Friday, May 23, 2014

What is a Geisha? A Short Introduction

Hello, my readers! I'm back! I recently had the idea to do a series of posts on geisha, so that'll be the theme for the coming months. Let me know if there's anything in particular you'd like to know about, and if I can find the information I'll add it to the list.

So, what is a geisha?

Geisha in Niigata
Photo by Joi Ito.

The simple answer is that a geisha is a non-sexual entertainer who is prized for witty conversation, musical or dancing skill, and protects traditional Japanese heritage through the learning of classical traditions, like dance and tea ceremony.

The complicated answer is best framed in another question: “When are you asking about?”

What is a geisha? Around 1750… Street musicians and sometimes more.

An oiran, an extremely high-class courtesan. Photo by Gene Jackson.

When geisha first appeared (they were male, by the way!) around the 1750s, they were the equivalent of street buskers and musicians you see on street corners and subways today. While male customers were relaxing at parties or waiting in line at high-end brothels for the famed oiran or other prostitutes, the geisha would come in off the street to tell a few jokes or play some songs.

Eventually the profession was taken over by women, and this began raising carefully painted eyebrows around the sanctioned red-light districts as the geisha began throwing their own unlicensed parties. The courtesans and prostitutes didn’t appreciate the idea of these wandering musicians stealing customers from them, and so a law was passed that geisha were forbidden from engaging in sexual acts with customers.

Geisha didn’t mind. They were fun and engaging entertainers, able to banter in high-brow ways one minute and play bawdy songs the next, and unlike the oiran (high class courtesans) of the time, you didn’t need ungodly amounts of money or an introduction by exactly the right handful of people to party with them.

Ironically, the fate of the oiran would be the ultimate fate of the geisha themselves, but we’ll get to that later.

What is a geisha? Around 1850… The “It” girls of society. But no sex, please!

Geisha posing with a shamisen, 1870s.

By this time the oiran were out of favor, seen as stuffy and out-of-date by the party people. They’d survive, in severely reduced numbers, but it was the geisha's time to shine. 

There were still prostitutes, of course, but the best parties always had a geisha or four in attendance to sing, dance, tell jokes, and strike up interesting conversations with guests.

This was the heyday of the geisha: painters and illustrators put them all over both fine works and the popular “trading cards” of the day (cheap, mass-printed posters), every nobleman worth his salt clamored to have them at his parties, and they hung out with the superstars of the day.

What geisha wore set trends. One of the most classic obi (sash) knots worn by normal women in kimono today is the “otaiko”, the boxy-looking square. What many don’t know is this is a knot invented by some geisha to celebrate the opening of a bridge with the same name. Townswomen soon copied them and it spread from there.

What is a geisha? Early 1900s… The awkward phase.

 The trendy "modern girl" style.

Remember the oiran from earlier? They fell out of favor because their world was seen as too old-fashioned and formal compared to the fun and relaxing times geisha offered.

By 1920 geisha found themselves being boxed into the less than coveted spot of stuffy, snobby entertainers. Why? The mad rush to Westernization begun by Emperor Meiji had started all sorts of interesting new trends, one of which was the café hostess.

Geisha houses, while less ritualized than oiran brothels, still required introductions and a good amount of money from customers.

The hostesses, charming and simple in their cutting-edge "modern girl" styles, only required you to buy a drink to sit in the café and chat with them.

As far as being trendy entertainers went, the geisha collectively knew they were toast.

And they were right: to this day the hostesses and their brethren hosts still exist and have taken over the geisha spot as non-sexual entertainers who specialize in conversation.

A few geisha houses had initially experimented with things like putting geisha in full-on Victorian corseted dresses and even having line-dancing geisha, but in the end the geisha realized they had two choices: give up and become café hostesses or reinvent themselves as symbols and protectors of tradition. 

They went with the second choice.

Which brings us to…

What is a geisha now? Classic entertainer, mystery, and symbol of Japan.

Geisha are still available for hire today, if you have an introduction from a current client or friend of the house and the right amount of money and prestige. Some houses have gone so far as to start partnering with hotels or trusted agencies to even forego the introduction and lower the cost, but geisha are still very expensive and a rarity to see entertaining in person.

They have also become symbols of the country’s traditions and history, continuing to participate in cultural events like shrine ceremonies and used in Japanese ads whenever a company wants to evoke the feeling of old Japan.

Most Japanese don’t know anything about them, however, beyond the white face and tall clogs of the apprentice geisha and the association with Kyoto, where most of the remaining ones live and work.

Geisha, much as they did in their earliest days, still entertain clients with wit and humor. While geisha a hundred years ago was expected to be an expert in a wide variety of traditional arts, today one will normally focus on a single talent like dancing, singing, or playing one or two instruments.

This is no doubt partly due to the fact their training now begins years later than it used to, as modern Japanese law requires all children to finish at least middle school (9th grade in American schooling) before setting out into the working world.

All in all, a geisha is a tough, hard-working woman dedicated to a traditional world rapidly fading from the Japan of today.

Photo by Elsie Lin.

Note 1: If you’ve heard about “mizuage”, the ceremony where an apprentice geisha’s virginity was sold off as part of her debut as a fully fledged geisha, the truth is it’s not a clearly understood topic even in Japan and Japanese historical accounts within Japan itself debate the details of mizuage.

There is one clear point about mizuage, however. Does it happen today?

No. Since the 1950s and the post-occupation outlawing of prostitution, mizuage no longer occurs within the geisha world.

Note 2: Some people ask why I write "geisha" instead of "geishas" when I'm referring to the plural. The answer is personal preference, because once you learn enough Japanese the "s" just sounds wrong, as geisha in Japanese refers to both the singular and plural. It's like saying "sushis" to me.

Note 3: These posts are geared at people who know little to nothing about the geisha world, so those who do know a lot will notice I'm summing up and glossing over certain things for the sake of creating a clean, brief intro to a very complex world.

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