Saturday, May 16, 2009

Geisha and Maiko of Japan

Geisha are NOT prostitutes - even my cultural anthropology graduate boyfriend didn't know that. It's a very common misconception, but the geisha community is separate from the illegal (yet thriving) prostitution trade in Japan. Ever since I read Memoirs of a Geisha in high school I've been very fascinated by this very unique cultural phenomenon. 

The Japanese syllables gei and sha translate into "art person" or more loosely translated, "artist." This term accurately describes the geisha, who undergoes an extensive training regimen to master the skills that she is expected to know. The foremost role of the geisha is that of hostess, or to entertain a group in a subtle, classy way. She is expected to have a sense of humor, initiate and carry on conversations among partygoers, and generally lighten the mood of a gathering. She must be an expert at carrying out the complex Japanese tea ceremony, playing the Japanese guitar-like instrument called the shamisen, singing, and dancing. 

The young women in the postcard above are maiko, or apprentice geisha. The maiko is usually what Westerners imagine when they hear the term "geisha," because they wear the full white face makeup, the complex hairstyle, and the brightly-colored kimono. The philosophy behind the geisha style of dress is designed to make the woman look demure, graceful, and yet subtly hint at sexuality, all at the same time. The shoes worn by geisha, called
 zori, are very difficult to walk in (especially under the heavy kimono, which can weigh as much as 35 lbs [16 kg]), but are designed to make the geisha look like she is gliding across the ground when she walks. The hair style of the maiko, which is grueling to create, is said to be vaguely suggestive of hidden female body parts. Additionally, the white face paint, while hiding the face of the geisha and giving her an air of elusivity, is not painted on fully at the back of the neck. This small patch of exposed skin is a considered an erogenous zone in Japan, and it too hints at the young woman hiding beneath the heavy makeup and fabric.

Geisha are slowly dying out in Japan. Demand for their services is down due to a struggling economy and a more casual attitude towards business meetings, where their services were most in demand. In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 registered geisha; nowadays there are only 1000-2000 geisha left. Most geisha live in either Tokyo or Kyoto, and many of these women are much more independent than ever before. In the past, geisha were dependent upon an okiya, a geisha house owned by a woman who would pay for the geisha training. After training was complete, successful geisha would be patronized by a danna, usually a wealthy man who would assume the enormous costs associated with geisha's training and wardrobe, with whom the geisha would sometimes maintain a monogamous sexual relationship. This is the only case in which the geisha would perform sexual acts. Nowadays, however, geisha can live on their own, pay for their own training, and answer to no one but themselves. These are young, single, and often college-educated women who decide they would like to perpetuate the unique cultural tradition of the geisha.

I encourage you to watch the video I have posted below. It's a long, but really amazing look at how the geisha applies her makeup. You can also find videos of traditional geisha dancing and shamisen-playing on Youtube. Enjoy!


imajica said...

awesome!! :D

I also have got some Maiko cards..

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