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Japanese Geisha and Gender Identity Issues Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 20th, 2020

Abstract

This paper investigates whether Japanese geisha girls/women have any effect on gender identity issues in the country. The paper acknowledges that geisha was initially an art which could be pursued by people of both genders, but adopts a working definition that recognizes geisha as a career path pursued by members of the female gender. Such women give up the womanly roles of getting married, giving birth and raising children and instead pursue a career in the entertainment arts.

Contrary to the married woman, geisha are free of any home-related obligations and should ideally challenge masculine notions of power in the society. The paper notes that geisha women/girls pamper male egos and thus play a role in upholding the status quo where the male gender is perceived as stronger than the female gender. The paper has, however, identified a gap in existing knowledge and recommends further research in order to establish whether indeed all women (geisha women/girls included) feel the need to have members of the male gender in their lives for them to have a sense of completion

Introduction

The history of geisha in Japan goes back to about 1603 when a maiden working in a Shinto shrine began offering avant-garde performances (Miller & Bardsley, 2005). During the performances, the maiden would put on male attires. The performances attracted much negative attention that 26 years later, all public performances by women were banned. Consequently, men became the predominant entertainers and would act as jesters, dancers and artists. Two hundred and fifty years later, women regained the freedom to perform publicly. During the 250-year ban, however, women would perform illegally in samurai residences (Miller & Bradsley, 2005).

Consequently, the lifting of the ban brought more women into the mainstream entertainment scene in Japan. By 1780, Seigle (1993) notes that there were more female entertainers than male entertainers in Japan. This paper will investigate the geisha traditions in Japan and the gender identity issues represented therein.

This paper argues that geisha and gender identity issues are closely related because geishas are a reflection of the emancipation that Japanese women desire; yet, geisha women/girls pamper the male ego thus playing a role in maintaining the status quo that perceives the male gender as the stronger gender in Japan.

Methodology

This paper will use a literature review method, where existing narratives of geishas will be reviewed in order to determine the relevant gender issues therein. A search of literature using specific keywords such as ‘gender identity issues and Japanese geisha’, ‘geisha and gender identity issues’, and ‘geisha and masculinity vs. Femininity in Japan’ will be conducted on the internet. Selecting literature for use will be based on the perceived validity of sources. Peer reviewed articles, books and websites that have authorship information will be prioritized as valid sources of information.

Literature review

Geisha and femininity

While the term geisha was used for both male and female entertainers in Japan, this paper will adopt Bardsley and Miller’s (2010) relatively modern definition of the term. According to the authors, geisha are “women who are officially registered as such with a small central office located in each geisha community, called a kenban, and who study classical Japanese music and dance and perform it for gatherings in order to pay for their art lessons and public stage performances” (p. 68).

Bardsley and Miller (2010) are among the authors who have done extensive investigations Japanese geisha and their roles in the society. The two authors note that “geisha are often cast as the epitome of a woman on her best, most feminine Japanese behavior” (Bardsley & Miller, 2005, p. 67). The entertainment roles of the Geisha are dedicated to male customers and are supposed to embody faultless etiquette from members of the female gender. The ideal geisha is clothed in a long Kimono, and her gestures and posture are restrained. She is not only elegant; she is also quiet and attentive too. She does not start a conversation with her patrons unless it is quite necessary, and she is obliged to answer the questions that the patrons ask her.

Her life revolves around entertainment, and she usually sleeps during the day so she can be in the best psychological state to attend different performances during the night. In other words, her role is to entertain customers and make them comfortable. Most customers are men. Bardsley and Miller (2010) also note that geisha girls/women perceive themselves as servants “of their teachers and the arts guilds they populate” (p. 67).

As long as they practice the entertainment arts, geisha are indebted to their teachers. They can never question their teachers (especially one referred to as iemoto) for teachers are perceived as having absolute authority. The term iemoto is understood to refer to the “the source as well as the keeper of specific art traditions” (Cang, 2008, p. 74). To greet the iemoto, a geisha needs to kneel and bow and the same thing (i.e. kneel and bow) is repeated when the geisha leaves iemoto’s presence (Bardsley & Miller, 2010). Once a geisha is qualified to entertain, she cannot improvise or deviate from the style taught by the iemoto.

Even her personal embellishments must stick to what was taught by her master and teacher. Further, the geisha cannot teach others unless express permission is granted by the iemoto, and for that she is obliged to pay a specific amount of money to her teacher (Bardsley & Miller, 2010). Interestingly, most of the iemoto artists were from the male gender, and only recently has female artists began taking up the dominant art-teaching positions. The foregoing notwithstanding, Cang (2008) indicates that the term iemoto has paternalistic connotations, especially since it is used in reference to the grand master (not mistress) who acts as the sole protector and arbiter of artistic traditions. The relationship between the iemoto and the geisha is vertical, with the iemoto being at the apex of the pyramid, while his followers and geisha are at lower levels of the pyramid.

