When we think of Japanese art, we typically associate it with Anime—hand-drawn and computer-generated animation that has become an internet sensation. Anime appeals to large audiences all over the world, exposing millions of viewers to contemporary Japanese art. Despite this popularity, many aspects of classical Japanese remain relatively unknown to the rest of the world. One particularly interesting and underappreciated facet of early Japanese art is geishas. Geishas are Japanese women who are known for their iconic kimonos, white-powered faces, and hair updos. Though depictions of these women are easily recognizable and widely known, the background and symbology behind their features are not. Geishas and their ornate accessories form the quintessential representation of Japanese femininity. It was an honor for any Japanese woman to have the opportunity to become a geisha.
A geisha is a female Japanese performing artist and entertainer, trained in traditional Japanese performing arts styles such as dancing, singing, and instrumentation. Geishas celebrate “a sign of beauty, femininity, and tradition.” They were also conversationalists and hosts in public social settings. Despite their impressive versatility, it is vital to understand that geishas were not prostitutes. Correspondingly, they were given a higher social status than sex workers and other courtesans. Geishas had a specific and distinct appearance that represented traditional Japanese clothing. For example, they wore kimonos, their hair was in traditional hair updos, and they applied brilliant white oshiroi make-up on their faces. Becoming a geisha, however, required more than looking the part. It took four to six years of training and practice to earn the coveted title. There are two types of geishas: a maiko (geisha in-training) and a geiko (official geisha). Geishas are unmarried, and are not permitted to wed until after they’ve retired. The first geisha dates to 1791, and today there are 1,000 geishas remaining, residing in Tokyo and Kyoto.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Japanese artists captured their spectacle of entertainment within their paintings. Painter and printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro was the first artist to paint geishas. His two paintings, Night Rain (1797) and Woman with Umbrella in Snow (1806), depict geishas holding Japanese umbrellas, known as wagasa, for shelter amidst harsh weather. Utamaro’s work was part of the ukiyo-e movement. Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating world”, which were essential imagery during the Tokugawa period. According to Britannica, the Tokugawa period was “the final period of traditional Japan.” After Utamaro’s work came other paintings such as Hanaogi of the Ogiya by Keisai Eisen, who was known for painting “bijin-ga” which means “pictures of beautiful women.” In his painting, he portrayed a beautiful geisha who has multiple hairpins in her updo, wearing a ravishing kimono with a tiger embroidered at the bottom. Then, there’s Roka No Geigi (Entertainer standing on a veranda) by Eizan Kikukawa. His painting reveals a geisha, also wearing a kimono, standing on a veranda outside entertaining guests. Both paintings respectfully portray the geishas in their moment of entertainment with different colored kimonos on. The colors of their kimonos are crucial to their title as geishas because, according to Kelly Richman-Abdou and Margherita Cole, “it helps communicate the wearer’s status, personality traits, and virtues.”
In the 20th and 21st centuries, geishas have made multiple appearances in cinema. Those films include Geisha Girl (1952), The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), Tales of a Golden Geisha (1990), and The Geisha House (1998). However, the films have received criticism regarding their largely unfaithful portrayal of geishas as entertainers. The most well-known portrayal of geishas is the 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha. The fictional story covers the life of a young Japanese woman, Chiyo, training to become a geisha during World War II. Although the film beautifully depicts all the training, dressing, and escorting Chiyo had to undertake in order to become a geisha, it has been met with critiques. The author of the screenplay’s inspiration, Arthur Golden, is American—stirring controversy surrounding cultural insensitivity. He interviewed Mineko Iwaski, a retired geisha and writer, to help with his novel. Unfortunately, after the book’s publication in 1997, Iwaski sued Golden for “defamation, breach of contract and copyright violations.” She felt Golden had inappropriately used and misrepresented parts of her personal story and experiences shared in confidence for the development of his characters. As a result, the novel “captures the duality of the geisha who is both reserved as an artist and reviled as a sex slave.” For example, Golden wrote how his character Chiyo was sold to a geisha house by her father as a child, and later, as a geisha, a man she’s entertaining attempts to assault her. Though geishas were entertainers for wealthy men, they were not prostitutes, which Golden failed to acknowledge.
Geishas are a major icon in Japanese art, culture, and history. It is imperative for individuals all over the world to familiarize themselves with the rich history of these women and the entertainment they have provided for centuries. Thus, past and present geishas deserve the historical portrayal and recognition they currently do not receive. Fortunately, the traditional artwork from the ukiyo-e movement allows them to be properly honored—perhaps contemporary works might learn from this right-minded portrayal of geishas.
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