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Women In The Geisha Society Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2876 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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When we speak about Japan we imagine a high developmet country with morden tehnology, cars, telephones so on. But “the biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured pearls, or manufacturing transistor radios or cameras. It is entertainment” And geisha is an important aspect of Japanese culture, and their elegant performances keep attracting many people from around the world.geisha is an important aspect of Japanese culture, and their elegant performances keep attracting many people from around the world.

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What do we know about geisha? In early seventeenth-century Japan (long before the word geisha was ever used), the predecessor of the geisha was a combination of actress and prostitute and worked on the stages set in the dry riverbed of the River Kamo in Kyoto. The line between actress and prostitute was blurry, as the women would perform erotic dances and skits for their audiences. This new type of performance was dubbed kabuku, meaning “to be wild and outrageous”. The dances were called “kabuki,” and this was the beginning of kabuki theater.

Traditional Japanese views of sex were very relaxed. It was a society that embraced sexual delights and where men were not constrained to be faithful to their wives. In fact it was socially acceptable to be in love with one’s wife, but only when she was considered a “professional” woman. For sexual enjoyment and romantic attachment, men did not go to their wives, but to courtesans. In order to maintain this profession, the Japanese government created “pleasure quarters” where the courtesans could reside and work and men could go to relax and enjoy the entertainment.

These pleasure quarters quickly became glamorous entertainment centers that offered far more than just sex. The highly accomplished courtesans of these districts entertained their clients by dancing, singing, and playing music. Some were even renowned poets and calligraphers. Gradually, they all became specialized and the new profession, purely of entertainment, arose. It was near the turn of the eighteenth century that the first entertainers of the pleasure quarters, called geisha, appeared. The very first geishas were men, entertaining customers waiting to see the most popular and gifted courtesans.

Around 1760, women began to join men in the art of the geisha and very quickly outnumbered the men. The first woman to use the term “geisha” was an Edo prostitute named Kikuya and became a full-time entertainer. Soon, many women, whether they sold sex or not, began using the term geisha. The word geisha itself means «person of the art»

There are two basic types of geisha. One is called tachicata who mainly do traditional Japanese dance (mai). The other is called jikata who mainly sing or play instruments. Tachikata are usually maiko (young geisha) and jikata are older geisha women.

The geisha districts are called hanamachi and some hanamachi were developed near temples and shrines where many ochay are located. Ochaya are small Japanese-style houses with wooden doors, tatami floors, Japanese-style gardens, and so on. They are different from those tea houses that merely serve tea. It’s a sort of banquet house which rents rooms for dinner parties, and geisha entertain customers in ochaya rooms. Within the complex world of geisha, there is a strict ranking system. At the very top of the rank are the grand dowagers of the Gion district of Kyoto. These women consider themselves far above even the lower-ranking geisha of the same city. In Kyoto there are, in total, five geisha districts, also known as hanamachi or “flower towns”. The geisha of these districts are visited by powerful businessmen and politicians and are very expensive. At the opposite end of spectrum are the hot-spring geisha. These geisha work in the spa resorts and are viewed by most Japanese as no better than a common prostitute.

Traditionally, Geisha began their training at a very young age. Some girls were bonded to geisha houses (okiya) as children. These girls were referred to as hangyoku and were as young as nine years old. This was not a common practice in reputable districts and disappeared in the 1950s with the outiawing of child labour. The students are called maiko. A maiko is essentially an apprentice and is therefore bonded under a contract to her okiya. The okiya supplies her with food, board, kimonos, obis, and other tools of her trade. Her training is very expensive and her debt must be repaid to the okiya with the earnings she makes. This repayment may continue after the maiko becomes a full-fledged geisha and only when her debts are settled is she permitted to move out to live and work independently. A maiko will start her formal training on the job as a minarai, which literally means “learning by watching”. Before she can do this she must find an onee-san “older sister”. They should sit and observe as the onee-san is at work. This is a way in which she will gain insights of the job, and seek out potential clients. From her, they would learn techniques such as conversation and gaming, which would not be taught to them in school. This stage lasts only about a month or so.

