Preserving Japan's Geisha Culture

August 6, 2012
By May BakerEditor: Yang Zixin

Geisha have been in existence in Japan for many centuries. Their origins date to Japanese prehistory; the shrine maidens of the Jōmon period (circa 14000 – 300 BC), performing at religious ceremonies, represented the commencement of a long tradition of Japanese female entertainers, at the end of which lies the modern geisha that we know today. The term geisha as we understand it emerged in the eighteenth century; and the image of the intricately coiffed lady in white make-up, kimono and obi belt, attending banquets as the ultimate expression of Japanese artistry and social sophistication, has become as definitive an icon of the country as sushi and cherry blossom. 

A geisha has to undergo--learning how to speak a hyper-elevated dialect of Japanese and how to sing and dance gracefully while wearing a 44-pound kimono atop six-inch wooden sandals. [sayuki.net/Ben Robins

A geisha has to undergo--learning how to speak a hyper-elevated dialect of Japanese and how to sing and dance gracefully while wearing a 44-pound kimono atop six-inch wooden sandals. [sayuki.net/Ben Robins]


In the twenty-first century, however, the geisha world is in crisis. Numbers are dwindling at an unprecedented rate. In the heyday of the nineteen twenties, around eighty thousand geisha were working in Japan; now there are less than a thousand to be found throughout the country. The hangyoku (maiko or young apprentice geisha), who are subjected to a rigorous study of the geisha arts before they are allowed to debut in public, are responsible for the continuance of the tradition; but currently in Tokyo these trainee geisha number only seven individuals. 

The geisha's salvation may lie in a somewhat unlikely quarter. Sayuki, Japan's first foreign geisha, made her debut in 2007, granted permission to enter the geisha world as part of an academic project. Since then, the Oxford-educated Australian anthropologist has worked hard at ensuring the preservation of the culture she has adopted as her own. This year has seen her take in a prospective hangyoku, helping her to achieve her dream of becoming a geisha, in a gesture which illustrates her commitment to the tradition's continuance. Twenty year-old Sayuri is the first hangyoku to be supported by a non-Japanese geisha, though she will learn her lessons with the help of much more senior elder. 'Many hangyoku who arrive at geisha houses to train quit after only a few days. It's incredibly hard work, and it's rare to find a girl who is willing to make the commitment and put in the hours of study', says Sayuki. 'But it's so important that young geisha exist to take over from the older generation – otherwise geisha will be gone from Japan within a few decades'. 
A geisha has to undergo--learning how to speak a hyper-elevated dialect of Japanese and how to sing and dance gracefully while wearing a 44-pound kimono atop six-inch wooden sandals. [sayuki.net/Haruhi Okuyama

A geisha has to undergo--learning how to speak a hyper-elevated dialect of Japanese and how to sing and dance gracefully while wearing a 44-pound kimono atop six-inch wooden sandals. [sayuki.net/Haruhi Okuyama]


Sayuki's efforts to protect geisha culture from diminution involve a great deal of business acumen. 'The crucial question for any traditional culture is to survive in the modern age,' she explains. 'It's because you modernise your business methods that you are able to retain the traditional content, without altering or cheapening it'. One of the most significant developments Sayuki envisions initiating is a heightened accessibility of the notoriously private and impenetrable geisha world to outsiders. 'Up until now, it's been impossible for people to meet geisha without an official introduction into the geisha house,' says Sayuki. 'It's also been prohibitively expensive – around 1000 US dollars per person per meal.' according to Sayuki, there will always be customers who desire the high-end experience and geisha will always cater for that. But Sayuki is also pioneering a new scheme whereby, for the first time, foreigners and Japanese people with no connections in the geisha world can meet and dine with geisha for a fraction of this price. 'Geisha have always been strong, independent businesswomen,' says Sayuki. 'It's merely a matter of adapting the model to the times'. 

Despite hailing originally from Melbourne, Sayuki has embraced the geisha world wholeheartedly – the first non-Japanese person in the world to do so by becoming a geisha. Her enthusiasm for its preservation, however, is not borne solely from her own personal affinity with it; it stems rather from a respect for its culture as playing a valid role in the heritage of Japan. 'If I have the ability to do anything to positively contribute towards retaining this beautiful tradition," she says, 'I would certainly be honoured'.

A geisha has to undergo--learning how to speak a hyper-elevated dialect of Japanese and how to sing and dance gracefully while wearing a 44-pound kimono atop six-inch wooden sandals. [sayuki.net/Ben Robins]

A geisha has to undergo--learning how to speak a hyper-elevated dialect of Japanese and how to sing and dance gracefully while wearing a 44-pound kimono atop six-inch wooden sandals. [sayuki.net/Ben Robins]

(Source: sayuki.net)

Please understand that womenofchina.cn,a non-profit, information-communication website, cannot reach every writer before using articles and images. For copyright issues, please contact us by emailing: website@womenofchina.cn. The articles published and opinions expressed on this website represent the opinions of writers and are not necessarily shared by womenofchina.cn.


32.3K
Comments
Related Story