Why geisha?

maki
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I didn't want to derail Kyandasu's topic so I've started a new one. She mentioned that she finds the history of geisha to be interesting, and she's not alone. It's one of the things that non-Japanese people seem to find most fascinating about Japan.

And, to be honest, I wonder, why?

Before I inject my general view of the world of geisha and how some women in Japan regard it (not all, mind you) - are you interested in geishas (geiko, maiko)? If so, why?

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maki
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Re: Why geisha?

A geisha outfit really is a costume, from the hair on down. I rather prefer looking at ordinary ladies who can wear kimonos in their daily life, and look good doing so. Putting on a kimono properly is a skill that one has to learn (there are classes for it); I myself can't put on a kimono by myself, though my mother can. The last time I put on a kimono, she and 2 of my aunts had to work on me ^_^;

Since the '70s or so there have been less and less women wearing kimonos, but there has been a bit of a kimono comeback in recent years I hope it grows.

Loretta
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Re: Why geisha?
maki wrote:

Why is the tour arrogant? And the book too? (I haven't been on the tour or read the book...but i'm curious!)

A couple of years ago a friend/colleague went to Japan and she was also extremely keen to find out more about Geisha/Geiko (she did the whole dress up and makeover, although I don't think she liked the results). I suggested this tour to her. When a Doctor in the field of psychology comes back using words like narcissistic, arrogant, megalomaniac and nativist (although this last word wasn't quite the one she used) then you know something's amiss. She was with a similarly qualified companion and this particular personality left them both stunned. The tour was memorable but the hilarious anecdotes didn't have much to do with geisha.

I kind of understand Kyasandu's comment about Ms Dalby. That's why I wanted to warn her away from this particular tour.

I'm really enjoying the kimono 'comeback', and my continued interest in this subject has opened up a great deal of questions and lines of enquiries. Taking into account this generalisation of 'Shitamachi' & 'Yamanote' mindsets/lifestyles http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yamanote_and_Shitamachi#Differences_between...
what I find curious and am currently focusing on is that kimono wearing also has a class divide. So within the Yamanote sphere the kimono became less and less popular in the last century EXCEPT for the few native high brow cultural activities such as the tea ceremony, ikebana, noh, etc and at very formal events like weddings and ceremonies. Western dress was usually preferred as a way to signal class and taste. And even in this sphere the way a kimono was worn was/is highly formal and modest with obi worn high on the waist and the nape of the neck well covered. This style of wearing kimono is that perpetuated by the hire trade and what you will see in magazines such as Kimono Salon.
Within the Shitamachi sphere the kimono has stubbornly persisted as everyday wear for much longer but just as the older generations of this kind of kimono wearer (and again, these are worn differently, less stuffy, 'looser') had started to disappear the second hand kimono market boomed and younger ladies are bypassing the formalwear style of kimono and using them instead as a way to express themselves in very natural and creative ways (my favourite blogger and my own inspiration for kimono is this one - http://kimono-jin.jugem.jp/ I've also been lucky enough to get to attend one of her wonderful kimono parties).
To me there seems to be a very interesting contradiction in how kimono and geisha culture are viewed by those from outside Japan. I regard geisha and geisha houses as mainly shitamachi pursuits but my impression is that this opinion isn't shared by many. I suspect the death knell for the geisha industry began early last century. Until that time, as long a your husband could properly support you then a geisha/mistress was a luxury that signalled status, as well as elevating your standing as the wife of a successful person, the geisha's home/locale was the perfect place to host business meetings. However, there was a change which was already apparent in the 50s, wives of men with mistresses became pitied as it then came to be viewed that the men were needing to go elsewhere for marital satisfaction (perhaps it was the prevalence of TB that prompted this shift). Without the support of the wives the decline was inevitable.
Even now, Liza Dalby's figures (gathered around 25 years ago) for registered Geisha in Atami are terribly out of date. She mentions around 800, there are only about 100 left.
My husband has been entertained by a geisha, he was with his father who hired her services as a cultural experience.

rehfilet
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Re: Why geisha?

