Geisha Explained

Geisha Explained

In the very first episode of Japan Explained, I will address the biggest misconception about Japanese culture. You guessed it right, Geisha.

When I see or hear anything about geisha in Japan it usually falls into two categories: sweet fairytales about the treasuries of traditional culture or not so sweet tales about high-class prostitutes. So who are geishas? Short answer: a sweet fairytale. At least now. Because, you know, history doesn’t like simple answers.

So let’s dig a bit deeper, look into the origins of this profession and figure out how people in the West got a very wrong impression about geisha.

Contents:

  • The First geisha. Were they male?
  • First female geisha
  • The alternative story
  • Geisha, Japanese revolution and Victorian morale
  • Geisha in the 20th century

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And if you want to learn more about geisha, here are some documentaries, movies and articles you might find interesting. I'll tell you about my favourites and mark the ones you'd better avoid.

Books

Written by an American anthropologist and the first foreign geisha this book gives you the ultimate lesson in geisha history and culture. And not much has changed in this closed world since the work was first published in 1983.

I guess many of you are surprised to see this book on the list. And let me tell you, I even surprised myself. But let’s be clear. I don’t consider Arthur Golden a Japanologist. According to the interviews I saw, he doesn’t even know that you can tie your obi sash yourself. But jokes aside, the book (and the movie) are historical fiction, not a documentary. And as fiction, they are great at portraying the time and place. 

This book is strongly connected to the previous one, as it’s written mostly (if not solely) to disapprove “Memoirs of a Geisha”. But reading them one after another brings forward how similar they are in a way. Iwasaki Mineko tells her real story (the way she sees it), but every page made me think how smartly Arthur Golden transformed it and brought back the technique of changing historical period in which the story takes place used frequently in kabuki plays. 

Articles

Movies

  • Barbarian and the geisha (1958)
  • American Geisha (1982)

A fiction vaguely based on Lisa Dalby’s experience in Japan. 

  • Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

The acting, visuals, sets, costumes, and John Williams’ musical score were praised, but the film was criticized for casting Chinese actresses as Japanese women and for its style over substance approach 

Says Wikipedia. But as far as you remember that it’s a work of fiction, it’s a beautiful movie to watch on a Friday evening.

Documentaries

  • Real Geisha Real Women (2009)
  • Secret World of Geisha
  • The Secret Lives of Geisha (1999)

Watch this one with the grain of salt. But I think now you have enough knowledge to find what is true and what is fake in this one.

  • Begin Japanology, episode “Geiko and Maiko”

My favourite show about Japan. So if you didn’t watch it yet, I highly recommend.

  • Geiko SATSUKI, A Beauty Through the Seasons (2020) 

A story of the most popular Kyoto geiko of our times, Satsuki, who is number one for 7 years straight.

  • A Tale of Love and Honour | Life in Gion (2017)

An insiders look into life of Tomiyo ochaya – a tea house established in Kyoto in 1817.

  • The History & Art of the Geisha (2005)

Avoid this one. It tries to grasp everything, but makes lots of mistakes on the way. Also it is just boring.

Talk to you soon. Bye!

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