Artists of the Floating World

wbgeisha_narrowweb__300x4050I have a dream…that one day I will earn more than peanuts so that I’ll be able to afford a trip to Japan – to hang out with the harajuku girls in Tokyo and the Geisha in Kyoto.

The art, mystery and beauty of the Geisha culture is spellbinding and the sacrifice and discipline involved in a Geisha’s pursuit and perfection of art is awe-inspiring. It is a great pity that the ancient practices of the Geisha are undermined by the Western perception that Geisha are merely prostitutes. The most direct translation of the word Geisha, which was coined in 1688, is “artist” or “performing artist” – (gei) meaning “art” and (sha) meaning “person” or “doer”. By definition, a Geisha is art personified. Her purpose is to entertain. Geisha have their roots in the 11th century and are the successors of women who entertained warriors through the art of dance. Geisha are “professional hostesses who entertain their guests with their impeccable talents and sophisticated charm”. From a young age a would be Geisha is trained in the ancient art of Japanese dance, song, instrument playing (shamisen), flower arranging, kimono wearing, calligraphy, and conversation as well as the etiquette associated with the serving of alcohol and tea. It takes years of practice to master the fore mentioned skills. Even after a woman has achieved the status of Geisha, she is expected to continue lessons to progress her skills and ensure that her art does not fall stagnant.

To qualify as a Geisha, a woman must undergo training and complete the steps required of her. First she must be accepted by an okasan (mother) of an okiya (lodging house) and then she will begin training as a shikomi-san (girl in training) for the okasan. She will be required to attend classes and complete daily chores as well as assist other Geisha. After four years in training, the shikomi-san will spend a month preparing for her misedashi (debut). During this time she will observe other Geisha at ozakashi (tea parties/ceremonies), she will get used to wearing a kimono and her make-up and hair will be styled in the traditional manner. The trainee will become a junior maiko upon her debut. A maiko will maintain her skills by attending classes and her okiya will appoint an onesan (older sister) who will be the maiko’s mentor or teacher. It is during this time that the maiko will concentrate on creating a reputation as a sought after entertainer, by participating in hanamachi-wide dances and festivals, such as the Miyako Odori (Cherry Blossom Dance) and the Setsubun (dance celebrating the start of Spring). Next in the process is the erikae (turning of the collar) signifying that a maiko has become a geiko (Geisha). The appearance of the maiko will change – she will wear a kimono with shorter sleeves and subtle patterns and will not wear hair ornaments or wigs. The geiko will be a junior Geisha for a period of between three and ten years, after which she will become a senior Geisha, who will not wear any makeup and will be required to style her own hair and wear more subdued kimono.

Geisha will entertain in O-chaya (tea houses) that are frequented by wealthy customers. Although Geisha are often flirtatious and have mastered the art of innuendo, they do not engage in paid sex with clients. Geisha often have a client or patron known as a danna, who is a wealthy man, sometimes married, who has the means to support the large expenses related to a Geisha’s traditional training. A Geisha will be more personally involved with and more attentive to her danna. Occasionally a romantic or sexual relationship will develop, which may or may not be be love-inspired, but it is never viewed as ‘payment for services rendered’. The nature of the relationship between a Geisha and her danna is clearly understood within the Japanese culture but is misconstrued by westerners. A Geisha will never be forced to accept a danna. She is however required to remain single and if it so happens that she wishes to marry she may no longer work as a Geisha.

The Mizuage ceremony is a cultural practice that is misunderstood by Western society. It is poignantly described in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, in which the mizuage (virginity) of a maiko is sold to the highest bidder. Mineko Iwasaki (the Geisha credited by Golden for aiding him in the understanding of the Geisha world) in her book, Geisha, A Life, challenges the commonly held perception of the mizuage ceremony : “This again goes back to the separation between the pleasure quarter and the entertainment quarter. Mizuage is really a coming-of-age ceremony, and apparently there was some selling of the virginity that went on in association with that ritual ceremony in the pleasure district a long time ago. However, that has never been true for the geisha. For the geisha, it was simply when they were becoming a young woman, similar to a sweet 16 in the West, and it was symbolized by the change in hairstyle, into a more womanly, grown-up hairstyle. And also certain subtle changes in the ensembles. There are a lot of rites of passage, but for some reason this one has been really latched on by people, and maybe it’s because of this misunderstanding. ”

It would appear that that Arthur Golden’s novel dictates the truth of the Geisha culture for westerners. In Memoirs of a Geisha, Golden explores the complex layers enveloping the Geisha culture. He contemplates the tragedy and beauty of the Geisha life and how the opposing notions of slavery and freedom are entwined. In accordance with the fairytale sub-theme, Chiyo is a Japanese Cinderella who, along with her sister, is sold in to slavery by her desperate father. Chiyo ends up in an okiya and her sister ends up in a brothel. The story concentrates on Chiyo’s journey, as she ascends to the role of Geisha. She faces many obstacles including the physical and emotional abuse of a jealous ‘sister’, the agony of what she perceives to be an unrequited love and even the cultural devastation caused by a World War. Golden initially depicts the Geisha way as one of slavery and hardship but as the novel progresses he reveals its complexities. In an important scene, Chiyo meets the Chairman, who is accompanied by two Geisha, and falls in love with his kindness. She sees the Geisha life as a way to be close to the Chairman and in so doing achieve her freedom. Sayuri (Chiyo’s Geisha name) never fully accepts, what Golden depicts as, the objectification of her femiminity. Sayuri is used by men in different ways – the sale of her mizuage to Doctor Crab, the Baron’s appropriation of her innocence and dignity and Nobu-San’s callous treatment of her in an attempt to barter her company in payment for a successful business transaction. Yet, irrespective of her hardships, Sayuri respects the art of the Geisha tradition. She is never a victim and manages to attain her freedom through the love of the Chairman and the realisation of her own value as a woman. A woman whose soul is her own and a woman free to give love and receive it.

The cultural traditions upheld by Geisha have degenerated over the years and there are very few modern Geisha who live by the traditions of their predecessors. It is important to understand the tradition and artistic expression of the Geisha profession within the context of the Floating World of which they are an integral part.