i don't think it's so strange for western people to be fascinated by geisha. never mind the pop- culture geisha, those colourful brocades and elaborate hair ornaments we see in museums are kind of impossible in a christian european context. anything beautiful and shiny was reserved for the church and maybe courts for centuries over here. women weren't supposed to draw attention to their looks, their clothes or their sexuality, so every piece of beautiful old pink silk with gold trimmings, every huge filigree ring, carefully displayed in a glass case, definitely belonged to a cranky old medieval cardinal. no chance for a girl to ever wear something like that. ever.
geisha, on the other hand, are required to dress in lots of layers of rich silk in really bright reds and pinks with intricate patterns and designs and well-thought contrasts. they are required to change all that attire every season, too. they have to choose ornaments all over, befitting the occasion, and put on heavy make-up.
it sure sounds like a lot of work but that's the good thing about daydreams: you don't have to do the work or imagine the bad bits. i guess geisha are persons wearing beautiful explosions of intricate bright silk details. the look was made for that effect. it creates a sensual orgy somewhere in the brain cells, like fireworks, you want to keep on watching. it's fun. it's maybe even a little more fun for westerners because it's exotic, which helps the escapism along nicely, and because it's not vanity (which is a sin and we still know that deep down inside) because it's required to have all those fine things if you're a geisha, right?

Brigid
Re: Why geisha?

Can anyone suggest a short reading list for westerners who would like to become educated on the history of geisha? As an aside, I'd also love to find text on japanese gardening culture. Thanks!

Loretta
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Re: Why geisha?

My image of a geisha isn't necessarily that of an elaborately dressed young woman in bright colours and intricate patterns, rather, I think of more mature 'matrons' with more subdued garments nursing drunk employees on company bonding trips in resort towns like Arima. I consider the photogenic ladies in the geisha districts of Kyoto and Kanazawa as being interesting aberrations to the norm (connected to the profession in a similar way that Beafeaters are to regular British Army squaddies).

The problem for me is that there is so little written about 'normal' geisha in English that I know very little about them. So yes, I'm curious about the majority of modern geisha, but then, I'm curious about the lives of craftsmen, sumo wrestlers, hairdressers who work with sumo wrestlers, snack bar mamas, noodle delivery men, priests, workmen employed to guard building sites, tea growers, safflower pickers, etc. etc. etc...

I have to admit that I do make a point of wandering around the backstreets of Ginza at dusk whenever I get the opportunity. Whilst the working ladies there don't fit the Western stereotype of geisha this is perhaps the best way to see bespoke (i.e. not hired) kimono expertly worn with stunning accessories, perfect hairstyling and immaculate make up. I'm well aware of how these ladies dress has huge implications for the livelihoods of the yuzen artists, brocade makers, zouri cobblers, dyers, shibori experts, embroiderers and weavers that form part of the legacy of indigenous craftsmanship that so many Japanese people are rightly proud of. Japan would be a lot poorer culturally if the industries requiring ladies to don 'traditional' dress were to disappear.

maki
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Re: Why geisha?

I'm not sure of a reading list in English. I do know that that movie, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a piece of sh*t to put it politely. OK. it's pretty to look at, that's all I give it. It is so wildly divergent from the reality of the world of geisha or Japanese culture of any age in general, and from what I understand from the novel it's based on, that it's outright disrespectful. And that's even before the fact that most of the main characters are played by Chinese actresses - hey, we all look alike, amirite? I can't stand to even look at other movies by the director, Rob Marshall, any more - and I sort of liked Chicago (even though it's far inferior to the Broadway version).

Sorry for the rant but I had to get it out there. ^_^;

Loretta
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Re: Why geisha?
Brigid wrote:

Can anyone suggest a short reading list for westerners who would like to become educated on the history of geisha?

I'd suggest Sayo Masuda - Autobiography of a Geisha
if you want to focus on the Kyoto 'Beefeaters' then try Liza Dalby - Geisha.

maki
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Re: Why geisha?

Actually I rather disagree - the brightly dressed maiko-san and their image is probably the only part of the geisha culture that is going to survive into future generations in any substantial way. And, I don't think that's so wrong either.

Loretta
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Re: Why geisha?
maki wrote:

Actually I rather disagree - the brightly dressed maiko-san and their image is probably the only part of the geisha culture that is going to survive into future generations in any substantial way. And, I don't think that's so wrong either.

???

I don't really have an opinion on which aspects of geisha culture are likely to survive, only that the money spent on their attire (whether it be that of a Kyoto Geiko, an Atami Onsen Geisha or a Ginza Hostess at the top of her profession) allows many artisans and craftsmen across the country to maintain a living. As each aspect becomes more and more an anachronism and disappears, so too will the techniques and skills used to create the dresses.

