Art variety in Japan

Rationales as existing in the forms of aesthetic arguments in Shuzo’s works do not just exist within the institution of the “art world”. As art worlds do not have sharp boundaries around them, aesthetic interpretations existing within the arts world can have implications on the collective activity of other social institutions.

Likewise, these aesthetic statements can result in transformation and changes within various art forms across time and space. When seen from a wider perspective, one can see that the “art world”, in its various complex networks and hierarchies cannot be seen separate from the social and historical context within which it exists.

In this essay, we will be exploring the aesthetics of Japanese arts, introducing Iki, which is the elusive sense of style as conceptualized and codified by the Japanese. Also, we would introduce how the kinship system in Japanese names is related to the kumi system amongst the geisha community. In analyzing the interactions between the “art world” and society, the dual role of Japanese femininity as shared between the wife and the Geisha will be explored.

Next we will also take you on a brief trip into the disciplined world of Geisha as she dances, sings and performs tea ceremony, followed by a detailed discussion on Japanese pottery, where the production of this form of art is highly organized into various levels of hierarchy and the dynamics of this organization’s behavior will be conferred.


During the Tokugawa period, aristocratic officials relegated artisans, merchants, out cast entertainers and prostitutes to the bottom of the social hierarchy and segregate them spatially into low-lying land to the east known as Edo and to the west, Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. In was in this separation, that there was a burgeoning mass culture in Edo where there was dissemination of new forms of knowledge, art, and entertainment and also where people who patronize the arts establish close relationships with the artists and actively engage in the celebration of their work.

The stylistic attribute, iki, has diffused widely among Edo town folk in subgenres of popular verbal fiction that multiplied in late 18th Century and 19th Century. Among some of the literature written are sharebon (books of dandyism)displayed the secrets of style and etiquette in the quarters, kokkeibon (humorous books) offered comic sketches of familiar locales and characters conspicuously lacking in style and ninjobon (books of human feelings) narrated melodramatic intrigue among geisha, their patrons and their lovers.

Kuki Shuzo (1888-1941), a Japanese scholar wrote “Iki no kozo” (The Structure of Edo Aesthetic Style) in the late 1930s, conceptualizing the characteristic of iki (unique Japanese aesthetics) in his book. These characteristics include dwelling on appearances, contrast, asymmetry, delicate subtlety, simplicity and “elusive sense of style”. He envisioned iki as a wholistic form that combined sensual moral and spiritual attribute. As analysed by Pincus, he wrote, “In sum, iki is the perfect self-realization of the material cause of erotic allure by means of the formal cause of moral idealism (bushido) and the religious belief in the unreality of the world (Buddhism), both distinctive signs of the culture of our country.”

It was found when analyzing how and why such a conceptualization arises that Shuzo wrote in a period when Japan faces immense changes with the onset of modernization and interaction with the West and had a disdain of the effects that modernization has brought along. This led to a nostalgic longing for an idealized past as manifesting in the ideological understanding of its culture.

The belief that there is a unique, all-encompassing Japanese cultural “iki” contribute to the discourse of Japanism known as nihonjinron and these discourses, can be use as myths of collective belonging and unique cultural endowments to divert attention from contemporary contradictions (Harootunian). Furthermore, this discourse led and supported the period of imperialism in Japan’s history. To illustrate this, the tenth printing of the text in 1966 marked the threshold of its “second life”, bringing a degree of popularity that had eluded “Iki” no kozo” in the prewar and immediate postwar years.

Also, in emphasizing the stylistic attribute and elusive sense of “iki” in the arts of Japan, this has led to the romanticizing, exotic sing and imagining the arts from the Edo.9 Not to simply categorize this tendency as negative or misconstrued, it has certainly impacted the way we now look at arts in Edo culture like Geishas, Kabuki theatrical performances which also results in transformations and changes to the arts themselves. This is seen in the tourism industry for example, where Geishas now have new source of income through photo-taking sessions with tourists, as many modern Japanese dwellers, in the search for ‘real’ and ‘vanishing’ Japan, engage in inland tours for a ritualistic and educational trip to the “past”.

Also, in recreating the atmosphere of Kabuki theatres in the old days, a paid claque or employee of the theater will be instructed to call out the actor’s father’s name as a compliment to the actor.11 Perhaps it might be interesting to note that the interest in the traditional arts of Japan might be one of recreating, reliving and appreciating but there has been less participation in the arts and also engagement between the audience and the artists.


