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  tokyo - joi ito

geisha culture in new japan

Geisha means: one who does Gei (a performing art). Geisha are among the remaining groups in Japan who preserve traditional arts such as dance, song, and samisen. They perform their work in private rooms for wealthy patrons.

In the past, the rich often sponsored individual Geisha to perform exclusively for them and their guests. This system of patronage has changed -- few individuals are now wealthy enough to sponsor a Geisha. Social values regarding marriage and relationships are different, as are the values of the young women who become Geisha. Still, the tradition continues.

Kyoto is the center for the Geisha business. That city has two main districts for Geisha, Gion and Pontocho. Everyone has their preference, but Gion is the more traditional of the two.

In Gion, the Geisha perform and entertain their guests there in tea houses (called ochaya). The ochaya manager is called okasan; she arranges the entertainment and orders food for the guests. The customers usually have an ongoing relationship with the okason, who does not generally take new customers without a thorough introduction.

Young women are first enlisted into the trade as Maiko and move into dorm-like facilities called okiya. Okiya have managers who act like the Maiko's mother: they set up lessons, make sure the girls come home on time, and generally attend to the Maiko's affairs. Maiko are first taught the Kyoto dialect if they're from out of town. They then undergo substantial training in dance, singing, and general social rules. Maiko wear heavy white makeup; most of them are very young. In the past, when a Maiko found a patron, she would leave the okiya, and in a ritual called erigaishi, move into a home sponsored by the patron. These days, Maiko move out of the okiya into individual living quarters. Erigaishi involves cutting their hair and using a wig (which they can remove when they sleep), changing their clothing to simpler "adult" kimonos, and changing their makeup from white-with-bright-red-lipstick to a more modern look. Recently, this has taken place among Maiko at around the age of eighteen, but the okiya manager usually decides the time depending on the individual's maturity.


In Gion, most Maiko's names start with either "mame" or "ichi" -- acknowledging the two main Maiko lineages from two very famous Geisha. Ichisuzu is a representative from the "ichi" group. The image above is an image of her from behind. Mamehide is from the "mame" lineage.

Last month, Michael Backes and I went to Kyoto where we discussed the possibility of Michael becoming a Geisha's patron. All told, the cost would run to several million dollars. We discussed this possibility late into the night with several Geisha and a good friend, Ms. Kaoru Yoshimura, who owned the tea house where we were being served.

Kaoru told us that the last foreign patronage in Gion was probably close to a hundred years ago. By this time, Michael almost had his checkbook out. But Kaoru opined that it probably would not work out. Young women had changed. In the past, Geisha were very loyal and marriage was a very different thing. What these women wanted now was love and a relationship, not a patron. Kaoru told Michael that if he fell in love with a Geisha, it might work, but if there was no love, that it probably wouldn't.

Although Michael didn't end up sponsoring a Geisha, we had a very interesting evening talking about the changing values of Japanese women over the last several hundred years. Join me in conversations for more on this!


higa said:

From one side of the coin, the education here is too restrictive, repetitive, and rote. But... you do actually learn the basics, you learn more group skills, and the education is uniform throughout the country. I also think the 'must get into Todai' pressure is starting to break down and students are pursuing more diverse futures than the one path of old. I'll be faced with the decision of whether to send my son to international school or Japanese school much sooner than I'd like. I'm not sure which way I lean. I like the rigor of Japanese school but also want Jasper to enjoy the freedom of US schools.

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Our author, at the age of three, with his then babysitter, Ms. Kaoru Yoshimura, pictured here at the Grand Canyon.

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