By Sarah Bahl
Geisha: Who are they?
Geisha are known as artists of the “willow and flower world” of Japan. The ideal behind Geisha may be paralleled to the “steel magnolias” of the American South, in the sense they are little and feminine but must be very strong. Literally, a Geisha has to be very strong as her costume can weigh about 40 lbs. Geisha are entertainers, belonging mainly to a world before television; where people thrived on interpersonal games and conversation. Today, those with the money pay large sums for a Geisha to stop by a party, from 5 minutes (something only the most successful Geisha could get away with) to about an hour or so. The Geisha are involved in good conversation, dancing, and instrument playing, mainly using what is known as a shamisen.
Geisha in Western Culture:
In Western eyes Geisha are particularly intriguing. They are a world apart and reflect a hierarchy to sexual relations that is never directly addressed in Western culture. There are two books that are the most widely known available sources of Geisha to Western culture. One is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. The other, Geisha, A Life is by one of Japan’s most famous and successful Geisha, Mineko Iwasaki.
Golden does seem to weave a tale of Geisha life in an incredibly intriguing manner. He states to receive the majority of the information for his work from Iwasaki. She in turn has been made very upset by this claim, as Golden brought to life a world that was mainly hidden and protected for cultural reasons. She also felt Golden to address Geisha as little more than prostitutes.
Iwasaki’s memoir is equally interesting, and written in a very blunt and clear style. Iwasaki portrays herself as a workaholic businesswoman, whose business was dance and entertaining. Iwasaki retired during the 1970s at the age of 29. She wrote her memoir for three main reasons: First, in defense of Geisha as independent women after Golden’s novel debut. Second, to share her story of a world that is not widely known and, third; to give voice to the reasons why she left.
Iwasaki was upset and disenchanted by the lack of formal education allowed by the Geisha culture, customs, and practices. She states, "I have always regretted the fact that I had to stop my academic schooling when I was fifteen." Iwasaki retired early in part due to overwork and to protest the educational conditions within the hierarchy. The educational system made it very hard for any girl who became a Geisha to ever be anything else.
Sex is one main defining element that separates the two novels; as Golden portrays the Geisha to be under the control of men, though not necessarily prostitutes. Iwasaki delivers a perspective that represents Geisha as hard working independent women with no use for sex as a method of obtaining income. Most likely there is a middle line.
Iwasaki tells her tale directly from her personal experience and perspective. It is known that the world of Geisha is a matriarchal society. Though Golden tells of a world where a Geisha’s best hope is to find a “danna,” meaning a man to care for all her expenses, and she will in turn; grant only him the top rights to her company. Iwasaki points out that Geisha also serve as essentially sugar mommas to some of their patrons, as a Geisha can make a great deal of money and end up supporting a patron she particularly cares for. So, though some Geisha have dannas it also works vice versa. Golden’s fictional testimony of Geisha takes place in the 1920's when Japanese women had fewer rights. Iwasaki's autobiography takes place during the 1950's,1960's and 1970's.
The physical appearance of Sayuri, the main character of Golden’s story, is likely written for Western audiences: Sayuri has grey eyes. This is a genetic anomaly in Japan but not an impossibility. It is implied Sayuri’s eyes put her ahead of other reigning Geisha. This may be because in Western culture it might be hard to understand why one Geisha could be paid so much more than any other.
Though, Iwasaki has brown eyes and was paid remarkable sums for her work above what most Geisha were paid. In this manner, perhaps Golden does not give enough credit to hard work, intelligence, and talent as he should; but depends on physical appearance according to Western standards to make his story seem more believable and sell-able to Western audiences.
Golden addresses the political positioning of Sayuri among the women because of her beauty. He portrays Sayuri, as the most beautiful girl of Gion, trapped in a Great Game between the two reigning Geisha powers; Mameha, the oval faced classy beauty, versus, Hatsumomo, the wild and sensual natural beauty. Sayuri says, "It was obvious to me they were rivals; why else would Hatsumomo have destroyed Mameha's kimono two years earlier? No doubt Mameha had been waiting for just the right moment, and now, it seemed, she'd found it. She was going to use me in the role of a weed that chokes out other plants in the garden." (Memoirs of a Geisha)
Though, the two works of literature have differences of opinion when it comes to sex. Both novels agree on one issue: girls can be mean. Iwasaki is warned by her Mother at the ochaya, "Mine-chan, I think we need to have a little talk. Father tells me that you've been chosen to be the centerfold in the Miyako Odori program. That's a big deal, you know. And now you've been picked for something else. I don't want to put a damper on all this good news, but I'm worried that people are going to be jealous of you. I want you to be careful. Girls can be very mean." The other Maiko refuse to speak to Iwasaki, she is also overly punished in social ways for slight faults, and items of hers end up missing, or her appointment schedule is messed with.
Golden deals with the politics of meanness, where one Geisha spreads rumors about another. Mameha spreads gossip about Hatsumomo, telling people Hatsumomo is crazy, which effectively coerces Hatsumomo on a social level to act like it.
The two novels display very interesting portrayals of Geisha culture. As well as the mean girls theme, both novels go into similar detail regarding the importance of fashion.