After a short period of time the final of training begins. Maiko learn from their senior geisha mentor and follows them around to all their engagements. Since the onee-san teaches her maiko everything about working in the hanamachi, her teaching is vital. The onee-san will teach her proper ways of serving tea, playing shamisen, dancing, casual conversation and more. There are three major elements of a maiko’s training. The first is the formal arts training. This takes place in special geisha schools which are found in every hanamachi. The second element is the entertainment training which the maiko learns at various teahouses and parties by observing her onee-san. The third is the social skill of navigating the complex social web of the hanamachi. This is done on the streets. Formal greetings, gifts, and visits are key parts of any social structure in Japan and for a maiko, they are crucial for her to build the support network she needs to survive as a geisha.Around the age of 20-22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha in a ceremony called erikae . This could happen after two to five years of her life as a maiko or hangyoku, depending on at what age she debuted. She now charges full price for her time. Geisha remain as such until they retire.

Though geisha begin their study of music and dance when they are very young and continue it throughout their lives. They could be as old as sixty and still learning the art of their profession. The dance of the geisha has evolved from the dance performed on the kabuki stage. The “wild and outrageous” dances transformed into a more subtle, stylized, and controlled form of dance. It is extremely disciplined, similar to tai chi. Every dance uses gestures to tell a story and only a connoisseur can understand the subdued symbolism. For example, a tiny hand gesture represents reading love letter, holding the corner of a handkerchief in ones mouth represents coquetry and the long sleeves of the elaborate kimono are often used to symbolize dabbing tears. The dance sends a message of femininity but the small steps and the limited range of movement. The dances are accompanied by traditional Japanese music. The shamisen, originating in Okinawa, is a banjo-like three-stringed instrument that is played with a plectrum. It has very distinct, melancholy sound that is often accompanied by flute. It takes years to master and only a very experienced geisha can play with the precision and passion of a master. All geisha are required to learn to play a shamisen. Along with the shamisen and the flute, geisha also learned to play a ko-tsuzumi, a small, hourglass-shaped shoulder drum, and the taiko, a large floor drum. Some geisha would not only dance and play music, but would write beautiful, melancholy poems. Others painted pictures that gave glimpses into the mysterious lives of the geisha, and even others would compose music. The art of the geisha is her main entertainment and is most important in her training.

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A geisha’s appearence changes throughout her career, from girlish, heavily made-up maiko, to the moresombre appearence of an older established geisha. Today, the traditional makeup of the apprentice geisha is one of their most recognizable characteristics, though established geisha generally only wear full white face makeup characteristic of maiko during special performances. The traditional makeup of an apprentice geisha features a thik white base with lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows. Originally, the white base mask was made with lead, but after the discovery that it poisoned the skin and caused terrible skin and back problems for the older geisha towards the end of the Meiji Era, it was replaced with rice powder. The application of makeup is hard to perfect and is a time-consuming process. Makeup is applied before dressing to avoid dirtying the kimono. First, a wax or oil substance, called bintsuke-abura, is applied to the skin. Next, white powder is mixed with water into a paste and applied with a bamboo brush starting from the neck and working upwards. The white makeup covers the face, neck, and chest, with two or three unwhitened areas left on the nape, to accentuate this traditionally erotic area, and a line of bare skin around the hairline, which creates the illusion of a mask. After the foundation layer is applied, a sponge is patted all over the face, throat, chest, the nape and neck to remove excess moisture and to blend the foundation. Next the eyes and eyebrows are drawn in. Traditionally, charcoal was used, but today, modern cosmetics are used. The eyebrows and edges of the eyes are colored black with a thin charcoal; a maiko also applies red around her eyes. The lips are filled in using a small brush. The color comes in a small stick, which is melted in water. Crystallized sugar is then added to give the lips lustre. Rarely will a geisha color in both lips fully in the Western style, as white creates optical illusions and colouring the lips fully would make them appear overly large. The lower lip is colored in partially and the upper lip left white for maiko in her first year, after which the upper lip is also colored. Newly full-fledged geisha will color in only the top lip fully. Most geisha wear the top lip colored in fully or stylized, and the bottom lip in a curved stripe that does not follow the shape of the lip.The geisha round the bottom lips to create the illusion of a flower bud. Miako who are in their last stage of training wil sometames colour their teeth black for a short period of time. This practice used to be common among married women in Japan and, earlier, at the imperial court, but survives only in some districts, or even families. While this sounds unsavoury to Western ears, it is again at least partly because of the optical illusion generated by white makeup: in contrast, teeth seem very yellow; colouring the teeth black means that they seem to “disappear” in the darkness of the open mouth. This illusion is of course more pronounced at a distance.