Geisha women do not get married, bear children, and/or teach. Instead, they devote themselves to the art taught to them by the iemoto (Bardsley & Miller, 2010). They are independent minded, strong-willed and live freely without abiding to societal construction of what women’s behavior should be (Bardsley & Miller, 2010). As opposed to the custom in Japan, Geisha women do not take their last names from their families; rather, the ryû (a school of art) that a geisha woman follows determines their last name (Miller & Bardsley, 2005). Because becoming a geisha is voluntary, those who choose to do so are considered the bad girls within the society (Miller & Bardsley, 2005.).

Several reasons inform the foregoing position. First, Japan is likely to suffer from a population crisis because the aging population is threatening to outdo new births (Miller & Bradsley, 2005). As such, any woman who chooses not to get married and/or bear children is perceived as contributing to a possible future population crisis. Secondly, becoming a geisha is tantamount to “sacrificing normal family” (Miller & Bardsley, 2005, p. 42). A normal woman, according to the Japanese society is supposed to have dreams of getting married, bearing children, and taking care of her in-laws. Any girl/woman who has a contrary wish is considered ‘bad’. Another reason is that women who pursue the geisha career are considered selfish, mostly because such a career guarantee them artistic and social freedom. Such freedom, however, denies the larger society wives, daughters-in-law, and children who would have been born had the geisha girls chosen to pursue a normal path that women in Japan are expected to follow.

Geisha and masculinity

Culturally, “masculinity in Japan tends to demand for female subservience” Dalby (2008, p. 8). Consequently, geisha women should ideally represent an affront to the egos of male gender. However, geisha women are trained to pamper the male ego, because after all, men are the single largest client base for the geisha women. Additionally, the male gender in Japan has been socialized to perceive geisha women first as artists, and secondly as entertainers (Foreman, 2008).

In other words, Japanese men know only too well that geisha girls/women are not subservient. The girls/women may be respectful of men, but this is assumed to be a consequence of the respect being reciprocated with respect. If a man is disrespectful towards a geisha, he can be evicted from the Ozashiki (a salon where performances are held) or from large-scale public concerts where geisha performs.

An indirect role that geisha women serve is pampering the male ego (Dalby, 2008). The foregoing means that men who attend geisha performances have their masculinity affirmed. This is contrary to what some may believe is the effect of geisha girls/women in men’s sense of masculinity. The fact that men form the largest percentage of customers for geisha performances further supports the argument that men fantasize about geisha women, but respect them too. They desire geisha women, yet they are all too aware that they cannot marry them. Given a chance, men in Japan would opt not to marry geisha women because they are too independent (Cang, 2008). Such independence would challenge the same masculinity that Japanese men try to hold on to.

Though geisha women are seductive, they do not exchange sex for any favors (especially not within the private parties). According to Cang (2008), withholding sexual favors from the male clientele ensure that geisha women are in a position of power. Through graceful seduction, geisha women ensure that men keep coming for performances in the hope that one day, specific geisha girls/women will give in to their sexual advances.

Yet, the graceful seduction is one of the tools used by geisha women/girls to ensure that men are constantly infatuated. Arguably, geisha women/girls challenge men’s position as the stronger sex, while at the same time pampering the male egos and hence ensuring that men do not feel less masculine after attending the artistic performances. It has been noted that men get visual pleasure of seeing geisha women/girls performing their art, since their wives can rarely match up to the geisha. In a way, men who attend the geisha performances can be said to have the best of both worlds: subservient wives while at home and the daring, free-spirited geisha women/girls while in the entertainment scenes.

Discussion

One of the ways that geisha and gender issues in Japan can be interpreted is through perceiving the act of becoming a geisha as emancipating women from society’s expectations. As Keiko (2006) indicates, becoming a geisha is tantamount to pursuing a career in art. By pursuing a liberating career, geisha women do not fall with a society’s construction of what a woman should be – i.e. married, and a mother. Consequently, it is possible that geisha women perceive themselves as being against the same female virtues that the male-dominated society in Japan encourages. Keiko (2006) further observes that geisha women are perceived as bad because they do not conform to the society’s expectations of what a good woman should be. But what are the exact societal expectations towards women? Hendry (2003) argues that society expects women to fit into “the indigenous family system where men were superior to women, who were expected to attend to [man’s] every need” (p. 39).

Such expectations form the basis on which most Japanese women are encouraged to stay at home and play the roles of the loving wife and the nurturing mother. Any woman who thus pursues a career that is contrary to such expectations is labeled as ‘bad’. Since it is highly patriarchal, the Japanese society does not leave much room for women to double up as mothers and career women (Hendry, 2003). Consequently, women who get married and have children rarely pursue careers, while those who opt to pursue careers often choose not to get married and if they do, often opt not to have children.