Geisha and Discipline

Geisha literally means “arts people” and are largely defined as “one of a class of professional women in Japan trained from girlhood in conversation, dancing, and singing in order to entertain professional or social gatherings of men”. She has studied dance, the shamisen (a three-stringed musical instrument) and is trained in drums, ko– uta (geisha songs), tea ceremony and calligraphy. The Geisha can be said to be an institution as purveyors of the traditional Japanese entertainment arts: music, dance, and song. Under their heavy, elaborate kimonos and thick white make-up are disciplined, talented women who have developed their craft through years of study and apprenticeship.

One of the key characteristics of the flower and willow world is that of discipline. Geishas live their life as art, and their aim is for perfection in everything they do: such as the choice of kimono they wear, or in the arts that they practice. This discipline is brought out in their training years. Maikos used to train for at least 5 years before they could become full geisha, and before that, young girls training to be geisha had to go through a phase in which they acted as servant girls in the okiya that they were attached to to encourage discipline in them. These days, maikos train for shorter periods of time, but most of them already have training in classical dance or music, hence the idea of perfection of the arts still holds true.

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Hierarchy in the geisha community is also highly emphasized. Within the okiya itself, there is a hierarchy of women in the teahouse: with the most important woman known as ‘okasan’, or ‘mother’ to the other geisha. Geisha higher up in the pecking order are always referred to as ‘onesan’, or ‘elder sister’; and the younger geisha are expected to show deference towards those more experienced than they are. Also, when a geisha first makes her appearance in the community, she takes on a special older sister. This older sister passes part of her geisha name to the younger sister, such as the older sister Ichiko, who took on the younger sister Ichiteru.

The unvarying first part of the geishas’ professional name in a society represents the continuity and interconnections within this group of geisha, and brings out the idea of kinship in names: a very important idea in the geisha community. The act of taking an older sister in the geisha community is considered very serious indeed, and the ceremony is similar to that undertaken by newlyweds. It is also interesting to note that sisters, mothers and daughters participate in different relationships; that is to say that a pair of geisha sisters might not share the same okasan.

This idea of kinship in names is also important when it comes to dance schools. Geishas who specialise in dance study the art of dance in different schools, such as the Onoue school in Kyoto. Geishas who perform dance sometime take on dance names, usually with the name of the school as part of their names. In the example of the Onoue school, which descends directly from kabuki, four geisha from Pontocho took the dance names of Onoue Kikuryo, Onoue Kikuko, Onoue Kikuri, Onoue Kikukoko. In this fashion, they show respect to their iemoto.

What is also important in the hierarchy of the karyukai is the implicit kumi system that seems to be prevalent throughout Japanese society. Younger geishas are attached to their older sister geishas, who are expected to teach the younger geisha in the way of entertaining, until they are deemed experienced enough. These younger geishas, also known as musume-bun, are responsible for carrying themselves well, as any mistake that they make would be blamed on their older sisters for not teaching them well, and in turn reflect badly upon their okasan and okiya.

Geisha and Society

While on the surface, the karyukai shares many similarities with the outside society, it really is different. Rules in the karyukai are slightly subverted; the karyukai is considered the world of dreams and escapes to most of the salarymen in Japan, and women generally hold the power in the flower and willow world.

One of the most important differences in the geisha community is that women are the ones in charge. The okasan is generally in charge of the accounts of each okiya, and is a supervisor of sorts over the geisha attached to her okiya. There are few men who work and live in the community, because there is no place for them in there.

One of the most interesting aspects of geisha in relation to Japanese society is that the Geisha and the Wife share a dual role of the Japanese perception of femininity. The virtues of the Wife are that she is modest, socially reticent, and domestic. The Wife represents the private life of the typical Japanese salary man, the usual custom of the karyukai. On the other hand, the Geisha symbolizes the salary man’s fantasies: she is social, witty, and talkative, and possibly even a bit risqué and sexually appealing. The Geishas are the “comrades of the opposite sex”, and there is “fluidity to the formalities” in the way the geishas handle their parties, as opposed to wives in Japan who generally conform.

Essentially, there is nothing for a wife to be jealous about a geisha, as the two take different roles. This duality is largely due to the cultural definition of wife in Japan: it’s not so much about love as it is the socially correct thing to do when one comes of age. There is a de-emphasis on romance in a Japanese marriage, and the woman is expected to take on a completely domestic role after marriage. On the other hand, geisha, while categorised in the service line, exercise initiative and individuality when in a party, such as in conversation or when judging the mood of the party. In a geisha-guest interaction, one may find that it is “much less one-sided than many male-female interactions”21. As seen, while the geisha’s style is feminine, she lacks the meekness and subservience many think are pillars of Japanese womanhood.

