by Ying Ying Yang
I first watched a geisha performance video on YouTube two years ago, and since then I have been fascinated by their elegant looks and refined skills. When I expressed my wish to become a geisha one day (which unfortunately would never come true since I can’t speak Japanese), my friend stared at me and half jokingly said: “Do you want to serve tea to men for the rest of your life?” For the first time, I was surprised by the misunderstanding of geisha by western culture. When I searched for geisha images on the internet, I also found many improper cultural appropriations, including wrong makeup or extremely revealing clothing. These are false representations of geisha and here is brief introduction to who they really are, and whether or not one can borrow their culture.
What is a Geisha?
Geisha, an occupation dominated by Japanese women, are traditional entertainers. They entertain their customers by traditional instruments, dancing, games, and conversations.
Geisha often live a very reclusive life in a tea-house. They can only be seen when they are on their way to their costumers’ parties, around six o’clock in the afternoon. They always dress in elaborate kimonos, a traditional Japanese dress, with fancy make up and colorful hair ornaments.
Geisha is one of the strictest occupations in Japan. Girls usually start their training at the age of fifteen, when they finish junior high school and leave their family to live with other geisha. They study traditional Japanese arts for hours every day. If they pass the examination after six months of training, they may become a maiko, or apprentice geisha. After five years, at the age of 21, they are eventually promoted to geisha. Living as a maiko or a geisha means a life apart from many modern things. They must be traditional, and many are forbidden from using a cell phone, a computer, or traveling to modern places. Most of them have only a one day break each month when they can dress in modern clothing and go out with their friends.
Many think that geisha are men’s submissive little dolls, but that is not the case. Geisha is among the most financially independent women in Japan, and they can refuse to accompany their customers when they don’t feel comfortable. While they remain single during their career, they may marry a man of their own choice after retiring. Now in the modern era, there are even returning mom-geishas. Another confusion is geisha and prostitution. A geisha is not a prostitute, and she earns her living with her skills, not her body.
Cultural Appropriation Vs. Geisha
Cultural appropriation is when someone borrows and uses a part of another culture without the correct understanding. Wearing another culture’s costume is a good example. Cultural appropriation often bears a negative connotation, since it can be offensive to those who belong to the culture that is being borrowed. Many foreigners can be attracted to the beautiful makeup and kimonos of geisha, so a frequent question is: Is it okay for a foreigner to dress up as a geisha? In fact, the answer is a definite yes. In Kyoto, a place with active geisha, there are special shops for geisha makeover. Specialists do the make-up and hair for you. They also help you to dress in the kimono of your choice. So as long as their culture is being respected and understood, the Japanese are very willing to let foreigners experience their culture.