Friday, December 23, 2011

The Misconception of a Geisha ...

"Remember, Chiyo, geisha are not courtesans. And we are not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word 'geisha' means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art."  ~Memoirs of a Geisha

A turn of the head; the flutter of a fan; a single, elegant rotation of a hand; the sweet scent of white plum – such are the minute details which make up the hidden world of the geisha. The geisha is a relatively new facet of Japanese culture, making its first appearance in the early 1700’s. It was thanks in part to the rise in income and sudden interest in leisure activities during the Edo Period of Japan (1600-1868), that the geisha was even birthed. Handpicked from a young age, the geisha are trained in the traditional arts of song, dance, poetry, literature, light conversation, and tea ceremonies. Though belonging to a greater group of female entertainers, musicians, and artists, geisha have held a special place in Japanese culture and society for several centuries and have even gone so far as to become an international icon for the country of the Far East.

The geisha, surprisingly, were not always women – and weren’t always called geisha. In fact, the very first geisha-like class was called the taikomochi. This group of entertainers was comprised of men whose sole purpose was to amuse guests through storytelling and hilarity in hopes of making the surrounding atmosphere merrier. It was during this time (1680’s), that parents, hoping to hire their daughter’s talents out, started sending their children off to small schools to train in dance and song. These young dancers were known as
odoriko. “Originally, these girls were put out for hire without the offering of sexual acts, but over the years, with many parents starting to exploit their daughters, many of the odoriko had turned to prostitution” (Graham-Diaz). Eventually, many of these girls, most of which originated from Edo and from the Fukagawa Prefecture, were forced completely into prostitution and ended up in Yoshiwara, the red-light district of Edo. A young dancer, Kikuya of Fukagawa, became one of the first to name herself geisha after taking a particular interest in the arts. Although she still resorted to prostitution, she began a trend which many followed. Soon thereafter, the geisha found themselves competing for clients among the courtesans and prostitutes.

By 1779, female geisha had become so popular that brothel owners and courtesan-run tea houses began to worry. The geisha were starting to take numerous clients causing the former to lose business. In response to this new threat, former brothel owner, Daikokuya Shoroku, came up with the idea of a registering system. “Concerned with both the fact that geisha were threatening the carefully regulated structure of Yoshiwara, and also with the fact that they were avoiding paying any taxes whatsoever to put towards the upkeep of the Yoshiwara, he conceived of the idea to register geisha, both male and female” (Graham-Diaz). Thus, the first kenban was created. The system, which still prevails today, set up at the gates of Yoshiwara and proceeded to produce rules and regulations that would control the geisha. Also, the hiring of rather unattractive women to become geisha was promoted. “These rules and regulations, rather than hindering the geisha, created the perfect conditions that paved the way for a new age in the popularity of geisha” (Graham-Diaz).

In the critically acclaimed movie, Memoirs of a Geisha, a young woman, Chiyo, is taken in by the aged geisha Mameha, and becomes her protégé. As the older woman trains her young “sister,” she explains what it means to be geisha. “Remember, Chiyo,” she says. “Geisha are not courtesans. And we are not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word geisha means artist and to be geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.” Although there is some controversy over the movie, Mameha’s words creatively sum up her point. The word geisha can be split into two kanji. The first is 芸 (gei) meaning “art;” the second 者 (sha) which translates as “person” or “doer.” To this day, many Westerners have been under the impression that geisha are Japan’s prostitutes and ladies of the night. Although their beginnings originated from the humble courtesan, geisha are not courtesans. “…The assumption that being a geisha requires her to engage in sex with customers arises not only because the term geisha has been applied so liberally (to all sorts of women), but also because personal patronage of artists is so unusual” (Foreman, 99).

Perhaps one of the most popular theories as to why geisha’s reputation were soiled so in the West, has to do with foreign occupation of Japan during World War II. Although the popularity of the geisha was declining at that time, they still had a strong hold over areas like Tokyo and Osaka. When US servicemen returned from their time in Japan, they claimed to have enjoyed time with “geisha.” “In truth, these women were not trained geisha at all, but simply imitated aspects of geisha hairstyle and apparel, calling themselves “geisha girls.” Few servicemen could tell the difference between real or fake geisha, and so was born the geisha prostitute myth…” (Tanaka). Unfortunately, despite its inaccuracy, the falsehood endures, inevitably giving anyone in the West the right to call a Japanese woman wearing a fancy kimono and paint geisha.

Because the geisha and professional stage musicians and dancers hold so much in common, it is often times difficult to differentiate between the two. “Since art is what sets geisha apart from female companions of other sorts (such as bar hostesses, for example), a geisha’s level of artistic competency is a prominent focus of public attention and scrutiny…The artistic ability of geisha is difficult to measure because it involves an understanding unique to artists who study and perform several genres, specific to geisha” (Foreman, 78). In other words, one cannot compare a geisha playing the shamisen to an expert in the art. That would only reveal the geisha’s level of competence in playing the instrument. Selecting to be a geisha over that of a professional entertainer or performer enables young women to pursue art without having to really specialize in something or to teach. It also allows them to have a more personal relationship with their audiences as well as the ability to perform outside of theaters (Forman, 85).

Whether it be in the depths of the Yoshiwara, a quiet tea house in Tokyo, or a modern-day festival, geisha have transcended time, perhaps, more than any other type of entertainer originating from Japan. They have made their mark around the world and have become a staple of Japanese culture and society. In well-versed narration, Chiyo, the young protagonist of Memoirs of a Geisha, explains that, “It is not for geisha to want. It is not for a geisha to feel. Geisha is an artist of the floating world. She dances, she sings, she entertains you…Whatever you want…the rest is shadows; the rest is secret.” Though they changed the infrastructures of Japan’s entertainment industry through centuries of work, dedication, and grace, relatively little has been revealed about them to the outside world.

"Not every geisha uses that kind of currency."


Foreman, Kelly M. The Gei of Geisha. Ashgate Publishing House. Burlington, Vermont. 2008.

Graham-Diaz, Naomi. “History of a Geisha: Part 1.” 27 Sept. 2009.

Memoirs of a Geisha. Dir. Rob Marshall. Wri. Robin Swincord, Arthur Golden. Columbia Pictures Corporation. 2005.

Tanaka, Ken. “Misconceptions About Japan’s Geisha Women.” 27 Sept. 2009.

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