Music and Dance

Historically, the development of the term geisha was closely connected with the popularity of the shamisen and the odoriko (dancers). The shamisen was well suited to the accompaniment of popular songs and the creation of lyrical and romantic moods. The odoriko, on the other hand, were young teenage dancers who in the 1680s became extremely popular among feudal lords and upper – class samurai households. The parents of young girls sent them to dancing teachers at high cost for the purpose of offering them for hire – without sexual acts – at parties in respectable samurai households.

The popularity of the odoriko resulted in the proliferation of unscrupulous parents and daughters, however, and by the end of the Genroku era (1688 – 1703) odoriko ceased to adhere to their original purposes or standards. Most of them began to engage in prostitution. From the several thousands courtesans and prostitutes, geisha distinguished themselves by insisting they were not prostitutes and by achieving a professional status as entertainers.

Most geisha study and perform ko–uta, and many of the songs concern male – female relations in the pleasure quarters. As a genre of music, the ko–uta is best described by a direct translation of the word – literally, “little song”. Most ko–uta may be sung between one to four minutes and are accompanied by the shamisen. The difficulty in singing ko–uta lies in the fact that voice and instrument takes two separate threads of sound and interval, weaving them together like a duet. The songs had been created from many sources, ranging from the most refined aestheticism to earthy humor.

One concept essential to the understanding of ko–uta is that of iroke. Iro means a milder sense of “eroticism” and ke means something along the lines of “character” or “spirit”. The essence of iroke is understatement and subtlety and the geisha probably best embody iroke. Some examples of iroke are the tiny glimpse of red along the lines the geisha’s formal black kimono, seen against the white of the powdered nape of her neck; the sidelong glance, exchanged without a word, between a man and a woman. Asakusa Ichimaru, often referred to as the geisha who possessed a nightingale-like singing voice with elegance and good looks, was picked up by a recording company in 1931 and began on her singing career.

In 1984, she institutionalized ko – uta by founding the Edo Ko – uta Ichiju Society with the hopes of popularizing Edo ko – uta. The dance of a geisha consists of a series of restrained and elegant poses similar to kabuki, accompanied by shamisen, flutes and drums, and rather funereal singing. Behind its appeal is melancholy, and the geisha is the paradigm of the Japanese Buddhist belief that beauty is rooted in the evanescence of life, and therefore its sadness. Each dance tells a story and each distinct dance move must dictate it exactly.

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These dances are a precise ballet of movements strewn together and are considered highly sophisticated in Japanese society. The Miyako Odori (“Dance of the Capital” or “The Cherry Dances”) and Kamogawa Odori (“Kamo River Dance”) were first originally performed in 1872 and have quickly grown into a world known and admired event, and as a result, are still performed annually today. The annual dance performances are the only public display of a geisha’s talent, and her moment to establish her credentials as an artist.

Male Geishas

As the term geisha is a general term to mean ‘arts person’, it initially included men. These male geishas developed during the seventeenth century, from the professional entertainers who complemented the courtesans through their drum playing, jesting or comic storytelling. As accomplished as their female counterparts, these male geishas worked either at the gay quarters of the Yoshiwara (becoming the homosexual equivalent of the female geishas) or worked solely as practitioners of musical and performing arts. Soon, these entertainers were collectively called otoko geisha – male arts people.

Some professional male actors formed troupes (taiko mochi) and were also called otoko geisha. However, the status of these male entertainers soon fell in teahouses and they were later confined to the brothels and were collectively known as the hokan. Although the lines are slightly blurred, the hokan were deemed to be less elegant as compared to the male geishas.

  1. E. DeBecker, a “righteous and disparaging foreign authority on Japanese brothel lore noted that the art had degenerated” (Bornoff, 237) with regards to the hokan’s way of entertaining guests.

Nonetheless, both the hokan and otoko geisha were less popular than the female geishas as the men frequented these teahouses more often than the females. “During 1770, there were a measly 16 female geishas and 31 men. In 1775, there were 33 female and geishas and still 31 men; but by 1800, there were a grand total 143 female geishas against 45 men. At this point in history, geishas became generally thought of as women.” (Downer, 105)

Both the hokan and the male geisha declined during the Meiji era, with the hokan disappearing at the close of the Meiji era. Nowadays, the modern male geishas are better known as club hosts who drink and talk with their female clients. Unlike the female geishas, the twenty-first century male geisha does not endure any training in the traditional Japanese arts and neither do they dress in the traditional outfit.