For the first three years, a maiko wears this heavy makeup almost constantly. During her initiation, the maiko is helped with her makeup either by her onee-san, or “older sister” (an experienced geisha who is her mentor), or by the okaa-san, or “mother” of her geisha house. After this, she applies the makeup herself.

After a maiko has been working for three years, she changes her make-up to a more subdued style. The reason for this is that she has now become mature, and the simpler style shows her own natural beauty. For formal occasions, the mature geisha will still apply white make-up. For geisha over thirty, the heavy white make-up is only worn during special dances which require her to wear make-up for her part.

The hairstyles of geisha have varied through history. In the past, it has been common for women to wear their hair down in some periods, but up in others. During the 17th century, women began putting all their hair up again, and it is during this time that the traditional shimada hairstyle,f type of traditional chignon worn by most established geisha, developed. These hairstyles are decorated with elaborate hair-combs and hairpins. Geisha were trained to sleep with their necks on small supports (takamakura), instead of pillows, so they could keep their hairstyle perfect. To reinforce this habit, their mentors would pour rice around the base of the support. If the geisha’s head rolled off the support while she slept, rice would stick to the pomade in her hair. The geisha would thus have to repeat the tiresome process of having her hair elaborately styled. Without this happening, a geisha will have her hair styled every week or so.

Many modern geisha use wigs in their professional lives, while maiko use their natural hair. However, either one must be regularly tended by highly skilled artisans. Traditional hairstyling is a slowly dying art. Over time, the hairstyle can cause balding on the top of the head.

Geisha’s life changed during all the time. World War II brought many changes to the world of geishas. In 1944, everything in the geisha’s world was forced to shut down, including teahouses, bars, and houses. About a year later, they were allowed to reopen, after the women had been working laboriously in factories every day. The very few women who returned back to the geisha areas decided to reject western influence and revert back to traditional ways of entertainment and life. “The image of the geisha was formed during Japan’s feudal past, and this is now the image they must keep in order to remain geisha” World War II resulted with most of the laboring geisha not returning to their previous occupation. It was up to the few women who did return to change the thwarted view of geisha back its traditional ways. Because of the devastations of the war, people post-war wanted to bring nationalism back to the country through a reinvention of traditional values and the arts. Another major change after World War II was the absence of a young geisha’s mizuage, or selling her virginity to the highest bidder. This reform was also in the form of a feminist movement, because the girls wanted control over their bodies, especially sexually. “There is no doubt that coerced sex and bidding on a new geisha’s virginity occurred in the period before WWII…After Japan lost the war, geisha dispersed and the profession was in shambles. When they regrouped during the Occupation and began to flourish in the 1960s during Japan’s postwar economic boom, the geisha world changed. In modern Japan, girls are not sold into indentured service, nor are they coerced into sexual relations. Nowadays, a geisha’s sex life is her private affair” In her book, Geisha, a Life, Mineko Iwasaki said, “I lived in the karyukai during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when Japan was undergoing the radical transformation from a post-feudal to a modern society. But I existed in a world apart, a special realm whose mission and identity depended on preserving the time-honored traditions of the past”.

Women in the geisha society are some of the most successful businesswomen in Japan. In the geisha society, women run everything. Without the impeccable business skills of the female teahouse owners, the world of geisha would cease to exist. The teahouse owners are entrepreneurs, whose service to the geisha is highly necessary for the society to run smoothly. Men are also needed, but in contingent positions such as hair stylists, dressers, and sometimes accountants. In an interview with the Boston Phoenix, Mineko Iwasaki, reportedly the most successful geisha of all time, stated, “The geisha system was founded, actually, to promote the independence and economic self-sufficiency of women. And that was its stated purpose, and it actually accomplished that quite admirably in Japanese society, where there were very few routes for women to achieve that sort of independence” The majority of women were wives who didn’t work outside of their familial duties. Becoming a geisha was a way for women to support themselves without submitting to becoming a wife. The geisha women live in a strictly matriarchal society. Women dominate. Women run the geisha houses, they are teachers, they run the teahouses, they recruit aspiring geisha, and they keep track of geishas’ finances. The only role that men play in the society is that they are the people being entertained. Sometimes men work as hair stylists or kimono dressers, but their jobs are hardly ever long-term. Men aren’t meant to see the behind-the-scenes workings of geisha to ensure the mystery behind the women.


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