Turning Japanese— Western geisha fantasies

Snowed in by the first falling flakes
Between us a warm box of coals
And the sound
Of a softly plucked shamisen
My love and I, our heads together –
Is unreality the floating world, or the
floating world the truth –
Heart to heart,
I cannot tell.

-Liza Crihfield, Ko-uta, ‘Little Songs’ of the Geisha World, Rutland, 1979

The word ‘geisha’ is usually all it takes to inspire an ‘Oriental’ sexual fantasy. The conventions of this image are based upon a purely Japanese phenomenon that first travelled to the West around the end of the 19th century, predominantly in the form of woodblock prints depicting the adventures of courtesans, kabuki actors and geisha. While the real geisha is an enigmatic Japanese ideal, the hybrid figure known to Western audiences, largely through the filter of Puccini’s tragic Madame Butterfly (1905), is a more complex creation. Butterfly’s modern counterpart, Sayuri, the heroine of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) ends her days living in the Waldorf Towers and running a tea house for Japanese businessmen and politicians passing through New York.

The geisha aesthetic originates from around the mid-18th century when these female entertainers were at their peak of popularity and considered the epitome of iki, a style of racy yet intellectually-connotated chic that was appreciated only by the fashionable city set that frequented the illicit ‘floating world’ of brothels, tea houses, theatres and geisha-houses. Something of this world survives in Japan today, inhabiting a no-man’s land that straddles the modern sex industry and the vestiges of traditional aesthetic culture. The term ‘geisha’ itself is a conjunction of ‘art’ and ‘person’ – she may be considered as both artist and work of art. The mask-like make-up, lacquered wig and the particular style of tying the tightly-bound kimono, which requires the assistance of a skilled dresser, redefine the body and subsequently elevates the wearer from real life, creating a template for feminine behaviour. The vivid yet small mouth feigns shyness, but the focus of attention on the carefully made-up nape of the neck and the specific hierarchies of hairstyle denote geisha rank and sexual awareness. The loose robe de chambre popular in the West is quite unlike the formal kimono worn by the geisha at work, and the performance involved in unwrapping the real woman underneath her silken cocoon has not been lost on writers and costume designers. Yet it was a failure to register the nuances of kimono design that caused foreigners to confuse geisha with the high-class courtesans whose waiting clients the geisha entertained in the brothel quarters until their abolition under the American Occupation of 1945.

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The ideal geisha was primarily valued as a woman of aesthetic accomplishment whose skill in dance, song, poetry and tea preparation increased with age and was best appreciated by the connoisseur. The geisha was expected to be expert at witty repartee, flirting and more. Her loyalty and discretion to her patron made her the confidant of artists, revolutionaries and politicians alike. The outing of a public figure’s geisha habit still makes the headlines in Japan today. A geisha’s devotion might also go beyond contractual bounds – the phenomenon of the shinju, lovers-suicide, added to her thrilling yet poignant popular image. The notion of a woman prepared to die for her man formed a large part of her allure in the West – paradoxically, at a time when indentured geisha were torn between tradition and modernisation under Western influence.

he geisha manifests a strange sexual allure that ebbs and flows with changing attitudes to women, as seen by men, and how women position themselves in relation to men. Even in Japan, the image of the geisha has always been received more as fiction than fact, fabricated in 17th to 19th centuries through popular prints or novels. From the late 19th century, Japanese Modern novelists, such as Higuchi Ichiyo (Child’s Play, 1895-96), or Kafu Nagai (Geisha in Rivalry, 1918), chose to explore the psychological aspects of geisha life, while film directors captured the increasing isolation of their claustrophobic world – notably Kenji Mizoguchi (Sisters of Gion, 1936), Mikio Naruse (Late Chrysanthemums, 1954), Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976) and Jun Ichikawa (Busu, 1987). These are images of a vanishing world, certainly, but it is one that still resonates – in a recent TV documentary, Japanese junior-high school girls considered geisha ‘cool’ – and cheaper forms of zashiki, geisha entertainment along with ‘be a geisha for the day’ packages are increasingly popular.

In the West, this received image has been further processed through the theme of what we could call Western boy meets Japanese girl; even James Bond succumbed in You only Live Twice (1964). Finding himself at a geisha party Bondo-san – world etiquette expert – rejects the favours of Trembling Leaf, the ‘pillow geisha’, for the mature musical delights of Grey Pearl. In the film version, Bond finds himself being bathed by a group of nubile girls in white bikinis – perhaps a vision of the entertainment preferred by American film executives on location.

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Today’s fin de siècle mood has prompted a desire to redefine erotica and explain the geisha beyond the carefully constructed confection of her form. There seems to be a need to humanise the sexual fantasy created from, if not exactly the dehumanisation of a woman, then the enhancement and exaggeration of all that the 18th-century Japanese male desired, while discarding everything he found tiresome, in a wife most probably acquired through arrangement. Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) spurred this current fascination. His first person narrative of a geisha exiled without her true love and reviewing her life through her interlocutor, Dr Haarhuis, even caught the imagination of Steven Spielberg. As Golden shows, throughout the 20th century, the geisha, or her imaginary Japanese sister, continued to seduce Western writers (some works remain classified as ‘cupboard books’ in the British Library) and film-makers: Jack Cardiff’s My Geisha (1962), in which Shirley MacLaine becomes a geisha, Françoise Truffaut’s Bed and Board (1970) or Peter Greenaway’s Pillow Book (1996), for example.

Last autumn, clad in the geisha’s scarlet under-kimono for her video of Nothing Really Matters (1999), Madonna usurped not Golden’s passive heroine, but the conniving character of Hatsumomo. Channel 4 presented a moody rain-soaked documentary reminiscent of both the blue-grey twilight of late 19th-century woodcuts and Bladerunner (1982), focusing on the sleazy side of today’s floating world inhabited by the Kyoto geisha. Timon Screech’s book on erotica, Shunga: katate de yomu edo no e (Edo pictures for reading with one hand), published in English as Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan, 1700-1820 (1999) has sold widely beyond academic circles. Meanwhile, Topsy Turvy (1999), Mike Leigh’s excruciatingly authentic film about Gilbert and Sullivan’s gestation of The Mikado, revives our acquaintance with the geisha-inspired musical comediennes, The Three Little Maids, who established the motif for Japanese womankind in the West. One hundred years later, in 1986, Princess Diana, upon receiving the gift of a kimono, immediately held it to her figure and tottered forward ‘Fill’d to the brim with girlish glee’ in a caricature of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yum-Yum.

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One of the earliest depictions of Oriental dissipation was Tissot’s In Foreign Climes (1882), a series of images on the biblical parable of The Prodigal Son, in which the drunken protagonist is shown squandering his inheritance money in the company of fawning geisha. The late 19th and early 20th century saw a glut of novels and libretti, most famously Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysantheme (1887). After several successful memoirs, Loti visited Japan to research his next book by ‘marrying […] a yellow one just as a change’. Musical comedies such as the silly but risqué The Geisha (1896) were huge but transient hits, and then, after years of difficulties in realising his work, Puccini changed Loti’s charming but scheming Chrysantheme to the plaintive Butterfly. Since its premiere in 1905, Madame Butterfly has been performed at London’s Covent Garden almost every season.

The fascination with the geisha and a particular vision of Japanese women in general may present the truth that despite, or in spite of, multi-cultural 21st-century society, Japonaiserie is an enduring remnant of the sexual mores established, like so much of our Modern cultural life, by late 19th-century, male-dominated colonial society. Tourist parades of the oiran-dochu star-courtesan, the acknowledgment of the architecture of the Sumiya brothel in Kyoto’s Shimabara district as an ‘Important Cultural Property’ by the Japanese government, and the prestige of Gion’s notorious Ichirikitei tea house have sanitised the geisha world. No longer a trend-setter, the geisha is a curator of traditional aesthetics. Post-Feminist discourse has enabled women to choose to be willing subjects as opposed to passive objects of desire, and today’s geisha is bound only by choice to her life as art. Yet, the concept of Western boy meets Japanese girl is still a turn on. Forbidden love is a cross-cultural romantic theme and the fictitious love-lorn Japanese woman continues to be the object of desire more because of the perceived Orientalism that has created her ‘Japaneseness’ than the reality of her person.

Your heart
Flip-flops and changes
Like a marionette,
There’s someone in the shadows
Pulling your strings.

-Ibid

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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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