The Future of Geisha

The golden age of the geisha dawned with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the geisha boom continued unabated until World War II. As the number of geisha increased, competition among musicians, singers and dancers intensified, with the salutary result that standards in these artistic fields became higher. A new Japan has emerged in recent times, one who seems to have a waning appreciation for the traditional arts. In turn, fewer and fewer seek out the life of the eternal beauty and artisan of old Japan.

The prestigious Geisha Association of Shinbashi is now reported to have only 100 members, compared to over 1,000 in pre-war days. In a rush to embrace Western culture, the exquisiteness of old traditions is being lost. The love and attention dedicated to the detail of things, whether the placement of the fan in the tea ceremony, the intricate pattern of an obi, or the arch of a geisha’s eyebrow, are giving way to the lust for material goods and instant gratification.



Pottery in Japan was known as Mingei, a form of folk art or craft. These ceramic potteries were heated in kilns to harden the clays. Glazes were used during the production of potteries to bring out the beauty of the colors and such different potteries were used for different purposes. Major kilns could be found all over Japan such as Kyoto, Fujima, Naeshirogawa. Ceramic potteries were important to Japan as these art forms were used during tea ceremonies, vases, storage jars, etc and were part of Japanese’s lives. We shall examine how these pottery community works to produce such art form.

Pottery making in household

The households within a pottery community usually share a common kiln. This phenomenon was results in a co-operative kiln in which a huge kiln was built with equal chamber spaces for every member within the community to use. This was to ensure that there was equality within the community as they had no major forms of ranking between households. This behavior would further allow the members to identify themselves with the community.

A household forms a basic unit of cooperation within the community. Each individual are considered as a member of the household and they all help out with the kiln. Every member is responsible for each other’s behavior hence there are no servants within the household. All households within the community that shares the co-operative kiln are tied to the same work pattern. The types of ceramic potteries produced are the same and the production processes are similar as well.

As with tradition, the successors of the pottery kilns were usually the males. Males were deemed physically fitter to look after the massive kilns. The head of the community would need to know how to maintain a kiln and the skills needed to produce their unique form of pottery and glaze. The control of temperature of the kiln was a very important factor to produce good glazing on potteries and thus the strength of a male would be an advantage as they burn firewood for heat.

Pottery Communities

Pottery communities in Japan are usually very close-knit, bound by neighbourly, family or friendship ties. Therefore, it is mainly community solidarity which keeps the work of pottery making going. In Onta, this is represented by two forms of labour co-operation- moyai and temageshi.

Moyai or co-operative labour consists of households forming groups to work of projects of common interest41. It is more commonly used in wet-rice agriculture but has expanded to the sphere of pottery making as well. Moyai co-operative groups are formed to extract raw materials like clay and iron oxide which are needed for pottery production. A few times each year, one man and one woman from each household would be sent to join their fellow neighbours in digging for clay. The long duration of work and the tediousness associated with it also made companionship desirable.

Co-operation within the community is also demonstrated in how raw materials are distributed. Clay is often divided in equal piles and each household that participated in its extraction gets one pile. If the clay is obtained from privately owned land, the owner would get priority over choosing which pile to take home. Lots are then drawn to decide who gets which pile of clay42.

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The second form of labour co-operation in Onta is known as temageshi or reciprocal labour. Like moyai, it is more commonly used in agriculture but is also used in pottery making. Labour is exchanged among households to prepare glaze materials such as straw ash. Preparation of straw ash is a labour intensive task and requires much pounding and trodding. It is usually women who are involved in this job and they work in pairs.

After the end of a day of labour co-operation, participating families usually gather to have dinner together. Singing and dancing, eating and drinking would be all part of the night’s itinerary. While this often leaves many potters inebriated and unable to work properly the next day, it helps immensely in strengthening community solidarity.

Co-operative Kilns

In Onta, community solidarity is further affirmed by the use of kyodogama or co-operative kilns. Households which use the kilns contributed to its maintenance such as building and repair. The kilns also demonstrate a kind of egalitarianism that has kept pottery community life harmonious and peaceful.

Each household is entitled to equal chamber space in the kiln. As chamber spaces are usually larger at the top, combinations of top and bottom spaces are created. Households are divided into groups with each group consisting of four of five households. A system of rotation is then put in place where each groups has a chance to work on all combinations of chamber spaces.

In the end, every household will produce the same amount of pottery. There is no ranking system to determine who has been more productive. Equality is hence the cornerstone of pottery production and has produced a form of community solidarity that has withstood many waves of change.

Furthermore, households which share a kiln are tied to a similar work pattern, ranging from preparation of raw materials to the firing of pottery. As such, no one family can forge ahead on its own in producing pottery, leaving little space for competition.

