Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Geisha: The summit of Japanese culture

Geisha (pronounced gei-sha) are traditional female Japanese entertainers whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music and dance. Geiko or Geigi are other words for Geisha. The most literal translation of Geisha is "artist" or "performing artist".

Like all Japanese nouns it has no distinct singular or plural forms. So, when you hear someone say Geishas, spank that person because he does not know what he is saying.

It is funny that many people use to refer to Geisha as prostitute. I am guilty of this before I read books and novels about Japan. How stupid of me to think that way. It was probably because we do not have the same refined culture that the Japanese have.

In Japan, since the olden times, they value arts, music, and dances. To become a Geisha requires several years of training like an aspiring Geisha has to study for several years classical music, history, and follow several rituals that befit the profession.

They live in beauty and sophistication. Their lifestyle is not like the ordinary people's way of living.

Kyoto, being the center of Japanese history and culture, houses the highest concentration of Geisha, particularly in Gion. I think I met some Geisha during my first visit.

Geisha are highly priced for the fantastic services that they give to customers.

According to the article that follows, and I highly suggest that you read it till the end, the novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" is too romanticized and does not reflect the real Geisha life.

So, for those who are not familiar with Geisha, please show respect to them by refraining from telling jokes that pertain to sexual nature. For sure, Geisha are earning more than you do. Read more below.

Liza Dalby, the blue-eyed geisha

American anthropologist Liza Dalby is famous for being the first Western woman to have ever trained as a geisha.

By Leah Hyslop
Published: 10:01AM BST 04 Oct 2010
One day in the late 1960s, a 16-year-old American girl called Liza Dalby was walking down a street in Saga, a city in southern Japan, when she heard the music of the shamisen for the first time.

“At the time, I didn’t even know that the shamisen is closely associated with geisha,” says Dalby, who had gone to Japan to study for a year after graduating from her high school a year early. “But I was captivated by it, and my host family arranged for me to have some lessons learning the instrument.”

It was lucky that they did. Eight years later, when Dalby returned to Japan as a graduate student to research a phD on geisha, it was her skills on the shamisen that unlocked the door to the community which would make her a household name; the notoriously closed geisha community, or karyĆ«kai - the “flower and willow world”.

Liza Dalby as a geisha Liza Dalby today
(Above) Liza Dalby as a geisha (Below) Liza Dalby today

“Getting access to geisha is difficult,and it was especially hard at the beginning," recalls Dalby. "But my shamisen teacher in Tokyo turned out to be the perfect connection, since some of his students were geisha. 

After that, one connection always seemed to lead to another."

Dalby never planned to become a geisha herself, but during the course of her research was eventually invited to join a small geisha community in Kyoto, where the geisha tradition is sometimes said to have originated. “They saw that I was serious in my study and they felt that I would not really be able to understand their lives unless I experienced it myself.”

Becoming a geisha is a notoriously long and difficult process. In the past, girls could be bonded to a geisha house or okiya as children, and training today can still last for over five years. Apprentices, known as maiko, are trained in the traditonal Japanese arts, as well as in social skills such as tea-serving and conversation.

Because of her age, Dalby couldn’t make the conventional debut as a maiko - “Most geisha in Kyoto start out as maiko at 17. I was 24” - but it was agreed that she could instead debut as a full geisha. Strangely enough, it was once again the shamisen which tipped the balance in her favour. “Geisha tend to specialize as either a dancer or a musician. It was only because I already knew how to play the shamisen that I was allowed to do it.”

Dalby finally made her debut in 1976, taking the geisha name Ichigiku, and soon earned a reputation as "the blue-eyed geisha” in the Japanese media. Did she find debuting under such intense scrutiny difficult?

“There are many social obligations that geisha have to each other in the hierarchical world of Kyoto, and it was difficult to remember all the proper rituals - I was constantly afraid of offending someone without meaning to,” she says. “But one day, I walked through a restaurant in my kimono, and was mistaken from behind as a ‘real’ geisha. That was a really great moment.”

Her biggest surprise during her time in Japan was discovering how outspoken and independent geisha are. “I had expected geisha to act subservient, especially around customers, but the reality was completely different. Also, I had thought there would be a lot of competition for customers - something like the world described in Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. But in Kyoto, the sense of shared community was very strong. Customers may come and go, but your sister geisha are going to still be there.”

After she finished her PhD, later published as the book Geisha, Dalby returned to America, where she took up a teaching position at the University of Chicago. In 2004, she acted as a consultant to Arthur Golden when he was writing his best-selling novel, and later, as what she calls an “on-set geisha advisor” for director Rob Marshall’s film adaptation. The film of Memoirs of a Geishareceived mixed reviews: the choice of Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li for two of the main roles proved controversial, and its lavish romanticisation of geisha life saw it dubbed by one critic as “as authentic as cheeseburger teriyaki”. What did Dalby make of it?

“While the director and producers often asked my opinion on things, most of the time they went ahead and followed their own vision, “she says drily. “I do consider the film a wasted opportunity. As it is, it is just another western fantasy. Geisha are very misinterpreted in Western society - perhaps it’s because we don’t really have anything like geisha in our culture. People just have a hard time getting their minds around the idea of women who live in communities of women, entertain men, and aren’t prostitutes.”

Though geisha are still considered a central part of Japanese culture, the tradition is changing. As the Japanese economy has boomed, less and less young women see becoming a geisha as an attractive career choice, and someokiya struggle to recruit apprentices. Many women dressed as geisha are, Dalby warns, in fact just targeting tourists, and have had little or no formal training. Since Dalby, there’s even been another non-Japanese geisha - Australian Fiona Graham, who, due to the fact that she went through a more traditional training process, also lays claim to being the “first non-Japanese geisha”.

“In my opinion, it is really only the Kyoto geisha who have managed to make a success of things,” says Dalby. 

“They have done it by banding together and tying their fortunes to those of Kyoto itself, as a city of tradition. The older women, or ‘mothers’ of the five geisha districts make sure that the training ofmaiko is still authentic and rigorous. I think they realize that if they are going to continue as a profession, they must keep the artistic and cultural standards high.”

Dalby still frequently returns to Japan for talks and engagements, but says that her home is now America. Does she miss being Ichigiku when she’s away from Japan? “It’s always a wrench readjusting, but I have to say it’s getting easier as I get older, “she says. “I think I have a Japanese self and American self - and that’s just fine.”

Liza Dalby's novel, Hidden Buddhas, is published by Stone Bridge Press, £16.50

This blog entry was originally posted here

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