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A Different World

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One of the most exotic aspects of Japanese society is the existence of the geisha subculture side by side the normal, everyday lives that the average people experience. But it is a shame that until recent years the only information that readers in the West had access to regarding geisha was distorted by misconceptions that had been perpetuated for decades.

A writer named Lesley Downer went to extraordinary lengths to find out the truth, and published the fruit of her efforts in a number of books. One of the most interesting is entitled, “The Secret History of the Geisha: Women of the Pleasure Quarters.” Downer brings a sensitive touch to this subject, not surprising since she is a woman, but the frank exposition of the facts is welcome.

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The Secret History of the Geisha

Women of the Pleasure Quarters

With Glossary and Index

Lesley Downer

Broadway Books, New York, 2001

ISBN 0-7679-0489-3

Downer moved into an apartment in the “flower and willow” district of Kyoto in order to research the subject at close length. Kyoto may be considered the birthplace of the geisha and to this day remains the center of the world of the geisha in Japan. By sheer dumb luck Downer managed to choose exactly the right place to establish the base of operations for her studies.

What exactly was she looking for? Right at the beginning of the book, Downer sets the mood by sketching out the ambience of the lifestyle:

As darkness fell, white lanterns began to glow, lighting up the shadows. She [the geisha] was a vision made for darkness, for an era when geisha used to flit through the gloom of unlit teahouses, glimpsed only by flickering candlelight. Their painted faces transmuted them into shamanesses who could transport men into another world, a world of dreams.

Downer goes on in the book to describe how the rigidly structured, boring life of the men in corporate Japan desperately need the kind of escape from reality that geisha represent. This is understandable, but Downer goes on to examine the life of geisha in much greater depth, resulting in insights that can be amusing, distracting, troubling, tragic and even uplifting, by turns. There are remarkable stories to be found here.

What is most striking about this work is how it encompasses the female social experience of Japanese over centuries. The men may be philanderers, enlightened benefactors (if motivated at bottom by base impulses), mentors, scoundrels or any other characterization one cares to apply to them, but they are aided and abetted by women. Not only by geisha, not only by concubines, not only by common prostitutes, but by their wives and relatives. Downer explores all of the permutations of the theme. In the end, she puts Japanese women in the center of history along with the men. It is a revelation rarely to be found in any history book.

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Naturally, geisha are the focus of the work. To begin with, the history of geisha is given, going back centuries. Copies of ukiyoe woodblock prints of famous geisha from hundreds of years ago are shown in the illustrated sections to compliment the text. In the West, it is usual to appreciate this artwork in an aesthetic sense, and there is nothing unusual in that, since these prints were not only masterfully executed, but have taken a prominent place in the history of art.

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However, Downer points out that at the time these prints played the same role that posters of rock or movie stars do today. Fans bought them to display the prints on their walls so as to honor a depicted geisha as the object of their admiration. (It should be noted that famous male kabuki actors received the same treatment, that is, depiction in romantic prints by ukiyoe artists.) It is startling to realize how modern the Japanese sensibility of celebrity was, centuries ago.

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In a similar vein, Downer pulls no punches in describing the realities of the geisha life:

The geisha I knew were canny, down-to-earth, working-class girls. But once they put on their makeup and the last cord of their obi was in place, they became fantasy creatures in a dream world which existed solely for the pleasure of men. There they were expected to be the epitome of femininity, dizzy, doll-women who understood nothing of the harsh realities of life. As one ex-geisha told me, if a man asked about the cost of anything, she would say―smiling a sweetly helpless smile and speaking in a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice―”Oh, I really don’t know anything about that!” Though, of course, she added, she knew perfectly well.

All of this is, if not exactly in keeping with a conventional life, is hardly earth-shattering. The real touching parts of Downer’s book deals with maiko.

Most people in the West know about geisha, but maiko are a different matter. Simply stated, maiko are apprentice geisha. They are students of the geisha world and undergo rigorous training to break into the world. But they are guided by an entirely different set of rules and regulations. These are too complicated to go into here, but suffice it to point out a few facts:

Maiko are recruited at a very young age and in their prime they are rarely older than 13 or 14 years of age. And yet, they are the most desirable members of geisha groups sent out to entertain at dinner parties.

Maiko train rigorously in musical and dancing and other arts, forsaking normal activities to achieve a fantasy life:

“It is much tougher than I expected,” said Harumi. “From the outside maiko look so pretty. But when you have entered this world, you discover what a hard life it is. Ten of us started at the same time. Six have left. I feel lonely without them.”

This maiko was living in the residence of an ex-geisha “mother,” who provided her with all of her needs, directed her training in the “flower and willow” life, and sent her on assignments, managing the money that was collected at the same time. The maiko also has an “older sister,” another, more senior maiko, who mentors her.

There’s the rub: maiko change. That is to say, their collars change. What I mean is, ah, that is to say, the color of the collar changes, ah, when something happens, ah, ah…

In the case of alluring or beautiful maiko, there are any number of important men who want to deflower them, and will pay exorbitant amounts of money to do so. When the act is consummated, the maiko changes her collar, to one of a different color. In the outward world, everyone can see that she has “progressed” to the next stage. Here in the West, this would be embarrassing, but in Japan…

There are maiko who are not, shall we say, greatly desired. They could abandon the geisha world, but that means going back to a dreary life bereft of prospects. And yet, every day that passes finds more and more people remarking about the color of the collar…

And so, there are “professional deflowerers” in the geisha world. Here Downer’s text becomes downright incomprehensible:

…all the maiko of the district were performing at the annual Cherry Dances. There were two pathways like catwalks―hanamichi, “flower roads”―stretching through the middle of the audience from the back of the theater to the stage. For one piece there was a line of maiko dancing on each. “This catwalk is Kawada-san’s,” yelled a wag to the audience. “That one’s Kimura-san’s!”

Kawada and Kimura are “professional deflowerers,” that much is clear. And the ribald joke, that there are maiko lined up owing their livelihood to these men, one on each side, is comprehensible, if somewhat tasteless. But what is the setting? Hanamichi are standard in kabuki theaters, but the scene is indeterminate. I get the (tasteless) joke, but here is where Downer loses me.

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Perhaps this exposition of the circumstances is too truncated. The reader is encouraged to seek out Lesley Downer’s book, “The Secret History of the Geisha: Women of the Pleasure Quarters,” for the answer. However, I find that despite my superior Japanese language skills, despite my understanding of Japanese culture, despite my attitude of open acceptance to whatever I might come across in a book about Japanese culture, I was left high and dry here.

Other than that one reservation, Downer’s book is highly recommended. She ventured into secret, somewhat forbidden ground and emerged triumphant. She is deserving of all due credit.

Those who wish to comment on the opinions expressed here may send their thoughts to info@GoWizardry.com. The most interesting responses will be addressed in future postings.

Robert J. Terry

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