Potter Organisation

Potter organizations are formed mainly as platforms for potters to critique each other’s work. Many of such organisations consist of not only potters but also artists from other genres like painters and sculptors. Like Japanese business companies, these organisations have a strict hierarchy that distinguishes junior from senior. Famous potter organizations include Nitten (Japan Arts) and Dento Kogeiten (Traditional Crafts).

In order to gain recognition in the art world, members of potter organisations must go through a number of rank. At the bottom is the ‘associate member’ or kaiyu. Potters become kaiyu after having their masterpieces exhibited at least three times. To become ‘full members’ or kaiin, potters must have had their work exhibited at least ten times and must have won a prize as well. Further up the ranks are ‘jury members’ or shinsain who are appointed by ‘executive members’ (riji). The latter are part of a committee presided over by a chairman (kaicho).

The entire organisational hierarchy to a very large extent emulates an iemoto-style system based on teacher-apprentice relations44. Panels of jurors decide which potter’s work can be exhibited and also offer advice to potters who bring their works to preview sessions. This is often in exchange of gifts of money and a respectful attitude from the potters. The ‘Gibu-ando-teki’ or ‘give and take’ does not stop here but continues into the higher ranks of the organisation. Jurors themselves owe their positions to members of the executive committee. Continual loyalty may one day result in promotion to the committee itself.

Changes in the pottery world

Modernization and industrialization are slowly killing the traditional pottery making in Japan. The machines had eroded the community solidarity of pottery. Bulldozers were now used to shovel the clay instead of the need for moyai and electric mills replaced the need for temasgeshi in preparing glazes. Electric-kilns replaced the traditional wood-fired kiln as it was believe to be safer in a populated area. Such transformation alienates a potter from their potteries as they were supposed to prepare all the materials themselves as oppose to using commercialized products.

With progressive westernization, Japan started adopting western methods of production by using industrial kilns and mold forms for mass production. However, most of the paintings of designs were still hand crafted. Tourism also degraded the traditional pottery community by commercializing them, by having pottery centers converted into shops selling souvenirs, holding workshops for tourist to make their own pottery within a day and other cash-drawing business.
Hence these changes in pottery making from traditional to industrialized causes potters to slowly lose their stand in society and it would be hard to find traditionally produced potteries in future Japan.


After using Iki as a backdrop for understanding the aesthetics of Japanese art, one can therefore sense its influence in the lives of the geisha and the potters. The uniqueness of the Japanese aesthetic of iki can be reflected in the nauces of the dance movements of the geishas, the subtle gestures of the tea ceremony and the details of their make-up and costumes. The strict hierarchical systems of the geishas and Japanese potters seem to remain relatively intact to ensure the tradition of organizing the communities. Values that Japanese hold close to, such as harmony, respect for seniors, group-orientation, co-operation, diligence and loyalty, are also reflected in the process of training the artists.

Japan is special in a way that foreign culture, science and technology are quickly absorbed but at the same time, distinct traditional Japanese arts still remain as part of how others conceptualize Japanese culture and society. Nevertheless, such traditional arts require immense effort and time, adhering to stringent rules and norms that may not seem appealing to the younger generation. Modernity has brought with it mass production, and thousands of alternative entertainment and arts, such as music videos and multimedia tools, that are easily available. It seems as if traditional arts have a declining significance in this fast-paced, frenzied world, and it is up to the passionate few to preserve and develop the traditional aesthetics.


Becker, H, Art Worlds, University of California Press.

Ben-Ari, E., Moeran, B. and Valentine, J. (eds.), 1990, Unwrapping Japan: Society and Culture in Anthropological Perspective

Cobb, Jodi with introduction by Buruma, Ian. Geisha: The Life, the Voices, the Art. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1997.

Downer, Lesley, 2000, Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, Headline.

Dalby, Liza, 1984, Geisha, University of California Press.

Dalby, Liza Little songs of the Geisha: Traditional Japanese Ko – uta. Tuttle Publishing, Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd, 1979.

Hume, N G., 1995, Japanese Aesthetics and Culture, Albany: University of New York Press.

Moeran, Brian, 1997, Folk Art Potters of Japan: Beyond An Anthropology of Aesthetics, University of Hawaii Press.

Pincus, Leslie, 1996, Authenticating Culture in Imperial Japan: Kuki Shuzo and the Rise of National Aesthetics, Berkeley: UC Press.

Segawa Seigle, Cecilia. Yoshiwara: the glittering world of the Japanese courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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