Thursday, December 15, 2005

Geisha Chic

According to this Washington Post article, there are geisha experts that are critical of inaccuracies in Memoirs of A Geisha. They claim the movie takes liberties with the history and style of the era and creates false impressions of geishas. Of course it does, it’s a movie. The geisha is a strange cultural touchstone. They evoke a bygone era of elegance and grace while extolling women that are demure and deferential. The geisha image plays into a lot of stereotypes about the exotic Far East. The complicated and perhaps deliberately ambiguous sensual nature of geisha culture has always fascinated and perplexed Westerners.

The geisha is a nearly extinct career, a victim of modernization and changing tastes. While some traditional geishas remain, they exist largely as an anachronistic leftover. In modern Japan, the role of the geisha has been replaced by the hostess girl.

When I was in Japan this summer we took a tour that visited the Hondo Sensoji Buddhist shrine in Tokyo. Part of the complex has a long row of vendors and booths that are popular for shopping. Here there were a wide variety of people including more than a few groups of girls dressed as geishas. They were obviously not real geishas, but I still can’t quite figure out what makes people dress up in the middle of the day in period costume and go out in groups. I keep trying to come up with an American analogy to this hobby, but the closest I can come up with are Civil War re-enactors, but they don’t go out in public in costume. At least I hope not.

I think the image of the geisha has outlived the practice. It connects modern Japan to its traditions and culture and reminds them of a gentler, less hectic, romanticized past. Like the American cowboy, geishas and samurai are symbols of a life that never really was. That Japanese girls, and some boys, find dressing in exotic costumes entertaining is perplexing, but then Japanese pop cultural fads have always been, to use a term loaded with potentially offensive connotations, inscrutable.

Whether Memoirs of A Geisha is a compelling period piece or just exploitive Orientalism can be debated. I just feel it’s important to note that even in Japan, the age of the geisha holds a mysterious allure to this day.

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Unknown said...

Teenage girls (usually around the pre-teen age) in my area like to go out dressed like women from Jane Austen novels, complete with little parasol umbrellas. I went to a comedic play last Sunday and there were about 12 girls there dressed like that. There was also another groups of girls dressed like flappers. Both groups were in the 13-15 age group. It confused my friend Ashlee and me. I suppose this could be the American counterpart to the Japanese Geisha dressers.

Bonvallet said...

I watched a show on the Discovery channel about geishas. They are very disciplned. Their teachers are strict. I couldn't help but be reminded of holy people the way their lives were strictly geisha, there was no room for anything else. I guess some people can only wish they could be like that, so they copy some of the dressware.

Anonymous said...

Yellowjacket, I went to Japan with my friend in 2002. The women in your photograph are not dressed as geisha they are simply wearing traditional garb. I believe they are far too plain to be geisha.

In the purposefully modern Tokyo, a far the more disturbing apparel trend was the "little girl" look, sported by grown women. I think Gwen Stephani has picked up on that on her current tour. She calls them Hijuku Girls -- Ug!

You may have seen a few yukatas about town as well, but I cannot tell from your photos because the detail isn't there on all of them. The wearing of kimono is making a come-back, in fact I have seen articles and sites (there's probably even a blog) about how to put one on. Yukata is a more casual form of kimono, usually made of cotton, not silk.

(I hope tie wearing comes back too. Kimonos and ties are made of the most beautiful fabric anyone could ever put on!!!)

I would point out that just because you are wearing a kimono does not mean you are a geisha. I visited Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, and saw Mount Fuji from Hokkaido where we soaked in a traditional hot spring bath with about 20 other bathing beauties (no kimono or yukatas) was amazing.

yellojkt said...


Sounds like you had a great time. I wish I had more time in Japan. We did walk through the Harajuku area where all these trendy clothes are. We did not see the "little girl" look but some girls were wearing old cub scout uniforms. Very bizarre.