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Asian Heritage Month Blog Event: The Japanese Geisha: Part 1

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Asian Heritage Month: May 2012

The Japanese Geisha: Part 1

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada!

As an Asian, a cultural enthusiast, and an advocate of racial justice, I’d like to take the opportunity to host the Asian Heritage Month Blog Event at The Bibliotaphe’s Closet for the month of May.

The purpose of this cultural-specific blog event is to advocate the opportunity for all to reflect on and celebrate the beauty and diversity of various Asian cultures and its music, film, art, and literature.

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I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my avatar and various images posted on The Bibliotaphe’s Closet is in honour of the Japanese Geisha since the image and its cultural significance is one that I’m quite fascinated with. What better way to begin the Asian Heritage Month Blog Event than with one of my favourite topics, the Japanese Geisha?

Sexual pleasure was not considered taboo in traditional Japan, nor were men constrained to be faithful to their wives in the belief by Confucian custom that love is considered secondary in priority. Romantic attachment and sex were therefore, not reserved for wives, but for courtesans.

Here are different Japanese definitions associated with the geisha community:

Geisha:

The most literal translation of geisha into English is artist, performing artist, or artisan and is usually initiated as a full geisha in the community at the age of 21. The exception to this are the maiko from Kyoto who can apprentice as geisha before the age of 18.

Geiko:

Another name for geisha, usually from western Japan.

Maiko (dance child) (舞子 or 舞妓)  / Hangyoku (half-jewel) (半玉)  / O-Shaku (one who pours) (御酌):

These are the apprentice geisha who usually participate in at least a year’s training before making a debut as a geisha.

Though it is not necessary for a girl to begin as a maiko, hangyoku, or an o-shaku before becoming a full geisha, those who do participate in this initial training is considered to be more prestigious in their profession.

Traditionally, training as a maiko can begin as early as three or five-years-old.

Young maiko.

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These are known as the:

  • Shikomi (servant)
  • Minarai (watching apprentice)

where training lasts a number of years in comparison to those who train in contemporary times.

The Origins of the Geisha:

Saburuko (serving girls):

Saburuko were young girls who came from displaced families in the 600’s. Some sold sexual services while others entertained at elite social gatherings.

Shirabyōshi:

Shirabyōshi are known to be skilled female dancers and performers.

Oiran:

The Oiran describes the predecessors of the geisha and of the highest yūjo (“Play Women”) class. They are a combination of actress and prostitute who originally performed exotic dances and skits.

Odoriko (“dancing girls”):

The Odoriko were teenagers that were expensively trained chaste dancers for hire. They were the forerunners of the female geisha and became the popular form of entertainment for upper-class samurai in the 1680’s.

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Because prostitution was legal in Japan until the 1900’s, it was practiced throughout Japan without much hindrance.

Gradually, the emergence of the geisha in the 18th century meant that the profession would eventually evolve from simply being part of the sex trade to becoming a renowned and pure form of entertainment.

Courtesans would be known to entertain through dance, song, and the playing of musical instruments. Some courtesans even became renowned poets and calligraphers.

While licensed courtesans still existed to meet men’s sexual needs, the machi geisha became a separate group of artists and learned and cultivated female companions, which is an example of the type of geisha in the book, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.

There were many different classifications and ranks of geisha. Some women would have sex with their male customers, whereas others would entertain strictly with their art forms.

What you may also not be aware of is that the first geisha were originally men.

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Two popular autobiographies and memoirs about the geisha lifestyle are:

Geisha, a Life by Mineko Iwasaki

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Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

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Here is a clip of Chiyo’s transformation into Geisha in the adapted film, Memoirs of a Geisha:

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Be sure to return tomorrow to learn more about the Japanese Geisha in Part 2 of this post.

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What part of the geisha lifestyle fascinates you the most?

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