I may not be that interested in Geisha culture, but I am passionate about these related cottage industries that have such a huge stake in its survival.

maki
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Re: Why geisha?

It's not that different to haute couture or the jewelry business or expensive knickknacks etc. in European cultures, which were originally servicing the needs of the aristocracy, or women with rich husbands or protectors. (Just one example of this is that Sèvres became established through the patronage of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress.) There are still women who are in such positions, but probably compared to 100-150 years ago there are far fewer of them, and a lot more women who can choose to obtain those luxuries for themselves. To my mind that's a good thing, and those companies who can adapt to serve these women will survive.

I know that geiko were and are not the same as ordinary prostitutes. But in a sense the vast majority had to be highly skilled courtesans in order to maintain their skills, lifestyle, look, what have you, because in order to do those things one had to obtain a rich patron. (There were a handful that could make it just on their skills and talent alone but they were a chosen few.) In current day Japan, I'm not sure how well that fits. And on a practical level, the world of the geiko is so restrictive and strict and arcane that most of the young women who do choose to become maiko (apprentice geisha) quit before they've become full fledged geisha.

So, the industries who make the clothes, accessories, cosmetics, combs, what have you for geisha are probably not going to survive unless they can capture the imagination and purse strings of women who want to have a portion of that tradition, but not in the way it was obtained by an older generation via a rich male patron, but through their own means. So that's why I said that the image of young, pretty maiko (and women wanting to emulate a part of that) may be the way that that's going to happen. In some ways it is already. "Maiko for a day" type services are booming in Kyoto - they didn't even exist 10 years ago. Many traditional-craft companies are actively marketing to regular women, more than they ever did before. And so on.

ETA: Of course there are always going to be women who want to be "kept", to use an old fashioned term. There are plenty of them in Japan as there are elsewhere. Hostesses...yeah. Not a part of Japanese society that I am at all proud of.

Kyandasu
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Re: Why geisha?

Here's one thing I like about traditional Japanese culture in general: the precision of it all. I think it's amazing the way geisha would go through years and years of training all to perfect their art. Their entire lives are an art form. I love how every thing they wore had to be appropriate for the season and the circumstance of whoever they were entertaining. True, I love the look of the kimono, but it's not just the way it looks, but WHY it looks that way. I also love the style of dance--the more subtle motions that somehow convey so much. I like how the way they ate, the way they smiled, and how they spoke all had to perfected in advance in order for a geisha to become especially successful. I also like the subtle way in which they were sexualized. I also want to make it clear that this affinity I have for them is not just surface based. I have done extensive research into the history of the geisha profession, and I know its origins as well as the changes it has made over time. It makes me sad that that tradition is fading. In reality, it's rather unpractical for the modern world, so I can understand why. And there just aren't as many rich men who feel like throwing their money away for a few minutes of time with a woman--no matter how elegant. Now, it's so easy for woman to just dress up in dress resembling that of geisha and dance, and tourists think they're getting the real thing. But, even actual geisha have had to resort to various, base tourist attractions--such as letting them dress up as geisha themselves--in order to survive.

Many of the elements that I appreciate in the life of a geisha are also present in Sado (the tea ceremony), many forms of Japanese theater, their music, and their art. Japan has an amazing culture that is able to pull off beautiful subtlety as well as extremely blunt forms of entertainment.

Also, Memoirs of a Geisha, although I like the book, is horribly inaccurate. It also really bugged me that the actors in the movie were mostly Chinese. You should read Geisha: A Life, which is the autobiography of a real geisha. Her style is more straightforward, with less fluff or flowery language, but it's good.

Liza Dalby is also good, although to me she comes off as arrogant.

As far as the idea that Geisha are similar to prostitutes, the truth of that varies depending on the era. Regardless, it's true that their job was always to please a man, whether that involved sex or not. However, they also were some of the first women to live independently of men and actually hold jobs. I also have a rather loose opinion on the "morality" of most prostitutes, and while I would never encourage the profession, I don't think it's as horrible as a profession as everyone makes it out to seem. However, that's a bit too touchy of a topic to discuss, I think.

