“The biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured pearls, or manufacturing transistor radios or cameras. It is entertainment.” ~Boye De Mente, Some Prefer Geisha
“Geishas are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan, and traditionally have been so.” ~Iwasaki Mineko, Geisha, A Life
“There is currently no western equivalent for a geisha—they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art.” ~Kenneth Champeon, The Floating World
“What is up with all the prom dates and late-night flower shops?” I ask Jody as we wander the streets in and around Gion. Women, or more correctly young girls, scurry about the streets in their über high heels and hipster nylon leg fashion, dressed to the nines for a ball extravaganza that never seems to materialize…while flower arrangements that more resemble funeral ornamentation are whisked away to the many small bars that dot each alleyway. Perhaps the Japanese are subconsciously mourning the loss of their old ways.
Just after sunset something odd happens on the outskirts of Gion in Kyoto, the original capital city of Japan and still it’s cultural and religious center. Young ladies frequent the numerous small nylon and pantyhose shops found there, dressing up on their way to “work” as hostesses and “snack bar” girls, far from the geisha ideal and sensuality of the past. The ever-resourceful Japan has invented the “snack bar” (basic bars, older women) and “hostess club” (plush lounges, younger women), both places that come pre-stocked with attractive women, where drunk men can find female companionship without worrying about breaking the ice – or even rejection, and women can get paid for babysitting inebriated and males with low self-esteem. Leave it to fickle Japan to work out such a regressive lose-lose system.
Gion (祇園, ぎおん) is a small historical district of Kyoto, Japan, dating back to the Middle Ages. Centered in front of the nearby Yasaka Shrine, the neighborhood was designed and built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine, and then evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. Jody and were fortunate enough to stay on the very outskirts of Gion in an old, authentic Machiya (see Timeless Townhouse to read about that adventure!).
Geisha (芸者), geiko (芸子) or geigi (芸妓) are traditional Japanese female entertainers who act in general terms as hostesses, but whose skills center on perfecting and performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, traditional dance, skillful games and intelligent conversation. The word consists of two kanji characters, 芸 (gei) meaning “art” and 者 (sha) meaning “person” or “doer.” The most literal translation is “artist,” “performing artist,” or “artisan.” The geisha of the Gion district (and in Kyoto generally) actually call themselves geiko, more directly meaning “a child of the arts” or “a woman of art.”
Contrast this with Japan today, which offers various flavors of hostess clubs and “snacks.” Many young Japanese women work as kyabajō (キャバ嬢), literally “cabaret girl” (although there is no dancing or nudity), and most use a professional name genji-na (源氏名). The Japanese hostesses of fast-paced, impersonal modernity, rather than highlighting traditional high culture and ideals of sensuality, instead are relegated to lighting cigarettes, pouring drinks, offering flirtation more than wit, and singing karaoke pop songs to entertain today’s average Japanese Joe Sixpack. Although such hostesses are often said to be the “modern counterpart of geishas,” these groups of women are literally worlds and time apart.
Maiko (舞子 or 舞妓), literally “dance child”) are apprentice geisha, and actually are the one who wear the white make-up and elaborate kimono and hair dress which we in the west hold as the popular image of geisha. A year’s training leads to a woman’s debut as a maiko, and under modern Japanese law, all must be 18 years of age, except for those in Kyoto, where women can apprentice as early as age 15 (as opposed to age 3 or 5 a century ago).
Maiko are considered one of the great sights of Japanese tourism, and although most westerners don’t’ realize, they look very different from fully qualified geisha. The scarlet-fringed collar of a maiko’s kimono hangs very loosely in the back to accentuate the nape of the neck, a primary erotic area in Japanese sexuality. She wears the same white makeup for her face on her nape, leaving two or sometimes three stripes of bare skin exposed. Her kimono is bright and colorful with an elaborately tied obi hanging down to her ankles. She takes very small steps and wears traditional wooden shoes called okobo which stand nearly ten centimeters high (4 inches). There are five different hairstyles of a maiko, all impossibly ornate and complex, each marking a different stage of her apprenticeship. Around the age of 20–22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha in a ceremony called “turning of the collar” (erikae) where white replaces red.