Kimono to the Geisha are sacred. The kimono reflect the seasons of Japan, spring, summer, fall winter, and the rains, accordingly. According to Iwasaki, “The canons of traditional Japanese taste divide the year into twenty eight seasons, each of which has its own symbols.” (Geisha, A Life) Each kimono is a work of art reflective both of the season and of the times of the Geisha’s life. Iwasaki describes the dressing arrangement of the kimono:
Most dressers are men…being a dresser is a highly skilled profession, one that takes years to master. A good dresser is critical to a geiko’s success. Balance is essential. When I debuted as a maiko, for example, I weighed 79 pounds. My kimono weighed 44. I had to balance the whole getup on 6-inch-high wooden sandals. If one thing was out of place it could have spelled disaster. (Geisha, A Life)
Geisha’s kimono are less flamboyant than an apprentice Geisha’s (Maiko). The outfit mainly consists of undergarments, kimono, and obi; wrap that drops down the back of a Maiko and less so with Geiko. The Maiko kimono style is usually slung further back and the neck and with longer sleeves. The obi may also be tied in the back according the occasion. There are at least a couple types of obi to match with the kimono worn. Iwasaki wrote, "In general, we can tell a lot about a person from the quality of the kimono that he or she is wearing: financial status, sense of style, family background, personality." (Geisha, A Life)
Kimono is worn with 6 inch Okobo, which are six inch sandals, that are fitting for the foot and narrow down to a wedge. These shoes could be compared to Western heels, except they are flat on top and a couple inches wide on the bottom. The shape and fit produces a mincing gait meant to be alluring. Maiko (an apprentice Geisha) as well as Geiko (a mature Geisha) wear white tabi socks: socks with side buttons, worn one size too small for fit.
The white makeup worn by Geisha is stated in Golden's novel to have had a lead base, "she'd used a white makeup we call, 'China Clay,' made with a base of lead. China Clay turned out to be poisonous, to begin with with, which probably accounted in part for Granny's foul disposition. But also as a young woman Granny used to go to the hot springs north of Kyoto. This would have been fine except that the lead-based makeup was very hard to remove; traces of it combined with some sort of chemical in the water to make a dye that ruined her skin. Granny wasn't the only one afflicted by this problem. Even during the early years of World War II, you could still see old women on the streets in Gion with sagging yellow necks." (Memoirs of a Geisha)
Lead not only destroys the skin, but can lead to health problems. Iwasaki states in Geisha, A Life, the makeup to have contained zinc, "which was very bad for the skin. But this is no longer the case." The makeup increases the appearance of the Geisha as an otherworldly doll. The look is meant to be artificially alluring with emphasis on the neck, as that is (or was) the prime sensual notice in Japanese culture.
Ivory foundation, topped by white powder, is administered to cover the face with a distance kept from the hairline to accentuate the artificial allure. The point is to make it known there is a real person underneath the sophisticated and otherwordly aura. Eyebrows are etched on. Red lips are painted, sometimes only the lower lip is painted, sometimes both, depending on the rank and style of the Geisha. Blush may also be used on either the eyebrows or around the eyes.
Hair, like clothing, depends on the Geisha’s standing, whether Maiko or Geiko. Maiko wear a split peach hairstyle: a chignon with a red center and the hair divided around it. Geiko wear a variety of chignon known as shimada. The hair is an involved process as it must be kept in perfect place, since it takes much time to prep. Maiko and Geiko go to the hairdressers every few days.
Geisha learn to sleep with their neck upon a holder to place the head so it does not touch the pillow and mess up the hair. It takes practice to sleep still on one of these neck braces. Iwasaki states in her work, “To preserve the shape of the hairstyle, I slept on a rectangular lacquered wooden pillow topped with a narrow cushion. At first the pillow kept me awake but I soon got used to it. Other girls found it more difficult. The okiya had a trick to keep us from removing the pillow during the night. The maids would sprinkle rice bran around the pillow. If a girl removed the pillow, bits of bran stuck like glue to the pomade in her hair and the next morning she had to make an unhappy trip back to the hairdressers." (Geisha, A Life)
Dance for Geisha is accompanied by simple instruments: koto and shamisen, both are stringed instruments brought to Japan from China. There are also drums. Dance is based on two schools of style. One is Kabuki that uses exaggerated movement to portray human emotion. The Inoue style places dramatic emotions into subtle movement with pauses. Dance for a Geisha is a huge part of life. The most famous annual dance event is held in Kyoto in the spring. It is called the Miyako Odori, in English it is known as the Cherry Dance.
Despite more internationalized interest in Geisha, than say 20 years ago, due to popular acclaim via books and movies, the world of a Geisha is a dying one. There are an estimated 250 Geisha in Gion, whereas in the 1920s, there were about 8,000. The inclining death of the “willow and flower world” is most likely due to television and computers, as people desire less face to face interaction. Geisha, however they may be viewed sexually, were and are highly trained entertainers with abundance of skill. They are also well read and are required to have fast moving verbal wits to keep clients entertained. Today, these sorts of elements are found in television sitcoms.
Photograph taken by Todd Laracuenta, 7 February 2003, Kyoto Gion, Japan