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Japan. Is Geisha a living art?
Geishas are not wives nor they are courtesans; they sell art, not body. They create a different, mystical world where beauty is the ruler. The word geisha in literal translation means: “artier”. To be a geisha means to be a living piece of art.
The word geisha has Japanese origins. It comes from the word “gei-sia” that means “a person of art”. The hieroglyph for this word looks like this: 芸者 “Gei” means art and “sia” means man. Primitively speaking and it is accepted widely that geisha is a Japanese actress, who entertains men, but you should never think low about it… Low? Let’s talk about it a bit later. How geisha could entertain men? Of course there is dancing, tea ceremony, singing, that geisha has to perform perfectly but there is nothing more important for a man than a sincere conversation.
It is well known that first geishas appeared in 17th century. They appeared in the largest cities at that time: Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. They also remain the largest cities nowadays. There were regions in these cities where Japanese men could rest, have a feast with friends, gossip and... sin of course. You will think: oh, poor geishas – they had to spend time with men. But I have to surprise you. The first geishas were MEN! Yes, yes, men themselves – the actors of kabuki theater. There were two professions that shaped in the city areas: one and the oldest of all – such women were called u-dzyo. But the entertainers were called gei-sia. Year 1751 was the most significant it the row of these events as it was the time when a first woman appeared who was gei-sia. Well, gei-sia (or further – geisha) mainly were entertaining their clients with a merry and intelligent talk. How could you avoid such company when you are resting? They also played a Japanese traditional music instrument called samisen. In the middle of 16th century a new string instrument was introduced To Japan. It was brought through the Ryukyu Islands and called dziabisen. It was modified by Japanese into samisen.
The major cultural centre for geishas now is Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo where they firstly appeared in the 17th century. More to that: if there were men playing these roles at the beginning – actors and musicians of kabuki theatre, then later this profession main figures were slowly taken by women only. The golden age of geishas was 19th century. They were real stars, muses for many poets and artists. There were lots of traditions established in this profession at that time that remain the same till nowadays. There were only two ways for a Japanese woman those days: good wife or brothel. But geishas showed the third way of “beautiful flowers of the willow world” (harukai), where they managed to be well-known as aristocrats. Their way of life was very well defined: they spent time in the large cities especially before WWII. Such areas were called hanamati (a town of flowers). The most famous city areas are Gion Kobu, Kamicitiken and Ponto-Tyo, where traditional way of life of geishas remains the same and is still very well defined.
The geishas’ labour takes place in tea houses and traditional Japanese restaurants where geisha is the host of the party. She entertains her guests (men and women). Geisha has to direct the conversation and should maintain a merry time-spending atmosphere for her guests, sometimes even flirting with them, but keeping her dignity. Geishas wages in the tea houses are defined hourly rates for her services. Apart from that geishas receive tips called flower-money. The economics of hanamati’s life is managed by kambukan. She counts all the income from geishas and publishes the most successful ones. This is how the information about Mineko Ivasaki, the highest paid geisha of all times, slipped into public.
Mineko Ivasaki The girls whose faith was to be a geisha were raised to be positive. They were taught to be happy about everything. Beautiful sunset, wind blow, a flower – all of these is a good reason to be happy. When they grew up they became calm and confident women.
Life and duties of small girls, the future geishas, from the early age was to remain in geisha houses – okia, where they were often sold to by their poor Japanese families. They had to work as servants in their childhood, then as assistants to the main geishas in the house. The older geishas taught the girls the basics of the future profession and then helped them with education. It is traditional in Japan when the student lives in his teacher’s house and this student is a servant at the beginning, then he becomes his teacher’s assistant and then the teacher educates him in music or some other art and slowly the student becomes a master.
The course of study in such special schools involves different art forms
that the geisha should have: music instrument playing – this was
traditional Japanese luteya – samisen or shamisen, playing a flute
(called fue) and the drum that is called tsutsumi; she had to know
traditional singing technique, traditional dancing, the art of tea
ceremony, the art of ikebana, poetry, calligraphy and fine art – so all
the arts that will allow geisha to entertain her clients in the future.
The geisha to become is registered while she studies. That shouldl help
her to have good relationship with tea houses in the future. Studding is
part of geisha’s life till she remains in her profession – she never
There is a compulsory mid school education in
Japan. A girl cannot become 'maiko' till she is 15 and till she has
her mid school certificate. After that she can make an arrangement with
one of the geisha houses (okia) owners and become a servant there.
Sikomi is performing house duties, cleans the house and helps her older
'sisters' to get dressed. In half a year, following the rules of
Kyoto, after exams there is a ceremony of initiation, misedaci. From
this time the apprentice becomes a young geisha (maiko) and she gets a
new name. Maiko has to change her hair style 5 times. Her hair
symbolises her next step in becoming a mature geisha. Before she
changes her childish jewellery and pins to the ones that suite geisha
status there is a collar (erikae) change as well. Maiko’s collar is
embroided with white and golden threads, the mature geishas wear plain
white collars. At the erikae ceremony a bunch of hair is cut off as a
symbol of a maturity and a transmission from a girl into a young woman.
The last hairstyle that maiko wears has its roots in wedding
hairstyles of the past; that is why Lisa Delby calls the ceremony
erikae – engagement. Maiko becomes geisha at 20-21 depending on her
success and the okia owner order and will.
Geisha is free to work on her own schedule from the age of
18 however only successful geishas have such choice and usually they are the geishas who
receive lots of invitations to the parties and events. Geisha has opportunity to get a danna or a sponsor. He can be her lover or simply her
mecenate. Usually very close relationship and love affair connect geisha and her danna. They can
even have kids. Danna’s responsibility is to cover all the current expenses his
geisha has including her kimono purchase. Having danna is not a mandatory
element of geisha’s life but usually geisha has no chance to leave okia and to
become a super star of her profession if she does not have one.
Despite a common opinion geishas are not prostitutes. In Japanese entertainment
industry geishas and prostitutes historically had different places. It could be
observed even in their outfits: a prostitute ties her scarf around her kimono
with a simple knot in the front – that would help her to take it off many times
during the day. The knot on the kimono's scarf in geisha outfit is tied up with a
complex knot at the back of her dress. She can not undo it herself, without
the help of others nor can she tie it up herself. Apart from different ways
of wearing kimono waist scarfs there are lots of differences in other
dress and hair style features that could allow people not to mix up geishas and
courtesans. These features also showed the social status of a woman and her
profession. Importantly enough from the moment of geisha profession
appearance they were prohibited to serve sexual pleasures for
money by law.
Geisha is much respected in the society; she is a
symbol of femininity. However she is not a sexual servant to her
client. If geisha is doing such thing than she is doing it only on her
will and it is usually a part of her life not her profession. The mistakes
about geisha’s duties came up public during the time of American
occupation of Japan after WWII. American soldiers called gisia or geisha-girls the young Japanese girls that sold themselves to them. Lots of
such girls who were short on money called themselves geishas and were definitely not the ones.
The girl becomes geisha not because she chooses to do so but because there is no choice.The reason for such statement - well, obviously such women are not free...