Geisha – A Misunderstood Japanese Art Form

I have always been intrigued by women from various cultures around the world.  This interest of mine has led me to learn more about international women through books, movies/documentaries, art, and university classes and programs.  About seven years ago I had heard that Memoirs of a Geisha was being made into a film.  I had not yet read this novel so I bought it and quickly read through it before seeing the movie.  After both reading Arthur Golden’s novel and watching the movie, I realized that I had been severely mistaken on my views of what a geisha was.

Today I think that maybe I am not the only one who has been in this predicament, and I hope the information in my blog can enlighten at least one reader.

“She paints her face to hide her face. Her eyes are deep water. It is not for geisha to want. It is not for geisha to feel. Geisha is an artist of the floating world. She dances, she sings. She entertains you, whatever you want. The rest is shadows, the rest is secret.” -Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005

So, what is a geisha?  A geisha is a Japanese female performing artist who specializes in classical music (played on the shamisen) and dance (buyō).  A young girl moves into a matriarchal geisha house (okiya) to begin training with her mentor, which normally takes one to five years.  After extensive training, a trained geisha is able to be hired by men to perform at tea houses (ochaya).  Along with her music and dance, she’s trained to flirt and tease the men through her performances, conversation, and drinks.  A geisha is not available to sleep with the men; she’s simply an art form, a beautiful illusion.

Western societies have unfortunately placed numerous stereotypes on the geisha.  As I previously believed before I took the time to learn more about the geisha life, many people still believe that geisha are prostitutes.  Prostitution, however, was outlawed in Japan in 1958.  Westerners cannot be blamed though for having these misunderstandings.  The geisha is hyper-sexualized in our society.  In fact, many lingerie brands have grasped and exploited this misunderstood aspect of the geisha.  Victoria’s Secret had previously released a lingerie set called the “Sexy Little Geisha,” but after many Asian American women accused the brand of racism, the product was removed from the online store.  I’ve noted that today though, geisha-inspired lingerie and costumes are still sold (i.e., Playboy).

As time has passed and economies have changed, geisha not only entertain men but now women and children also.  The average cost to hire a geisha is $2,000 an evening.  Recently however, less men in Japan are able to afford this price and more than half of an okiya’s customers are women. (Taboo No More, Marie Claire, November 2012, p. 170.)  Sayuki (Fiona Graham, Australia), an Oxford-educated anthropologist, became the first non-Japanese geisha in 2007 and has written about entertaining women and their children.  She states that women can be very “raucous” and “are always curious about what we wear under our kimonos.”  When women bring their children to the parties, Sayuki explains that she has sometimes made them up with lipstick and white face makeup.

“We [geisha] create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word geisha means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.” -Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005

Geisha.  A lustful prostitute?  Not at all.  A talented and intriguing artist?  That’s more accurate.


About Becky Martin

I'm a Communication/International Studies student at Old Dominion University, currently studying ANTR 320... hence... this blog!
This entry was posted in East Asia, Prostitution, Sexuality, Stereotypes. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Geisha – A Misunderstood Japanese Art Form

  1. Pingback: Geisha Kate: Writing at Eradica | Eradica

  2. I think what really lures Western men to sexualized Asian stereotypes like geisha is the illusion of submissiveness. In this fantasy Asian women are more submissive and deferential toward men (unlike those uppity Western women) and so the man can do with her what he will.

    • Becky Martin says:

      I completely agree! In fact, in our Post-Structuralism reading, the Western discourse of “the Orient” is mentioned, involving the erotic/exotic bodies of Asian women. It mentions just what you noted, that their small frames are associated with subservience and timidity.

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