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Geisha with a fan

Geisha - My Story

by Caroline Seawright
December 17, 2000

 

芸者 - Geisha

I know that only a few, select people will be interested in reading my story. Maybe your interest was captured by the word geisha, and you wished to find out what one was. Maybe you thought you knew what a geisha is, and were after a lascivious story! Or maybe you know geisha, and wanted to find out about my life. After all, geisha must have much more interesting lives than normal people!

I used to be called Yamada Sakyou, but now I am Mameo. Let me start from my childhood, from my life as Sakyou.

I was born and grew up in Osaka. I went to school and lived my childhood as a normal Japanese girl, normal except for the fact that my parents divorced. I don't remember much about it, other than a few half-remembered images of my father. I was teased in school by the other students - I was the only child who's parents had split up.

A withdrawn child, I found more interest in Japanese culture - music, the arts - than modern, westernised entertainment. It was a way of getting away from the other students - most of them couldn't care less about Japanese dance and theatre or the tea ceremony. The few students who were in the club were my only friends... but we were never very close.

I was a late developer, and rather shy... I also hated exams and feared the thought of going to university. I somehow managed to get into one of the local high schools (with a lot of help and encouragement from my mother, who was the only person I was ever close to), but I didn't like it at all.

When I heard about maiko (apprentice geisha) in the Gion, I decided to pack it in and become one, too. High school and a normal job just didn't seem right for me. (I was never normal, I don't think.) But to become a geisha! I was in love with the idea. I had fantasies about seeing myself, beautiful in silk kimono, my hair up, being seen as elegant and clever! To have people looking at me in awe! To be talented with music and dancing, to have everything I could ever want in life! Ah!

My mother, though, was still supportive of my choice. She did try to change my mind - I'm not sure that her image of her daughter's future was the same as mine - but she did her best for me.

Still young, I left home and went to live in the okiya with mama-san (the owner of our little okiya), and Mameko, her only geiko (In the Gion, geisha are known as geiko).

My horoscope was checked, and the name Mameo was found auspicious. The 'mame' sound came from Mameko's name, but the ending was for me. From now on, I was no longer Sakyou, I was Mameo. I was maiko, not just an ordinary girl.

It took a long while to get used to this life - I didn't realised how free I'd been before. I had to be up early hours, and to bed so late every night! I had school to do - to learn to sing, to dance, to play the shamisen and more - every day, and chores to do around the okiya when I returned. I had to help Mameko dress and help her with makeup... I had so much to learn before I could even put on makeup of my own, or to do up my hair in the traditional maiko style! All of the training and beautiful outfits slowly helped me overcome the shyness my classmates has instilled in me. I was like a butterfly, coming out of a cocoon as my time at the okiya went on!

Eventually mama-san decided that I was ready, and (though still young), I was able to wear the okiya's maiko outfits, to have my makeup and hair done... and to go with Mameko to her various engagements, and to be introduced to her clients!

My life went on like this, until one day.... my letters and phone calls to my mother had slowed, but there was a time that I could no longer get in contact with her. I didn't worry, really. She had been sick for a while, but the doctors had said that there was nothing to worry about (or so mother said in her letters). The next message I received was one telling me that my mother had died... I read and reread the letter, alone in my room, not believing it. But I found that I could hardly read the letter, through the tears.

I realised that I could no longer stay at the okiya - my life was too filled with pain. I just wanted to escape - to leave my Osaka, to leave anywhere that might remind me of my mother.

I informed mama-san, and told her that my whole world had been turned upside down. That I must leave and sort out my affairs - I was my mother's only child. Somehow I was let out of the okiya, and I found myself back home. But I had a debt to pay mama-san and Mameko.

I sold the house... with this money I went back and paid mama-san what I owed her for the cost of training me, for some kimono. I organised for a small apartment near the okiya while awaiting the funeral, but I still continued to train with Mameko. What else could I do? I did not want to be left alone to think. The forced gaiety of the parties seemed to soothe my heart, just for a little while. I needed that.

Being on my own was difficult to manage. I still needed them for my beautiful outfits and for help and advice. I still had to help out at the okiya - Mameko and mama-san could not do everything themselves - but, somewhere along the line, I managed to get my own independence, my own life. It was very unusual for a maiko to live on her own - usually only some geiko can manage this, if they were successful! But I was ... different. I always had been.

Though life was a struggle - paying my own bills, trying to figure out where I could go, going to school every day and parties every night with (and without, when I learned enough) Mamako - eventually mama-san decided that I was skilled enough...

