I first saw her in a sun-speckled yellow and now kimono, black hair locked behind a blooming flower pin that burst drooped petals. Her painted face was doll-like and demure, her lithe body held stiff in the unforgiving heavy fabric. She stood to her full height despite the pull of thirty pounds of silk and satin. Her name was Sayuri, and at first sight I fell in love; I was desperately in love with her world of the Geisha, and of the elusive Sayuri herself. Sayuri Nitta herself was the narrator of the wildly popular book Memoirs of a Geisha. When I first devoured the book and subsequently the movie adaptation, I was on th4e onset of a sullen adolescence. The Geisha ideal entranced me as an ideal of womanhood, frosted white skin highlighted by blackened eyelids and burst cherry lips.
At the beginning of high school armed only with fifteen dollars and a copy of Memoirs, and absolutely no clue what I was doing, I barged into my nearest pharmacy in search of womanhood and eventually decided on the lightest shade of foundation in stock (porcelain #0015), red lip gloos, and “blackest black” eyeliner. The results were comically pitiful (although I believed I looked fantastic). I ringed the eyeliner so thick around my eyelids that my friends lovingly referred to me as a “raccoon,” the ghost-colored foundation had people thinking “Goth” more than “Geisha”, and least offensively the lip gloss made my pink hair stick to my lips all throughout class. Geishas go through years of training and observing of makeup application; I, on the other hand, just went with whatever Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls” were putting on their faces, along with an ideal from my beloved and worn DVD of memoirs.
The plot of Memoirs is as follows: young Sayuri is sold into a geisha house (okiya) at the age of eight. She works as a servant to the okiya and to the malicious but gorgeous geisha Hatsumomo. Sayuir attends geisha school to learn the standard curriculum (mastery of the guitar-like shamisen, tea ceremony, dancing) but has little motivation after viewing the cruel behavior of Hatsumomo. While running house errands, Sayuri meets a mysterious man she dubs “the Chairman,” who treats her kindly and gives her some money and sweet ice. This inspires Sayuri to work as hards as she can at becoming a popular geisha so she can romantically encounter the Chairman again on equal footing. She becomes the star of the geisha world and thus enters in a formal relationship with eh married Chairman, and bear his illegitimate son. Sayuri’s story (based on a real living ex-geisha Mineko Iwasaki) and the stories of her fellow geisha exemplify the typical hardships and rewards that being a geisha can entail. While Sayuri becomes the top ranked geisha in all of Japan (and receives all the ensuing glory), she is subjugated into the role of a mistress, and she spends a majority of the novel being abused by some authority or peer.
The real training of a geisha is a severe affair at best and unforgiving to those who cannot attain its high standards. Those who fail find themselves forced out of the flower-and-willow world (karyukai) into a life of desperate housewifery or, worse, prostitution. The journey of a maiko, or geisha apprentice, is more difficult to those not born of a geisha mother; she has to learn and master poetry and song cadences by ear (the sensei of the traditional geisha arts were not exactly fond of sheet music) and the art of charming and precise conversation. The maiko works as an indentured servant; she is the first one up and the last one asleep, and she can not rest until the last geisha has come home and been undressed and fed. The maiko is bonded through her okiya through a symbiotic relationship—the okiya pays for her education in the arts and basic needs, amounting to a debt she has to pay the okiya and “Mother” (owner) of the house as a working geisha.
The maiko’s appearance is the most arresting sight of the geisha world. The maiko wears the thickest layer of makeup, and sparkling hair pieces to attract men (like a peacock) to distract from her imperfect mastery of the arts. After three years, the maiko has a much simpler, more natural makeup routine (she forgoes the white makeup for ceremonies and special occasions). In Karyukai, age and maturity is a sign of respect, the maiko needs no extra adornments, nothing to entice me beyond pure skill.
Despite all the assumed character of the geisha—her supposed modesty, her grasp of skills, and her delicate feminine ways—she is a centuries old businesswoman. In a culture where female subservience and modesty were praised, the geisha is adorned, skillful, and above all, smart. She is resourceful, and by playing the rules of her society, opens paths not previously available to her, paths such as an education, culture, money, and even the opportunity to find romance and true love—options which the Japanese woman in the Edo to Taisho period (1603-1926) did not have. In Japan, up until post World War II, loves matches were not an option.
The geisha is not a prostitute; she uses her sensuality rather than sexuality to attract admirers. She finds inner power by not having sex for money and therefore has a choice that other Japanese women would not have. In fact, by refusing men graciously and with wry huor, she became even more popular. The geisha may sell their company, their flirtatiousness, their presence, but not their bodies—unlike courtesans or common prostitutes.
Later, I encountered the controversy surrounding Memoirs, the mizuage for example. The mizuage was a ceremonial “virginity auction” banned in 1959, and Golden was condemned for his seedy portrayal of the event. The book overall is dubious about certain facts or events, and undoubtedly sensationalizes the Geisha. Still, the story is based on the life of Mineko Iwasaki, a gorgeous dance and the number one ranked geisha in the 1960s, who came from humble beginnings, much like the fictional Cinderella, Sayuri.
Memoir of a Geisha is first and foremost a love story, which clouds the geisha world. Messages that we can recognize and internalize are the rewards and cultural significance of the geisha, and on a deeper level, the contextual power that these women held in a culture that permitted them to expect nothing but housewifery and childbirth. These women, the select few, had a chance to fulfill themselves, which is a chance we try to give modern women. These four women are inspirational to me, for the zeal with which they found ways to survive and thrive in situations hostile to the inner spirit and inner fire of a woman. In our contemporary society women are still undervalued and expected to fit into certain molds—there are unspoken rules to wear makeup, to have elaborate hair, to be shiny, gorgeous, and pleasant, and these are all criticisms of the geisha girls. However, they were powerful and manipulated the situation for their benefit. Medieval Japan was not easy for anyone, especially women. Geishas created power where they had none.