can see one of the ways in which Geisha are tied to the Japanese religious institutions, for it is here that many of the social morays derive. Confucianism is credited as one of the reasons that various forms of speech exist in Japanese for use when speaking with and to a variety of people (Saito 2008), a skill Geisha must master, and Buddhism and Shintoism developed many of the ceremonies in which Geisha are expected to navigate through with relative ease. The knowledge of complex rules outlining behavior that have grown from Japanese religions have created a part of what gives Geisha their elevated status in the minds of outsiders. This relationship, though subtle, has created traditions that are maintained in part by geisha, and thus each entity is perpetuated by the other. Traditions of the past steeped in religion are continued by geisha, and geisha are able to maintain this aspect of their status in part because of the existence of these complex traditions.

It is true, in fact, that in modern times most Japanese claim to subscribe to no religion. Though they admit to the fact that certain ceremonies are maintained, Buddhist funerals, Shinto weddings, coming of age at 20, to name a few, these ceremonies are justified as being customs to be upheld within the culture, rather than rituals to serve a religious purpose (Warms et al. 2009, 56-59). Even the purchase of o-mamori, or charms to protect and bring in luck, are justified as being gifts one gives to show to the receiver that you are thinking of their well-being rather than an object with its own mystical merit (Kimura, 2009:48-49). It is in a time when a society claims to have abandoned its traditions which have survived and flourished over a thousand years despite varying waves of persecution and sponsorship that so called “curators of tradition” can carve a niche for themselves.

Due to the transition of their role from trend setter to “curator of tradition” Geisha are now seen as a link to a romantic past, one of loyalty, samurai, honor, fidelity, elegance, and a more natural purity when compared today’s more modern society. In this, the practice and belief of traditional Japanese religions would serve to perpetuate this image, and make their status that much more elevated. Ties to other groups, objects, and ceremonies that are considered traditional would serve to elevate the perceived of status of Geisha as an iconic image of traditional Japan.

Geisha have had other ties to Shinto and Buddhist institutions since their inception in the Edo Period (Dalby 2000, 55). The location of most prosperous Geisha districts is a direct result of their nearness to popular or famous Temples and Shrines (belonging to Buddhism and Shintoism respectively). At that time in Japan, and even today, pilgrimages to these temples would have been rather commonplace, especially in Tokyo and Kyoto. These locations which were on or near pilgrimage routes were places where “pretty girls in teahouses served food and drink to travelers (Dalby 2000, 55)”. The ability to attract this constant stream of travelers, and to make seeking company at a teahouse thus created a continuous flow of customers which helped these professions flourish.

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To this day a Hanamachi’s nearness to a popular shrine or temple is still an asset. This is due to the fact that shrines and temples, while being places for worship, also tend to be places of beauty and the traditional Japanese aesthetic. It would not be uncommon for a customer to seek the company of a Geisha to admire the beauty of seasonal flowers in bloom at a shrine, or to join them at one of the many festivals held throughout the year at a variety of shrines and temples. Thus, nearness to a famous and well cared for temple could offer geisha an adequate outdoor setting for hosting a client. The elegancy and tradition carried by a Geisha would be well placed in the old world charm of a well cared for temple.

My final connection entails a way in which the position of Geisha beyond or above average society, in that they represent in a way the past in the present as well as epitomes for femininity and beauty, allow them the ability to be seen as distributors of links to that tradition as well. As I have stated before, temples, shrines and geisha offer some of the most tangible links to Japan’s traditional past. Of these links temples and shrines are vastly more accessible and frequented than the company of Geisha. Given the quantity of temples and the rustic air they create, as well as the fact that they are accessible on a tight budget, these religious institutions have a great deal of advantages over Geisha as “curators of tradition”.

The point that I would like to make here however is that though being in the presence of Geisha, temples and shrines offer a link to the Japanese past, these three entities also offer objects which can maintain that connection even when one is not in the presence of a Geisha or on the grounds of a temple or shrine. These objects take the form of what can be broadly referred to as o-mamori. O-mamori, here, refers to objects distributed by these institutions which offer their possessor luck, protection, success, and good fortune.

It has been common practice, since even the time of Murasaki Shikibu, to obtain o-mamori from temples and carry them on ones person in order to obtain the object’s benefits. This practice has continued on to this day. In modern times, any large and most moderately sized temples and shrines will have a selection of o-mamori that a visitor can purchase and take with them. This tradition is one of the ways that these intuitions offer a link to traditional Japanese culture that one can carry with them anywhere, attached to a cell phone or placed in ones wallet. This object represents one way that these religious institutions have brought an extremely old tradition into the popular culture of the 21st century.

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As it turns out, Geisha have taken this cue and run with it as well. All Geisha carry with them a business card of sorts. This card takes the form of a small piece of paper, generally a sticker, approximately 1inch x 1/3 inch in size. It is said that if one were to keep this card in their wallet that they would open their luck to receiving additional money. Making geisha cards an instant o-mamori. These objects thus offer a customer a reminder of the evening he spent with a Geisha, said Geisha’s contact information should he wish to seek her entertainment again, and, most significantly, an open link to that geisha in the form of an ever functioning o-mamori.

Not only would a customer feel that they received the artistic and social services of a geisha for the evening that they paid for, but they would also receive a link to that geisha which would, hopefully, serve its function and bring the carrier in extra money so that he may once again seek out the services of a Geisha.

In conclusion, Geisha, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines have become quite interwoven and complementary to each other as they have both become “curators of tradition” in modern society. As the various social complexities that exist within Japanese culture are rooted in these religions, they have helped create one of the arts of the Geisha, mastery of etiquette. Proximity to a famous temple or shrine would also have offered Geisha a constant influx of pilgrims to these temples as customers to the teahouses, as well as an attractive place to go with customers to enjoy various seasonal flowers and scenes.

The practice of various ceremonies and traditions related to Shinto and Buddhist holidays and events also offers an air of added credibility to the traditional aspect of Geisha. Having intimate knowledge of various ceremonies and practicing traditions like the obake (dressing up) on Setsubun that are no longer performed by mainstream society would serve to remind people that though Geisha may have changed with time they are still the traditional representation of Japanese culture they have been since world war 2. The mirroring of the o-mamori of shrines and the name cards distributed by geisha offer another connection to shrines. Both serving to create a lasting connection with the customer, meant for their benefit, and their eventual return to the institution/individual they received them from.

It is clear that Geisha, temples, and shrines have a complex and yet complimentary relationship that is yet to be fully explored. Hopefully this discourse will be taken up in the future, possibly exploring the ways in which geisha themselves practice religion and a closer look at how temples and shrines may benefit from having a Geisha community near them.


Dalby, Liza. (2000) Geisha. London, UK: Vintage Books.
Habu, Junko. (2004) Ancient Jomon of Japan. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Kimura, Harumi. (2009) Living Japan: Essays on Everyday Life in Contemporary Society. Folkestone, UK: Global Oriental LTD.

Warms, Richard, James Garber, and R. Jon McGee. (2009) Sacred Realms: Readings in the Anthropology of Religion. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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