Modern hostesses’ professional wear consists generally of very short skirts or cocktail dresses, but range to prom-like gowns, both looks completed with stylized “big hair,” sexy high heels, and what only can be described as a fetished-obsession with nylons and pantyhose. These girls drink with customers, sharing in a percentage of drink sales. For example, a patron purchases a $20 drink for the hostess (in addition to his own), which usually are non-alcoholic concoctions and guarantees the hostess’s undivided attention for the subsequent 30-45 minutes.
In modern times the traditional makeup of apprentice geisha is unmistakable, though established geisha generally only wear full white makeup during special performances. This makeup features a thick white base with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows. The application of makeup is hard to perfect and consumes vast amounts of time, and is applied before dressing to avoid dirtying a kimono.
Personal introductions to geisha and maiko were, and still are often required today. However, modern patrons of hostess clubs are greeted warmly (if not insincerely) at the door and invited directly in. At some establishments, a customer is able to choose his specific female companion, but that decision is most often left to the house’s mamasan, herself once a hostess who’s worked her way up cleaning splashes off the glass ceiling and into management. In either case, the hostesses usually rotate after a certain amount of time or number of drinks, offering customers a chance to see a fresh face. Personally speaking, I have always been assigned a “snack” in a “Snack Bar,” but have had choice in the Okinawan Hostess Clubs I’ve visited. For the experience. And nothing more!
A maiko’s eyes and eyebrows are drawn in; the eyebrows and edges of the eyes are colored black, and red is applied around her eyes. The lips are filled in, but not in our more familiar Western style, but instead red and white is used to create various optical illusions and representations, such as a flower’s bud. Maiko wear this heavy makeup almost constantly, but it does change over time to a more subdued style to better reflect her maturity and to help display her own natural beauty. For formal occasions, mature geisha still apply white make-up, but for geisha over thirty, the heavy white make-up is only worn during the special dances that require it.
There is one way in which geisha and their loosely modern equivalents seem to converge: in addition to their on-site duties, hostesses are generally obliged to engage in paid dates called dōhan (同伴) with their patrons outside of the bar, beyond regular working hours. Although characterized much differently, maiko and geisha are also paid for such alone time. While the intersection of prostitution and both geisha and hostesses remain vague and unsure, the fact is that sometimes sex occurs on these “paid dates.” Although such an arrangement of sex for money is clearly dictated by geisha, there are ongoing concerns about human trafficking and sexual slavery with hostesses, particularly those of non-Japanese citizenship. Note that since Japanese law narrowly defines prostitution specifically as “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment,” non-coital services remain legal and are widely offered and available. If only Clinton had been President in Japan, he actually wouldn’t have had sex with that woman!
Unfortunately, in modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight. In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today, there are far fewer, with most estimates between 1,000 and 2,000. World War II heralded a huge decline, especially after 1944 when geisha teahouses, bars and houses were all forced shut by the government so that everyone could work in factories in support of the war effort. At the end of the war such facilities were reopened, but geisha as a label was irreversibly defamed as common prostitutes began referring to themselves as “geisha girls” during Japan’s post-war occupation. An association which the American GIs bought, hook, line and sinker.
The most common (mistaken) sightings are those of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed and made up as a maiko. The Gion neighborhood in Kyoto has five hanamachi (“flower towns”), or geiko districts, and despite the geisha’s considerable decline in the last hundred years, Gion remains famous for the preservation of forms of traditional architecture and entertainment, and remains one of the places in Japan where a foreigner has a good chance of actually seeing a geisha. While we did see plenty of woman playing the part, we maybe, just maybe saw one in a rickshaw…and I’m almost positive we followed a maiko and her geisha for a block or two (see below).
Personally speaking, the intrigue and sensuality of geisha and maiko, regardless of how backwards and repressive some in the West may think such lifestyles are, should and will always outclass and outlast the rather demeaning heels and hose of the snacks and hostesses that now frequent the streets of Kyoto. I feel for the Japanese women today who, although they most likely think they are exercising free-choice in pursuit of their destinies, have given up so much status, income and power of the past.
At least they are dressed well for the funeral. And how’bout those flowers….