Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Geisha and a Feminist Walk into a Bar

What would they have to say to each other? Or perhaps they're both feminists?

Yesterday, I met a couple other visiting faculty folks, a couple who's been here many times. We ate lunch together at the faculty place (a really good lunch, unbelievably affordable), and then they talked about going to the old imperial city with the famed "floating world" district to visit one of their favorite shrine/temple complexes. I was happy to be invited along.

We took this and that public transportation, and then got off the last and started walking along these narrow streets. Up the hill, I could see the shrine/temple complex. We were, my guides informed me, in a famous geisha district. They were telling me about the shrine, the district, a kanji, when the narrow street became an open area, and a small group of people was crescented back from a big black car. Two women, all made up and ornately dressed, and two men in dark suits were getting into the car. I don't know if the people standing around were tourists, locals, family/friends, or what. But the car drove off.

And then another young woman in full outfit went by in one direction, and into a building, smiling and giving small nodding bows to the onlookers as she went past. And then another women, from a different direction and going in a different direction did the same.

My guides told me that sometimes tourists pay to get all made up to have their picture taken, so maybe that was happening. A guy stopped to tell us about the women, and from what my guides passed along to me, the women we saw walking were trainees, which you could tell by their outfit and shoes, and not full-fledged geisha.

I felt sort of bad gawking, though I wasn't at all alone. And the women seemed to be playing the part on some level, politely acknowledging her specialness in the context.

So I was wondering, what would it be like to have a conversation with a geisha or trainee? It would have to be in English, because my Japanese gets me as far as a smile, a more or less appropriate hello for the time of day, and not much else.

On the surface, I have little in common with someone whose primary job is to entertain wealthy men, who does so in highly ornate clothing and makeup, with highly specialized music, dance, and conversational skills (as I understand it). I'm the anti-geisha of dressing. And entertaining men holds little appeal for me. I do like to think I can take part in conversations with a large variety of people.

I have a friend who grew up knowing harem communities, and she told me that while the practice does indeed have sexist elements, it also can provide a positive, pro-female community. So maybe there's a community that empowers the women involved? (Though, where there's power, there's also potential abuse of power?)

And while I'm the anti-geisha of dressing, there's an element of performance in teaching that I really do enjoy, so perhaps there's a common ground there?

As I understand it, the whole geisha world thing is pretty much a mystery to those not involved on some level, though there's a whole lot of supposition and "insider" story-telling going around. It sounds like the way non-Amish in the Northwoods think about the Amish. We see them, wave, smile, maybe talk a bit at a farmers' market, but there's a gap for most of us. And some people try to fill the gap in various ways, talking about this or that rule, which you then see someone seeming to break. Or like the way nuns and priests work in US culture. We're likely to know a few, but have we got a good idea of the way things feel within their organizations? I know I was an adult before I knew someone well enough to talk about how his vocation worked for him, how he thought about vowing celebacy, and so forth. And I was a few years older before I knew a nun well enough to chat about her life and decisions.

Or maybe it's like the way people do professions blogging, lawyers blogging about the "real deal" of law practice, or professors talking about our frustrations and difficulties, few of which are usually apparent to our students even.

I wonder if there's a geisha blog out there?

The gawking thing goes the other way, too. The three of us were stopped a couple times by folks who wanted to speak English, or told us about living in the states. I imagine it will get old, as it did when I was in the Peace Corps, but smiles and a nice conversation is a small thing to ask of people who are visitors.

I'm impatient for classes to start, for a chance to get to meet and work with students, and get started on teaching. Soon! Tomorrow, meetings with faculty and orientations and such. And then activities for a week, and classes!


  1. It sounds as if you're in the midst of an amazing place. I wish you joy settling into the new classes amidst such an interesting context!

  2. Glad you made it there safe and sound, and were able to take part in your planned trip prior to starting! Good luck - I'll look forward to hearing about it all.

  3. Interesting to ponder if it's possible to be a feminist and a geisha. My first reaction would be to say 'no', but I suppose it shows how culturally-based we are in our assumptions about everything, including feminism.

    I hope you have a wonderful semester. Can't wait to read more about your experiences.

  4. Anonymous10:14 AM

    There has been quite a lot written about geisha (and courtesans, and the floating world in general). A good place to start might be Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile, a book that accompanied an exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum.

  5. I'm glad you made it safe and sound. It does sound like an amazing place. So different. I've always thought of Japan as a place where the ancient coexists with the modern in an amazing way.

  6. Ancarett and Artemis, thanks :) (It just struck me what a combo your names make: the middle ages meets Greek goddess of hunting, all with assonance!)

    Cam, Yep, on first thought it seems hard to imagine from my western feminist perspective. But then, I know lots of women in traditional western marriages who are feminists, and that seems just as unlikely in some ways. There might be something really empowering to the female community, and my understanding is that mostly the system works outside (and against??) the traditional marriage practices.

    Xensen, thanks for the suggestion! I'm pretty clueless, but seeing a Maiko (sp?) got me thinking.

    MWAK, Yes, that old and new coexisting seems pronounced here, from the architecture on. Neat!

  7. Anonymous1:39 AM

    There are geisha blogs - in Japanese:

    A maiko (trainee) currently in Kyoto:

    A former maiko-turned-geisha about 10 years ago, now living in Tokyo:

  8. Anonymous8:35 AM

    Geisha existence is based in sexism.Their services is to replece those men´s wives and girlfriends in social places,in a society where women are primally homeslaves.It´s awfull to see people glamourizating such thing and calling themselves feminists.Just ask yourselves: where are the male-geishas for entertaining women? what´s happen to japanese women who take lovers?what kind of feminism is this that says every patriarchal stuff is justified by local culture?why those japanese women are not studying to be the top of imporatnt japaneses companies? so the "women´s power" is still their appearence and sexy appeal,with feminits deffending it!!
    To say taht geishas are feminists is the same tehn saying that pimps are!get real!!