Geisha: The Center of Social Contrast
November 22, 2006 § 8 Comments
There is not much left for speculation in the social environment of Japan. Japan’s social infrastructure has been cultivated by time-honored traditions that clearly define what is desired in social relationships and what is reproved by society.
However, the social position of the Geisha is peculiar for the society of its origin, because their social status is somewhat undefined. Peculiar indeed, this Japanese society with all of its stereotypes and social certainties has allowed this group of gentle and well-mannered women who faces are painted the color of alabaster to remain in between worlds. The Geisha live in a world between servitude and indulgence. The Geisha makes a career in service to her customer and gracefully crosses over into the world of indulgence then back again at a moments notice. Therefore, it must be said that, for the Muslim, most of the Geisha’s life choices and lifestyle in general are considered haram (forbidden) and/or makruh (disliked). However, this essay is anthropological look into the Geisha for sociological understanding purposes.
Although presently, Geisha are seen as the curators of Japanese tradition and elegance, there is unseemly social baggage associated with the profession that has been a presence since the Edo Period. Liza Dalby, an American anthropologist, wrote a book called Geisha. In it she recounts her experience as the first American Geisha in Japan. She was initiated into the way of the Geisha and she describes the peculiar social position of the Geisha from hand-on experience when she writes,
“Marked as [she] is by both high and low prestige, the Geisha and her place in Japanese culture remain elusively ambiguous. These ambiguities never coalesce into a state of contradiction; they are inherent in the very nature of geisha” (p. 172)
Dalby suggests that the “peculiar” social status of the Geisha is in fact not peculiar at all bu an intentional and necessary ingredient for the good of Japanese society. Truly, the Geisha is remarkable if her profession is to respectably relax the no-nonsense attitude of the Japanese businessman so that he may go home to his family carrying a more pleasant demeanor.
Interestingly enough, the way the Geisha succeeds in this task is through art. The Geisha is no magician that magically warms the hearts of Japanese businessmen. On the contrary, she uses art to entertain a gentleman and allow for sincere enjoyment. This among many things appears to be an attempt and success at addressing a basic human need. It should be clear that the customers of the Geisha are, for the most part, not hankering in the coarse physiological needs, safety and security or self-esteem, etc.. These customers are primarily wealthy and successful men who want to experience and discuss beautiful things… just for a moment. That beauty is the Geisha, and the Geisha’s gei (art) is the way she draws out this “beautiful” experience for these men.
The Geisha have always been associated with beautiful things, things associated with art, class and style. However, the background of the Geisha’s role in society has shifted. During the Edo Period the Geisha were the innovators of style during the early 1900’s the Geisha had to reinvent themselves. Because of the influx of Western-modernity, the Geisha learned ballroom dancing of the West and experimented with other Western styles to keep up with social trends.
For example, the Pontocho Geisha may have realized the greatest fusion between the two cultures in the Geisha world when they performed the Kamo River Dance of 1936. There were Rockette-styled interludes which brought rave reviews from all of the Japanese social scene dignitaries, including a French artist and film director Jean Cocteau (p. 81).
The success of this era did not last, it wasn’t long until the Geisha were criticized for losing their Geisha-ness and becoming too modern. To regain the credibility the Geisha would have to embrace their origins and become the curators of Japanese Tradition. This kind of toggle between social appearances could have been endured by no one else bu the illustrious Geisha. Their “peculiar” social position allows them to make such liberal advances only to retreat unscathed.
Similarly, the Geisha’s relationship to sex is somewhat ambiguous.
“Geisha are not prostitutes!”
A newspaper reporter expressing the traditional Japanese social rigidity said boldly,
“A prostitute is a prostitute, a waitress is a waitress and a geisha is an artist”. (p. 90)
And his position, though strong, is quite right.
Conversely, the role of the wife is not ambiguous. It has clearly defined responsibilities and affords woman the highest social position in Japanese society, that of a wife and mother. The modern Geisha seems to want to use the Geisha life to pay for her fun while she is young. The modern Geisha seems to have no real intention of remaining in the Geisha lifestyle as an okasan or owning a tea-house as the traditional Geisha once did.
For instance, Sumi a young Geisha, that Dalby met while staying at a friend’s house in Tokyo confided in Dalby saying,
“She had always wanted to be a geisha…. Still, even though she has no one special in mind, Sumi likes the idea of becoming a wife and having children someday” (p. 202)
On the other hand, Geisha tend to have very odd lives and romantic relationships don’t seem to work well for the Geisha in the long run. An older Geisha named Korika was nearly ruined in a more traditional Geisha-styled relationship with a patron. Korika moved out to become a man’s mistress; he treated her well and when his wife died he brought her to his home to live. However, when he died, she was not considered his wife not the beneficiary to his estate and therefore was entitled to nothing. She lost everything and moved back to her hometown Pontocho, in tears.
In conclusion, it seems the social contrasts that appear to be part of the Geisha lifestyle are just that – a part of the Geisha lifestyle, in most ways inseparable. As Liza Dalby suggests,
“Marked as she is by both high and low prestige, the geisha and her place in Japanese culture remain elusively ambiguous.” (p. 172)
But as we have seen in the previous text the Geisha’s function in Japanese society makes her an indispensable item. Journalist Tanaka Iwao once questioned,
“Why does our body have a navel…. Why do we have eyelashes?” (p. 81)
His answer she light on the importance of Geisha when he said,
“These things may appear to serve no useful function, but could we be without them? The eyelashes keep dust out of our eyes, the navel was the route of nourishment from our mother’s womb…. Geisha are the navel of society, in my opinion. Those who say their usefulness has disappeared would just as well try to get rid of their navels.” (p. 81)
This gives meaning to why the Geisha’s role may be ambiguous. It is the center of society. The Geisha si the Guardian of the place where pleasure and responsibility meet.