Someday, I would like to meet a real geisha--whether she is young or old. However, I think the probability of that is rather low.

____________________________________

Onaka ga suiteiru!
日本語を話せますか。私もちょっと話せますよ。友達になりたいです。

Kyandasu
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Re: Why geisha?

One thing that bugged me is that Liza Dalby says in her book is that there is no word for "love" in Japanese that actually means love in the "Western" sense. And while it's true that words like "suki" and "daisuki" literally translate into "like" and "like a lot" (or "big like," I guess), those words as well as "aishiteiru" and "koi shiteiru," to me, seem to be used to convey the same emotion that I use the word "love" to convey. So, regardless of the translation, I think the word for "love" still exists in Japanese. However, I guess as a non-native speaker I could be totally off base there.
Sorry, that was off base.

Another good book, though it's expensive, is Geisha: A Photographic History. This book contains lots of black and white pictures of geisha as well as oiran (high class prostitutes often confused with geisha). The pictures have been painted, with varying degrees of skill, at a time when such a practice was favored. It's by Stanley B. Burns. It is a beautiful book, with lots of interesting information to accompany the pictures, as well as a nice timeline outlining the history of the geisha--from their start as courtesans to the fading glory after WWII. It makes a wonderful coffee table book.

Geisha: A Life is by Mineko Iwasaki.

bronwyncarlisle
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Re: Why geisha?

I also don't think prostitution is necessarily horrible. It's not something I'd want to, or be able to, do myself, but good on those who can do it and keep themselves sane and healthy. I think it's a lot more honest (and here I will really upset some people, apologies in advance) than many marriages. I am more shocked by women preening themselves on the wealth and/or status of the man they have married than I am by women making an honest buck providing a service that men are prepared to pay for.
Don't get me wrong, I don't mean most marriages; in the vast majority of marriages the poor woman works 24 hours/day 365 days/year for very little reward. But it does seem to me that many women have happily taken all the advantages of women's lib (equal pay, sharing household tasks and childcare etc) without being prepared to give up the privileges (e.g. having everything paid for by the man) that went with the old system. The only difference I can see between a prostitute and a rich man's trophy wife is that the wife is considerably more expensive and the prostitute is a lot freer. (Freer looks weird, but the dictionary tells me it is indeed the comparative form of free.)
Perhaps that is the allure of the geisha - she is sort of like a prostitute who is expected to have self-respect and status. She plays her part and is well paid, but she can keep her inner self inviolate. The best bits of being a western wife with the best bits of being a western prostitute, with few of the worst bits of either. Or than again I might be all wrong.

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maki
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Re: Why geisha?

I have met a real geisha...when she was in civilian clothes. She was visiting NY actually, as the companion of a very rich man. I've also met a couple of hostess-turned-mistresses. All were quite fascinating women for totally different reasons. I'm not judging them by any means. It's their chosen profession, their way of living. Not one I'd choose for myself, but hey, I don't have the looks or demeanor for it either!

Actually, when I was working in NY for various Japanese companies, it was not that unusual to meet the girlfriends/mistresses of rich married Japanese men.

My father has a story of once taking one of his clients to Tiffany's in New York, back in the early '80s, pre-bubble economy. The man chose thousands of dollars worth of jewelry. He paid for it, then said "now time to get something for the wife and daughter".

FWIW, the geisha woman I met was, in some ways, as dim as a 20 watt light bulb ^_^; But she was absolutely gorgeous.

maki
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Re: Why geisha?

Actually, being the patron of a proper geisha is supposed to be extremely expensive, so a luxury reserved only for the very rich, traditionally. One was also supposed to take care of her needs into her old age too, setting her up in a house with pension of sorts. Serious business.

I think the term 'courtesan' is more appropriate somehow rather than prostitute. If a geisha gets a patron, she is supposed to be totally faithful to him, or she's be severely ostracised. It was a business arrangement really.

Loretta
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Re: Why geisha?
Kyandasu wrote:

Liza Dalby is also good, although to me she comes off as arrogant.

If you think Liza Dalby is arrogant, stay WELL clear of this tour in Kyoto:
http://www.kyotosightsandnights.com/walking.html

bronwyncarlisle
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Re: Why geisha?

