The Geisha of Japan: Mired in Myth, Steeped in Tradition

Perhaps no single topic about Japan’s culture is more obscured by myth, misinformation and urban legend than the women who call themselves geisha. The so-called “geisha culture” has been a key part of Japan’s history, and many of the women have played pivotal roles at crucial times in the nation’s development.

Other than Mt. Fuji, matcha tea and Ninja warriors, Japan’s image in the Western world is dominated by the chalk-white face of the geisha women, who are a part of the ancient world that has survived famine, war and industrialization.

There are numerous books and movies about the geisha, and many of them are very informative. The sad fact is that some of the most popular movies which feature geisha characters are nothing more than crass, uninformed Hollywood creations. To set the record straight, here are some facts and figures about Japan’s geisha culture that usually don’t show up in blockbuster films or bestselling books.

    • Geisha-in-training, and full-fledged practitioners, are highly respected in Japan, but because there is no direct counterpart in Western culture, the role is difficult to describe. Neither professional escorts nor courtesans, geisha act as high-level entertainers, primarily for wealthy and powerful politicians and business leaders.
    • In almost all cases, there is no physical relationship between the women and their clients. Because the women are considered to be highly intelligent and well versed in all things Japanese, many high-powered politicians and business leaders seek out their advice on subjects of national and international importance.
    • Many young girls take a year or two of geisha training from older women to learn the intricacies of Japanese culture, history and social skills. Only a few remain in the training, if they have both the desire and skills to become professionals in the craft.
    • Kyoto is the center of what remains of geisha culture; and tourists are able to catch a glimpse of geisha and trainees on occasion. The apprentices, known as maiko, are much more loudly dressed than the geisha women. As an apprentice progresses in her studies, she slowly changes her kimono style, hair, makeup and way of speaking. In addition, there are dozens of subtle changes which take place that are mired in esoteric secrecy: much of what goes on in the geisha world is known only to those who inhabit it.
    • At formal, private parties where geisha entertain, there is a 1,400-year tradition that the women do not eat, but only drink. Parties are held at a special house where the geisha live and train.
    • To avoid discussing money at the time of a party, clients are billed monthly via mail.
    • In a ceremony that includes drinking a special kind of saké, geisha trainees and their older mentors become bonded for many years, usually until the older woman dies. These special ties are as strong, some say stronger, than a typical mother-daughter bond, so unique is the role of the geisha in Japan.
    • While the role of the geisha has changed since they first made their appearance in the year 600, the core concept of the women as conversation partners, dancers and singers has not changed. It is said that some of the modern-day Kyoto geisha are among the best singers and dancers in Japan. Recently, some of the Kyoto geisha houses have held annual public performances of dance and music demonstrations on festival days. Though these performances are open to the public, they are but a tiny window into the world of the geisha, featuring only a limited menu of entertainment.
    • Some writers have conjectured that the geisha culture is slowly dying out, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Geisha services are in high demand and schools where the women train are said to have very long waiting lists.
    • Most of the myths about geisha are based on misinformation and perhaps a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Westerners who simply do not understand what the women really do and what a central part they play in Japan’s traditional culture.
    • A single night at a geisha house can cost many thousands of dollars. One of the reasons for the extremely high price is to assure that the clientele are among the wealthiest and most powerful in Japan. Though there is no way to know for sure, tradition holds that only Japanese men can hire the entertainment services of geisha.
    • There are male geisha. These men, called tai-ko-mochi, are sort of like assistants to the women. The taikomochi are charged with enlivening a party with a song or dance in order to get things started, or to bolster a lull in the festivities. The men can’t be too entertaining, lest they overshadow the female geisha who are the center of the “show.”
    • In recent times there have been reports of the existence of a few non-Japanese women who were allowed to enter geisha training. Not all completed the studies, but some did. The most famous was an American woman who was pursuing a doctorate in anthropology, though she did not debut as a full-fledged geisha. Later, an Australian woman became the first non-Japanese to complete geisha training. Since then, at least three other non-Japanese women have become, and now work as, geisha. One is a Ukrainian, another from Peru, and the third is a Romanian who works out of a geisha house in Shizuoka Prefecture.

It is a fact that the outside world’s picture of Japan consists of a highly distorted view of the geisha culture. Two very good sources, other than scholarly tomes, that present an accurate representation of the geisha life are Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and M. Iwasaki’s “Geisha: A Life.”

Japan’s history is a rich kaleidoscope that includes not only the geisha, matcha tea, shamisen music, shoguns, and emperors, but an everyday life of the spirit that exists a quarter-inch below the surface. Modern Japan is a sort of veneer that covers the real Japanese character and protects it in a way. The ultra-modern exterior conceals a core of tradition, zen attitude and solemnity. The geisha are not merely a part of Japan’s heritage; they are its heritage.

Filed under Japan, Lifestyle

Yuki thinks simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. His most significant accomplishment is learning how to sit with a good cup of tea and listen. When not online, Yuki talks with all things wild and free. He is a blogger and a matcha lover.

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