Saturday, January 6, 2001

Candace Savage

Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World
By Lesley Downer
Headline, 370 pages

Feminism, Japanese style

British journalist Lesley Downer spent 10 years in Japan, gaining entrance to the geisha's secretive world by studying its history and earning the trust of its present-day inhabitants.

I belong to the statistically insignificant minority of readers who failed to enjoy Arthur Golden's mega-bestselling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. Rather than settling into the willing suspension of disbelief that fiction requires, I kept sniffing the air for falseness — even fraud. Why should I trust some young whippersnapper from Chattanooga, Tenn., to tell me about the personal life and private thoughts of a geisha? Far from being swept away by the wave of "enchantment" that reportedly overtook less suspicious souls, I emerged from the experience indignant and unconvinced, with an unrequited yearning for footnotes.

Happily for information junkies like myself, relief has now appeared in the form of a spirited and richly researched account of the geisha's "flower and willow world," written by British journalist Lesley Downer. Currently resident in London, Downer (Canadian by ancestry; she is the daughter of the late Gordon and Lilian Downer, to whom Geisha is dedicated) spent more than 10 years living and working in Japan, where she acquired not only a fluent command of the language and an instinct for Japanese social graces, but also an informed interest in the culture of her adopted nation. Never pretending to be anything but the sympathetic outsider that she is, she has nonetheless managed to gain entrance to the geisha's secretive world, first by studying its history and then by gaining the trust of some of its inhabitants.

Fascinated by the exotic theatricality of the geisha's mask, so distinctively Japanese, Downer is equally curious about the human face beneath. For all their mincing submission and china-doll looks, the geishas she encounters turn out to be real, live women, with a refreshingly unfeminine desire for freedom. Downer goes so far as to call them "liberated women."

For many readers, the notion of geisha liberation will be a hard sell. As Downer herself tells the tale, the first women to call themselves geishas (that's gay-shas, by the way, which translates as "arts persons") plied their trade in the red-light districts of Japan in the mid-1700s. Although they prided themselves on being artistes — singers, dancers and conversationalists — rather than mere prostitutes, their sphere of self-assertion was in fact vanishingly narrow. Typically the daughters of impoverished peasants, most of them had been sold to geisha houses around the age of 6 and forced into service as domestic helpers.

Those lucky few who escaped this slavery to apprentice as geishas quickly fell under a burden of debt as the costs of lessons, instruments, make-up, kimonos and wigs were tallied against their future prospects. The first instalment on this account came due by the age of 15, when the trainee was ritually deflowered by a client who paid the geisha house royally for the privilege. This practice, called mizuage, persisted legally and openly until 1958. Although Downer spoke to retired geishas who remembered the experience as an ordeal, others recalled it as "awful" but "normal," a necessary rite of passage.

Liberated women? Well, maybe not. Yet Downer is right to insist that the geishas were agents of change for women, if only for themselves. Despite the constraints of an ossified feudal system and unquestioned male power, they unexpectedly succeeding in advancing their own interests. Freed from the confines of marriage, they pursued independent careers as artists and entertainers; those with an entrepreneurial bent ran their own teahouses, geisha houses and other businesses. Always classy, they catered to the tastes of rich and powerful men, serving up an intoxicating brew of over-the-top femininity spiced with a titillating freshness. At the height of their popularity, in the 19th century, they routinely rose to positions of wealth and behind-the-scenes influence by accepting the patronage of business leaders and politicians. Like Hollywood starlets in the era of the casting couch, the geishas made their way in the world through unabashed girl power.

What I appreciated most about Downer's account (beyond the research sources, of course) was her generosity of purpose. Not content just to register the "foreignness" of the geisha's performance, she insists on making it recognizably human, by placing it both in the context of pre-modern Japan and of women's larger experience. Although I was occasionally frustrated by a lack of intellectual rigour and a gushy, People-magazine approach, I came away from the book aware that my understanding had been enlarged. A whole new program of reading lies before me — all those Japanese novelists she mentions, for example, and Liza Dalby's book about her year as a trainee in a geisha house. And, yes, I may even return to Arthur Golden. I have a hunch I might like him better this time round, now that I've had my fix of footnotes.

— Candace Savage's most recent book is Witch: the Wild Ride From Wicked to Wicca.

Wigging out

One day, during a break in the weather, I took a bus across town to the other side of the city, near the Nishijin weavers' district and the Kamishichiken geisha district, to visit one of the three wigmakers who between them serviced all the Kyoto geisha. Mr. Imanishi had turned a wing of his rambling house behind Myoshinji Zen temple into a busy workshop where he sat on his heels alongside his two sons, his apprentices in the trade. Here and there about the room were what looked at first glance like human heads stuck on poles. They turned out to be wigs, some with long bedraggled locks, others neatly coiffed, set on egg-shaped wooden moulds.

"Wigs used to be all Japanese hair, you know," grinned Mr. Imanishi breezily. He was a roguish man in his sixties with a face like a walnut, a cheeky upturned nose and a mop of curly grey hair. The hair of the wig on the stand in front of him hung in unappetising rat's tails which he was sectioning and combing energetically, slapping on globs of white bintsuke wax.

"But these days Japanese girls are rich," he went on. They don't need to sell their hair. So we use imported Chinese hair, plus yak's hair for volume. But Japanese hair is the best. That's what we say, us wigmakers.'

He looped, folded and pinned the tresses in a process very similar to dressing a maiko's hair, until he had created the glossy coiffure of the geisha, with a swatch of hair at the back, held in place with a stiff silver ribbon. Then he handed me the finished wig. The glossy hair was sticky with wax but the wig itself was astonishingly light and hard. Inside was a framework of duralumin, a sort of aluminium, lined with netting, like the inside of a crash helmet. British wigs, conversely, have a rubber base.

"Once they decide to change the collar, that's when we measure them up for their first wig," explained Mr. Imanishi, wiping his hands on his uncannily clean white linen apron. "I meet the maiko and decide what shape will flatter her face. A round face, I make it look thinner; a thin face, I make it plumper. Those geisha all look pretty, right? That's the wigmaker's art, to make a wig that flatters the face. That's what keeps them coming back."

— From Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World

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Created: January 11, 2001
Last modified: September 1, 2001
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