"Courtesan"="expensive prostitute" to my way of thinking. It seems to me that it's not the business of being a prostitute that's seen as immoral, it's just the not charging enough. If you cost more than a wife does you're sort of acceptable; if you're cheaper, you're dirt.

maki
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Re: Why geisha?

Why is the tour arrogant? And the book too? (I haven't been on the tour or read the book...but i'm curious!)

Kyandasu
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Re: Why geisha?

Also, geisha almost never have sex. They used to, but now especially it's completely illegal. Even when it was still ok, though, they were so busy--only spending a few minutes at different parties--that they never really had time for sex. Also, because their clothes and hair took so long to do up, it was really impractical for them to mess it up in order to have sex. Although, if they had a patron--I think they're called danna in Japanese, or something like that--they would have sex with him exclusively. If a geisha was good enough to get a patron, this was great for her, because it meant her career was set. However, this was difficult, and very costly on the part of patron.

Kyandasu
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Re: Why geisha?

I dunno about the tour, but as far as the book goes I'll try to explain why she seems arrogant to me. She's obviously a foreigner, and despite her thorough knowledge of the geisha tradition, she doesn't seem to respect it much. It's hard to explain, but it's almost like she has a hidden message of "Oh, those silly Japanese." Like she sees the tradition and the culture in general as this adorable, less enlightened culture that's amusing but not something to be taken seriously. However, again, this is just my opinion, and many people probably don't get the same vibe.

Becca K
Re: Why geisha?

I've not made any personal research into the subject apart from the few programmes on TV (there was a documentory following a girl who was training to become one) and general info online, but my impression was of girls who worked long and hard to become perfect in manner and dress, down to how softly they spoke and waiting up until 3am for their higher level geishas to return home to help them out of their heavy clothing. one programme showed that they needed a man to come in to fold the woman's obi, as it was so heavy. that's dedication!

personally, i think it's lovely that they can dress up in such elaberate clothing and so on. although i'd pass on the balding apparently caused by the hairstyle! :p
i'm english, so we have no national dress or even a clothing you can dress up in that's traditional. apart from some sort of party dress i'd feel awkward in and can't afford, so i'll never get much of a chance to dress up in an outfit as lovely as a kimono or similar. so i feel a bit of envy there.

but i'd never even dream of being a geisha myself, i could never be that well spoken or mannered. i'd fall off their platform shoes and burn myself on the tea. :p

bronwyncarlisle
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Re: Why geisha?

You could get yourself a Morris dancing outfit! Nowhere near as elegant though.

maki
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Re: Why geisha?

Well you know, I wonder if wives really did embrace the existence of a mistress, or just accepted it and lived with it. My grandfather had a mistress or mistresses, and kids with them. It caused my grandmother all kinds of pain to the point of making her physically ill, even if it was not something so unusual or something that made the neighbors ostracize her. Now, if she had left her husband because of the mistresses, she would have been a societal outcast. Even when my mother got divorced, in the 1980s mind you, she was warned not to mention it to the neighbors when she went back to her home town.

Nowadays, if a man has an affair, more often than not that leads to divorce. People may argue that that's Japan Gone Bad or Japan Getting Too Westernized, but is it so much worse than what existed before?

(I haven't heard the Yamanote vs. Shitamachi thing for ages, btw ^_^; Kind of made me feel nostalgic. I don't think most people think in those terms any more....)

Becca K
Re: Why geisha?

I'm sure the sight of me prancing around with bells tied to my legs and fluttering a hankey in the air would cause many a head to turn, although not in admiration. :p Thanks for the suggestion, it made me laugh.

Becca K
Re: Why geisha?

I own a cotton yukata I bought off ebay, it took a japanese friend half an hour and much frowning to get it tied to her satisfaction when I asked her once for advice. (guess it didn't help that I only had the dress and the obi belt, no other belts to help hold it in place). Still, it was fun to wear!

Wow about your family's group effort. Sounds like you were wearing something a lot more complicated. I've had a look online at all the little bits and peices you need for the right 'look', there seems to be so much needed!

anon.
Re: Why geisha?

Geisha- by John Gallagher (London: PR C Publishing Ltd., 2003)

Geisha, a Life- by Mineko Iwasaki (New York: Atria Books, 2002)

These are two sources I used in a research paper on geisha. The first is very informative and interesting, with lots of details about their lifestyle. The second is an autobiography. She gives a personal view of the culture, so it's also fascinating!

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