Don’t Call Geisha Prostitutes

The word geisha most likely comes from a Japanese dialect that isn’t used anymore. Nowadays, if you look up the word for art in standard Japanese, you will get びじゅつ、 (bijutsu; but it really means fine art). For person, you will get ひと. I’m going to operate under the assumption that geisha was from the “Old Tokyo dialect”, and it literally translates to “art person”, not “prostitute”. There are many things that are considered art forms, from classical music to calligraphy to poetry and even conversation. The most important aspect of the geisha is that they are entertainers. Even sex in it’s own way can be considered an art form, in the correct context.

I often refer to Japan as the art capital of the world. Art is so deeply rooted in Japan’s history that it pretty much is Japan’s history. All of my experiences with Japanese culture while growing up, were artistic. From studying Kenpo to the stories from Shintoism to the incredible souvenirs my god-mother brought back for me when I was little.

I won’t sit here and say that geisha were not, at times, exploited, because women have been exploited in every corner of the globe. But I won’t sit here and act like geisha are somehow worse-off than American women, or any other woman in any other part of the world. It’s been my experience that if a cultural behavior is different than what we’ve grown up with, we label it as wrong. Well it’s not wrong for a woman to be a geisha, who lives, eats, breathes and performs art. By your logic, the starving artist down the street would also be a prostitute because he sells his paintings. If you think selling your body and selling your paintings are not the same thing, there are thousands of artists lined up around the block to tell you otherwise. Art is, and always will be, an extension of the human form.

The original purpose of the geisha was to entertain men. A woman entertaining men for far too long has been associated with exploitation. It is automatically assumed that any sort of entertainment performed by a woman, for a man, is sexual. But if I sing to a man, or play an instrument for him, am I really being exploited? The disturbing part about this is that if a man were to do the exact same type of entertaining, we’d see it as courting, romantic, and call him a really nice man. But a woman has to be forced to be nice to other people, making her a beast… I’d say you were fighting the wrong fight, but, this isn’t a fight.

Unfortunately, Americans are obsessed with Japan’s culture, which they define as ramen noodles, manga and anime. In my Japanese 100 course last semester, a classmate admitted that she was taking the class so that she could understand what characters say in the anime porn she watches. There is much more to Japan than that.

Memoirs of a Geisha was a huge hit because of this obsession with Japan. The film is beautifully done, and historically accurate, though some societal attitudes miss the mark. Even so, the movie still made geisha look like these exploited prostitutes, rather than woman making a living as artists. It starts with the lead character, Sakamoto Chiyo, being sold to a house with まいこ (maiko) who are training to become geisha. Sakamoto also has blue eyes, and is often criticized for it. A heavy amount of emphasis is also placed on when Sakamoto is sexually assaulted, and the bidding for the geisha’s virginity. To most Americans, that portrayal looks like an exploited girl sold into sex slavery. If you watched the film and saw it as positive, then I’m concerned for you. But in the real world, things didn’t happen that way. Or if they did, it was extremely rare.

The Japanese people believe very strongly in a right way, and wrong way to do things. There are certain things you just don’t do in Japan, and one of those things is prostitution. There were serious limits on what parts of the country could have brothels, and by the turn of the 20th century, prostitution was illegal. There are also restrictions on how much male genitalia can be shown in literary/manga porn.

I felt a little silly for doing this, because for the longest time I assumed my Japanese language teacher wasn’t married because she never wears a wedding ring. Most people from her generation and older, don’t wear wedding rings. In addition, the marital restrictions we have in America are very different in comparison to Japan. Men, AND women, were allowed to seek out the attention of courtesans. While there are clear expectations of how women and men should be in a marriage and home, they are a lot more equal than you thought they were.

Sakamoto’s blue eyes gain much disrespect, but in real world Japan this would not be the case. The sea which surrounds the country is precious, and a young girl with watery eyes would be special. The Japanese pay attention to facial features and appearance, and have more words to describe appearance than Americans do. This is not vanity, because talking about different physical features is casual. Asking someone what their weight is, or how tall they are, is a normal question. When people, especially those in the military, try to convince me Japan is sexist and racist, I get very irritated. The concept of ethnicity and race in Japan is relatively new. When the Japanese first encountered people from America and Europe, they referred to them as あおいめのひと (aoi me no hito), ‘blue-eyed people’, because they were people who had blue eyes.

I’m not entirely sure why a geisha needed to look bad in this film, or why the exploitation of a fictional character was needed to make a statement about feminism. I especially don’t understand, out of all the women in this world who are actually victims, the author chose the geisha to make his point.

Advertisements

There are no comments on this post.

Share Your Thoughts

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: