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Geisha’s Art in the ‘Memoirs of Geisha’ by Golden Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jan 4th, 2022

The geisha is a unique phenomenon for the Asian culture as well as, of course, for the western one. Feminine social roles in Japan were divided into three main branches: a wife, who served men’s body, a woman of pleasure, such as, for example, an oiran, who prostituted, and a geisha, whose main concerns were men’s souls and minds. Art played a great role in Japanese culture and geishas were the most outstanding representatives of art world. They studied dancing, singing, rhetoric and many other subjects. Even the word geisha meant a person, who was an artist. At the same time, geisha is not an ordinary stage artist; she is an artist for one’s soul.

The social division in Japan was highly strict, which is clearly depicted in the Memoirs of Geisha. Girls had two main ways of becoming geishas: mostly, they were either born as geisha’s daughters or sold by their poor parents. Trainings of a future geisha were really hard and expensive things, that is why a part of their future earnings or the whole sums were taken away as a kind of payment. A great step in this debt compensation was mizuage, a rite which is intended to symbolize girl’s preparedness for further career. During the rite a girl loses her virginity. The right to be the one, who passes through mizuage with a girl, is paid. Money is used in order to pay girl’s debts to the okiya and sponsor her future career.

Though geishas do not sell their bodies: “We do not display our naked feet like monkeys. This is geisha house, we do NOT peddle flesh here” (Golden 24), they still pass through the mizuage rite. Besides simple pecuniary reasons, there may be several cultural motives which lie deeply inside the notion of a geisha and her art.

The main aim of geisha’s art is to please men, understand them and their nature. They must be perfect companions, pleasant to look at and speak with. They are soul consolers; among geishas duties, one may find an obligation to pour sake to men’s glasses. The roots of the tradition lie in the notion of a man, who is so lonely, that he does not have a woman to fill his glass or cup. Thereby, geisha is the men’s friend and companion, and at the same time, a beautiful and inspiring woman.

Of course, this aim requires great knowledge about people’s minds, souls and desires. Geishas were soul wives, though they dealt with quite earthly affairs. As long as the Japanese sense of beauty demanded the perfection of each piece of art, geisha, as she also was both a representative and a work of art, had to be skillful in various aspects of human life.

Arthur Golden describes the mizuage as an act that completely changed Chiyo’s outlook and self-sensation. “It’s strange and very hard to explain, but the world looked different to me after mizuage. Pumpkin, who hadn’t yet had hers, now seemed inexperienced and childlike to me somehow, even though she was older” (Golden 218). Though geisha’s life presupposes regular development of her body and mind skills, ritual acts are very important phenomena for her career. The same happened with mizuage: the simple fact of leaving the rite behind opened wide horizons to her as well as protected Chiyo from Hatsumomo’s cavils. She got a new name Nitto Sayuri and a new social status which was a great event as long as “life in Gion is hardly relaxing for the women who make a living there” (Golden 232).

Speaking about the spiritual character of a geisha and her client’s relationship, one may remember the fact, that a geisha often stopped her relationships with her mizuage partner. The same happened with Chiyo: “with my mizuage behind me, Dr. Crab disappeared from my life almost completely” (229). At the same time, Mameha stayed with Baron, and he became her Danna. Still, it could not have happened against her will.

The Japanese culture is not only contemplative but also very figurative. The author of the “Memoirs of a Geisha” reflects this peculiar feature by the means of describing a mizuage act metaphorically. The method depicts both, Chiyo’s innocence and naivety and the image-bearing nature of Japanese mentality. The act is described as a search for a homeless eel, which needs shelter. In fact, geishas give men spiritual shelter during their careers; it is the main aim of their work. People, who interact with geisha, must feel relaxed and comforted; at the same time, geisha’s company enriches one’s mind and heart.

In fact, geishas belonged to the entertainment sphere of pleasing culture, while oirans and other kinds of Japanese prostitutes cared about pleasure questions. The competition between these spheres would not be encouraged by any side. Still, the division to the entertainment and pleasure quarters is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, which could not be observed anywhere else in Asian countries.

Geishas acted in the unique niche of the entertainment sphere; at the same time, they stood on a rather honorable and respectful step of a social scale. Although girls became geishas for the reasons of poverty, the geishas enjoyed a lot of social liberties which were forbidden for other women. At the same time, they had to follow other social limits strictly. Though, in certain historical periods before World War II geishas were muses of Japanese people who inspired men. Well-educated, skillful and highly traditional, they had unique possibilities for women in former Japanese society. Successful life of a geisha meant self-sufficiency, and independence, the possibility to earn money by means of honorable business.

Work Cited

Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha: A Novel. New York: Vintage, 1999. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2022. "Geisha’s Art in the 'Memoirs of Geisha' by Golden." January 4, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/geishas-art-in-the-memoirs-of-geisha-by-golden/.

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