By Yusef Mustafa, Xavier University of Louisiana
The roles that women play are countless in number. All around the world a woman could be anything from a housewife to the head of an empire. In Japan, some women take the job as being a Geisha. The word geisha means performing artist, the word stems from gei which means art and sha which means person. A geisha is a woman, in Japanese tradition, whose skill in music and dance are used for entertaining purposes. Not to be confused with a prostitute who commonly tries to copy this very luxurious skill. A geisha is supposed to encompass all aspects of a perfect woman. Her skills must be precise, she must be delicate as a flower, and yet quick witted like a fox to thoroughly do her job. This elegant world that the geisha lives in is called karyukai that translates to the “The flower and willow world” (Japan-Zone). This world is something never before seen in the western world. The book “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which was later turned into a motion picture, brings this world to life for western civilization to see. These women start to learn how to be geishas from very young, and they are called maikos. The have to learn the proper ways of serving tea, playing shamisen (a kind of guitar), dancing, and lean the casual talk of conversation. Their main objectives are to flirt with the men who invite them over but they must always seem innocent in everything they do. Geisha is the envy of every Japanese woman. They are able to take away the mind of man like seducing a baby with candy yet, able to separate themselves from the norm of having familial and reproductive activities.
The geisha history starts from as early as the seventh century, when they would perform for nobility and become concubines for the emperor of that time. Many daughters of nobility were taken to geisha houses to be reformed and learn the different systems. Geisha’s became so popular that they had to pay taxes and it quickly became the norm. Strict rules from the government helped geishas to flourish as artisans and entertainers. They were so popular that they became fashion icons in the Japanese community. As years past the life of a geisha was not so extravagant. Families started to sell their own daughters to geisha houses but most geishas were daughters of geishas. There are different stages of training. The first was called shikomi. The girls would have to be maids and do everything asked of them. However, they would still have to attend classes on becoming a geisha. Once the girl has passed her schooling she is then released from her housekeeping duties. She then has to attend different tea parties to learn the art of conversation which can obviously be done only by practice. The last stage is being a maiko which is an apprentice geisha which can last for years. They learn from a senior geisha and they follow them around to every event. The teacher will actually rename her apprentice to something that symbolizes her. These stages range from six months to as long as five years. When promoted to a full- fledged geisha, she is now allowed to get paid full price for her time spent.
Geishas in Japan are sophisticated characters that resemble the perfect female to entertain guests. Beauty, elegance, delicacy and perfection are all elite qualities of a geisha and any female would compete in order to achieve. Although a geisha does not cook food, care for children and perform housewife duties she excels in her duty of entertaining. Society may possibly expect that a geisha woman carrying a cultural tradition into modern times would perform housewife tasks but in reality they are only art performers living in karyukai where the mother of the house “retired geisha” manages the house tasks. The talent that a geisha acquires in her training is unprecedented she could make middle aged men as silly as five year olds with her charm and wittedness. Every characteristic of a geisha is thrilling but yet innocent to lure the guests into her essence.
This life under the spot light might seem glamorous and fulfilling for many out there but a geishas life is very demanding and competitive. The smallest mistake or misunderstanding may cause them their profession. In an interview a geisha called Mamehiro said, “If I could relax alone, it was only the time in the washroom or taking a bath“(The secret society of Geisha girls). This illustrates that these women have little or no time to spare for relaxation, they are required to keep in touch with all daily life activities such as news, sports, newspapers, games, fashion and much more to guarantee clients satisfaction. To an extent they are colorful living encyclopedias.
Make-up is a very crucial element of geisha look; it provides a unique appearance that can only be utilized by the geisha. Make-up is composed of a white base that covers the entire face with thick black accents around the eyes. Finally, the color red which is the most important color of all geisha make-up, it is applied as lipstick. The red color represents a trademark of beauty. It is believed by geisha that the color red symbolizes fertility and sex, illustrating, without vibrant colors as red the guest will be less likely to be attracted to the geisha. The establishment of sexual desire will diffidently increase the possibility of desirability opening the pathway for the geisha to please her guests as required. The dark red lipstick conveys how a geisha should look in order to maximize her chances in luring the guests into her sophisticated charisma. The application of make-up in western civilizations also resembles how a female should represent herself image to society. Red lipstick in western civilizations represents sexy, confident and outgoing. With all that said a person might conclude that these characteristics stick out like a swan between the geese. Making a person wearing red lipstick more visible to others moreover, with the right attire and charm attraction will develop.
Another essential element that a geisha is most recognized for is the kimono. The dress that geishas wear is extravagant. Wearing a kimono requires forty five minutes to a couple of hours and may weigh as much as thirteen pounds. The kimono is a distinctive feature that allures the guests, moreover it portrays beauty and passionate dedication to the profession and pleasing the guests. As discussed before, the red color also plays an important role in the kimono. The red color in the kimono helps the growth of a healthy reproductive organ, which to some extent is ironic since geishas are mostly unmarried and only perform sexual activities to selected clients. Although the kimono is a traditional dress in Japan a geisha takes it to another level, geishas wear bright colorful kimonos with an extraordinary obi. Obi is rendered in english as sash is made of silk and helps keep the kimono in place and gives the dress a more decorative style. A geisha’s obi is tied to the back of the kimono; this was a characteristic that distinguished them from the prostitutes who tied theirs to the front for easier removal when having sexual activity. Probably one of the best features of the kimono is to hide the body. William Forbis said a kimono can “hide bad legs and deemphasize the breast, and expose what the Japanese regard as the sexiest part of female body, the nape of the neck.”(Japan Today: People, Places, Power 64). For a mature geisha wearing a deemphasizing dress is very helpful because it hides the signs of aging and creates colorful images that anyone would enjoy. On the other hand a younger geisha would have no problems with a kimono since her beauty and health are in still in shape. Geisha is the cream of the crops, they have been trained to be the best in every position they take from conversation and dance to playing games. Commitment is the key of their success, they train to outperform the ordinary.
A geisha’s life is obviously different from the life of any other woman in Japan. Her job stops her from performing the usual steps that a regular girl would do. One example of this is that, geisha’s cannot get married nor have a family. In order for this to happen she must sacrifice her job that she has worked years to perfect just to have a family. Geisha’s cannot date men and they do not go to normal schools like the other girls that they might know. They must devote their lives to their job, there are no vacations or days off from being a geisha. They must play the role twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This type of devotion is anything but ordinary.
Japan, a deep ocean of tradition and culture stroked with western influence changing the long lasting traditions to a piece of history. Geisha is what a female should be, perfection in other words. The way a geisha carries her life is astonishing, from training, makeup or dress each is a burden pushing geishas to rupture and fail. Only the gifted is to go on to the next step.
Forbis, William H. Japan Today: People, Places, Power. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
“Geisha.” Japan-zone. 2007. 30 Apr. 2008 .
“The Secret Lives of Geisha Girls.” Asian Pacific Post. 22 Dec. 2005. 30 Apr. 2008. <http://www.asianpacificpost.com/portal2/40288182084f80c7010854bb0131004a.do.html>.