Contrary to the independent career women that most geisha are, there is also another aspect of their career that could be interpreted as enduring servitude. The foregoing is especially true if one was to consider the allegiance that geisha women have towards their teachers. Arguably, geisha women may have succeeded in going against society’s expectations of the female gender roles, but their lives are still lives of service (through the art of entertainment) to the same male gender they do not want to get married to. The only difference however is that by being a geisha, women are paid for their services. This is contrary to the role of a wife and mother, whose only possible compensation is emotional through the love of their husbands, children and perhaps the appreciation they get from the larger society.

One question that remains unanswered in the literature is whether geisha women make any contribution to the subject of gender relations in Japan. Keiko (2006) for example, observes that geisha women understand that their careers and the wealth that ensue thereof, “do not contradict heterosexual masculine identity” (p. 315). In other words, however successful geisha women are in their careers, they do not assume or imagine they can match up the position of a man. Yet, Miller and Bardsley (2005) observe that sometimes, geisha women put their kimonos aside and dress like male characters. They often sit, chat and have good times just as men do. They are not only the fantasy of men who serve as their biggest clients, but are also idolized by women (Miller & Bardsley, 2005).

Additionally, it has been noted that in order to satisfy the heterosexual feminine identities, geisha women often spend their accumulated wealth on activities that fill up their otherwise empty lives (Keiko, 2006). The foregoing argument insinuates that without marriage and children, a woman’s life is rather empty and pointless. Some of the activities that geisha women have been indicated as pursuing include cosmetic surgery, shopping, and obsession with male characters whom they cannot marry or have children with, but can have sexual relations with (Keiko, 2006).

According to Keiko (2006), deeming geisha women as bad, or insinuating their lives to be empty and pointless is a well-crafted plot that intends to take the power, which women get from careers and independent living. Specifically, it is a ploy that is meant to demean the same powers and satisfaction that women get from their careers. In other words, it shows that without dominant male characters with whom they can get married and have children, their success does not amount to anything much. This gap in existing knowledge deserves further research in order to determine whether indeed geisha women feel complete or whether they feel the void that society perceives them to have. In other words, future research needs to answer the question ‘do all women in Japan (including geisha women) feel the need to have male figures in their lives for them to have a sense of completion?’

Conclusion

From this paper, it appears that the career as a geisha has done impressively well in freeing women who are daring enough to get into that career. Such women enjoy the benefits of being themselves without fitting into limiting societal constructs of what it means to be a woman. Geisha women earn good money, and can afford to spend it on whatever activities they deem fit. Such activities include shopping, cosmetic surgery or getting entertained by members of the opposite gender. As noted in the literature review section, geisha women/girls not only entertain men, but are also idolized by women who perceive them as living the ultimate life of independence.

Yet, all the foregoing comes at a price; they are branded the bad girls, and are often perceived as selfish and unwilling to live by the ideals of the feminine gender roles. They do not marry, bear children or attend to their in-laws. Even more serious is that they do not contribute to the society by giving birth, especially at a time when Japan is at risk of having a population crisis in future. Japanese geisha are in more ways than one a threat to maleness and masculinity, but men do not seem to take notice. This paper has found out that geisha women/girls have mastered the art of pampering male egos, so much that men keep coming back for more entertainment.

Geisha women/girls have established careers in the arts, and through entertaining men, they earn enough money to sustain themselves. Arguably, the foregoing can usurp Japan’s widely held belief that men are the primary breadwinners. If such a thing happens, masculinity conceptions would be in jeopardy. Luckily, pampering the egos of the male gender as done by geisha women/girls has played a significant role in upholding the status quo in how the male and female genders relate.

References

Bardsley, J., & Miller, L. (2010). Manners and mischief: gender, power, and etiquette in Japan. California: University of California Press. Web.

Cang, V.C. (2008). Preserving intangible heritage in Japan: the role of the iemoto system. International Journal of Intangible Heritage, 3, 71-81. Web.

Dalby, L.C. (2008). Geisha. California: University of California Press. Web.

Foreman, K.M. (2008). The gei of geisha: Music, identity and meaning. Burlington, VT: Ashgate publishers. Web.

Hendry, J. (2003). Understanding Japanese society. New York: Routledge. Web.

Keiko, A. (2006). Bad girls of Japan- book review. Social Science Japan Journal, 9(2), 315-317. Web.

Miller, L., & Bardsley, J. (2005). Bad girls of Japan. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Web.

Seigle, C.S. (1993). Yoshiwara: the glittering world of the Japanese courtesan. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press. Web.

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