Japanese society is often cited as an example of patriarchy gone unchallenged, and in many ways, this is true. The country has never seen a female leader, and the government is stolidly comprised of slightly overweight men, graying at the temples. The concept of a stay-at-home Dad is regarded as little more than a foreign fallacy, and the working fathers themselves are more likely to be found in a smoky bar or hunched at a computer screen of an evening, than tucking in their brown-eyed children. Though more women can be found in professional fields nowadays, the primary place of a woman is, almost unequivocally, in the home, and those homes are as tiny and immaculate as the residents within.
It’s interesting, then, that Japan is also the birthplace of the geisha. Foreigners might regard the geisha as a natural adjunct to a country that regards the woman in a dichotomy of Madonna and Whore, but these beliefs come from a misunderstanding of the historical role of the geisha. Geisha are regarded by many as merely a silk kimono and pale face away from prostitutes. In fact, true geisha rarely had sexual relations with their patrons, and when they did it was either as part of an immensely expensive and rare ceremony or when the entirety of their services was purchased for the sole enjoyment of a single man in a contract which bound until retirement. Geisha could not marry, but they could take lovers, and in the majority of cases the sexuality of a geisha was a private matter wholly abstracted from her activities as a professional.
The stereotypical picture of a geisha is a demure and sedate one; bowed beneath the weight of coiffure, face-paint and silk, they shuffle on their tiny feet. No eye contact is made – though they might pose for a photograph with a foreigner, they will not smile and they will not speak. To the uneducated observer, the geisha is a symbol of all that is wrong with the treatment of women within the country, a servant to the needs of men. But it is true that patriarchal Japan has resigned women to the role of caregiver, nurturer and mother, the geisha was, and is, none of these things.
The geisha, as she was in her heyday pre-World War Two, was a consummate professional. Usually proficient in the arts of dance, conversation, and the Japanese tea ceremony, a geisha would often also specialize in some other difficult traditional craft such as calligraphy. She was intelligent and wry, coy and alluring, and she utilized her skills as an entertainer and hostess to transfix the minds of those wealthy enough to buy her time. Her training might begin as young as fourteen years old, and once she was accepted into the fold as a geisha, she would remain as such until she retired. These were women who had transcended the societal limitations of their sex, and held power and sway over Japan’s most powerful. Their patrons were men who could have anything they desired – but they could not have the geisha.
The degradation of the imagine of the geisha occurred during World War Two, when common prostitutes began to market themselves as geisha girls to attract the attentions of young American soldiers. As the lines between artist and whore blurred, the profession went into decline, and though the end of the war saw some restoration of the art, it was never restored to its former glory, the image forever changed. The geisha, now, was synonymous with sex, and not purely with desire.
Though feminism in Japan is young, and tremulous, it could be said that it finds its roots in the misunderstood myth of the geisha. The modern woman has many traits in common with the geisha, though she may not always understand the extent of her power. The import placed on looks and grooming harks back to the immaculate face of the entertainer, doing much the same job in enticing hapless males. The Japanese woman today might feign ignorance or shyness in order to draw a man to her mystery, but this a farce, for they are more highly educated and informed than ever before. Like the shuffling, demure geisha, Japanese women are so much more than they appear.
There are flaws in the comparison. While a geisha was a geisha until she choose to retire, the modern woman maintains her allure for only a short time – in Japan, unmarried women past their mid-twenties are termed ‘Christmas Cake’ – no good after the 25th. Geisha earned huge amounts of money in their craft; Japanese women today must struggle against discrimination in many fields of work.
But the same determination exists, and a similar manifestation of feminism can be seen. There is no feminist fervor to penetrate the patriarchy, and, especially, there is no desire to be treated the same as men. There is simply faith; in the allure of the feminine mystique, and in the knowledge that Japanese men always have needed, and always will need, Japanese women. It is not ignorance that keeps the women of Japan true to the traditions that hold their society together, but a patient strength beneath the painted face.