Bebe Taian: 芸子/芸者: Geisha, Performing Artists

June 18, 2011

芸子/芸者: Geisha, Performing Artists

Geiko Fukunao, by Onihide
Geiko and Geisha, Performing Artists.

Geisha, or 'geiko' as they are called in Kyoto, are performing artists. The word literally translates to "art-person". These women will spend years of their lives dedicated to studying various performing arts- how to dance, how to sing, how to play various instruments... but they will also spend hours studying other things that we Westerners may not feel are "arts", such as how to properly handle conversations, how to pour tea, how to move in their long kimono (and if you've never tried it, it really IS an art!), and how to perform set movements for all kinds of miscellaneous things: moving a curtain aside, opening and shutting doors, etc. Every little detail to a performance is practiced until it is second nature- and then is practiced again until it IS one's nature.

Notice how at no point have the "arts of male pleasure" entered into the equation. This is because geisha are not, and never really were, prostitutes. In fact, it is the fact that they weren't prostitutes that set them apart from the yuujo, oiran, and tayuu, who were in some ways their predecessors. In fact, in the beginning of the geisha days, it became illegal to sell sexual favours because many of them worked in some of the same establishments as the yuujo. The idea of having the 'ungettable' woman was stimulating, I'm sure.

Once, women who worked as geisha started very young much of the time. The poorest of families would sell their daughters to geisha houses in the hopes that the child would be educated, well-mannered, talented, and beautiful enough to make the ranks. It would mean a lifetime of work for her, but it was a much better position in society than she would have otherwise had, provided that she had survived the poverty of her childhood. It was certainly a better life than death. These children would become servants to the house first, learning how to clean their quarters, wash laundry, and other menial tasks until she could begin training in the arts- the younger the better, since children have more flexible minds and less time to create bad habits.

Geiko Kimiha, by Onihide
Once she had passed servant ranks and trainee ranks (maiko, hangyoku), having learned all of the basic skills in her job, she could finally become a geisha. Being a geisha in the old days meant staggering amounts of debt- debt for her "buying price", debt from all of the expensive, lavish kimono, obi, and accessories she would have had to have made for her yearly, debt for her teachers' tuition prices, debt for the food she ate, all of which came out of the okiya's pocket. For each girl, they would front the equivalent of millions of dollars in todays' money throughout her childhood, in the hopes of making her a very successful and wealthy geisha. The grown woman would need to work to repay her debts.

One of the old practices, which hasn't been done in many decades, was a ritual called 'mizuage', the transitioning of a maiko to a geiko and a mark of adulthood. It is probably part of what gives some Westerners the idea that geiko are prostitutes. In order to recompense much of the money needed for her life starting out as a geiko, and to repay a little of what she spent as a maiko, the girl would be quietly offered to a man for the night. Her price would depend on how much the highest bidder could pay, but it was often vast sums of money. Of course, elder geisha would watch over her in another room, unseen, but even so- for some women, traumatic. For others, par for the course. Becoming a geiko meant working towards freedom in one of the best jobs there were for a woman not of royal blood. After that, sexual services were not mandatory, although many women developed relationships with their danna, who was a wealthy man that would pay for not only their time, but also any clothes or things they needed. Some women still have danna today, although it is up to that person whether or not to have any kind of physical relationship with him. One woman notably married her danna, which was completely taboo. Iwasaki Mineko's story became the fodder for Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha", a fanfiction-like version of Iwasaki's life.

A full-fledged geiko trains daily in various arts, even after seventy years, and can be called away for hours a night to entertain at parties or even to just go on "dates" as nice restaurants or teahouses. They can dress as formally as requested, but when in doubt, more formally than not. During the day, they will practice dancing and singing and read up on customer information before leaving for an appointment, and during the night, they will dance and sing and play drinking games until everyone is very drunk and happy and it's time to end the night. They will then come home, take off their makeup, and head to bed- only to get up in just a few hours.

A geisha's life is only over when she says it is; to leave for another career, to get married, due to severe illness, or to simply retire. Many retired geisha who do not marry go on to operate teahouses, or stay in the artist circles in some way.

To see what geisha do in action, there is no one better to go to than the ever-fabulous Arumukos! This person provides what is possibly the best idea of ozashiki and a geisha's life than any documentary. Why? Because there are thousands of photos, videos, lyrics to traditional songs, etc. on his Flickr pages.

More Geisha info:

Geisha, by Liza Dalby
Geisha, A Life, by Iwasaki Mineko
Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance, and Art, by John Gallagher
Geisha on Wikipedia
A Geisha's Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice, by Komomo

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