I was to become a fully fledged geiko!

The usual ceremonies were performed, with most of Gion there watching, congratulating me. It was wonderful! No longer did I have to wear the red in my hair and around my neck! I could put on the more grown up white, the more mature kimono of a geiko. I did miss the vibrant colours, especially the reds... but I was now a young geiko.

By now, it was rather difficult trying to keep hiding from the people of Gion, to control my feelings (I always saw a cherry tree we used to sit under at the Cherry Blossom festival, or a temple at New Year, or even a shop we bought our food).

It was time to leave.

I spoke with mama-san, and together we came to arrangement - she would talk with another mama-san in Tokyo, and see if I could go there to live. I knew many people in Gion - the rich and powerful men who could afford to hire myself and Mameko - but they were clients. I did not have a danna (a man to be my sponsor). Maybe, if I had one, he could have helped me move to Tokyo... but I relied on mama-san. I do not think that even the most friendly of the clients would be willing to help a new geiko leave Gion for Tokyo, where they will never see her again!

Anyway, my horoscope said that the direction of Tokyo was right for me, and that my future will be bright if I move! (We geiko are a superstitious lot.) So out of all of Japan, Tokyo was the place for me! Somewhere vibrant and new, filled with energy and vitality! A place where I might be able to work with a taikomochi, the male version of a geisha! A place of fun and excitement! Somewhere that wouldn't remind me of my mother.

Despite the fact that Gion geiko and Tokyo geisha were very different, mama-san was sure that I'd be a hit in Tokyo. She really didn't understand why I had to leave - I was like a daughter to her, she said - but she and Mameko wished me the best.

And so off I went to Tokyo, to live my life... maybe I will even be popular in Tokyo?

Seawright, C , Geisha - My Story, Short Story, <http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/geisha.html>.


This story came into being for a character that I am using for a Role Playing Game. I find that geisha are very interesting - they are not at all about sex (if they do have sex, that is the geisha's business - they are not prostitutes!), as many people believe. They are traditional artists (geisha means 'art person'), appreciated by those who are interested in Japanese culture. Unfortunately there are less and less people interested in Japanese culture (even in Japan), and there are less and less geisha. A whole tradition is dying out, due to apathy (and lack of cash, I guess), and I find that sad. It's even worse for the taikomochi - there are only five of these men left in Japan. But geisha and taikomochi pander to the tourist trade, these days. You can go and dress up as a maiko or geisha at some places, and have your photo taken. There are possibly even tea houses that you can visit to see geisha. Business men will take foreigners to see geisha to entertain them... But it's still sad.

If you're interested in role playing a geisha, hopefully this will help with your own background... or if you're just interested in general information on geisha, I hope you found this useful, despite it's story-form. (Sometimes a story is better than just plain, dry information!) And if you're reading it as a story, I hope it was a good read!

Thanks for reading - I hope that you enjoyed the story. ^_^

For more information about Geisha, here are some good references:

Websites

Real Audio - Voice Monologue from Kiharu Nakamura - Kiharu Nakamura is a geisha, who now lives in the USA. This is a 4 minute monologue of her talking about her life. You will need RealPlayer to hear it.

Immortal Geisha - a fascinating web site about geisha - the history, lifestyle, training, makeup, pictures and much more. It has a very large number of geisha resources listed, including books, audio-visuals and other websites.

The Shizuka Online Teahouse - Geisha and Maiko - The Shizuka Teahouse's information about geisha and maiko, explaining their role in Japan.

Karyukai - A nicely done site with a lot of information about geisha and maiko, and even photo examples of the ornaments that maiko wear in their hair each month.

Absolut Japan - Gallery of Japanese Girls, Geisha and Maiko - some beautiful photos of geisha, maiko and other traditionally dressed Japanese women.

Teruha (Meiji) - Research documents on Geisha Teruha, save from The Geiko Gallery before it went offline.

Enter the world of the geisha - Lesley Downer's experiences at a geisha party, as the geisha dress her up as if she were a geisha, too.

Geisha Tour - A small page with some information about the hanamachi and o-chaya in Gion. It suggests how best to arrange to see geisha.

Meet a Geisha/Maiko in Kyoto - Peter MacIntosh has half day and full day tours of Kyoto, including finding out and even meeting geisha, or attending a geisha party!

Peter MacIntosh - Geisha Photography - Peter MacIntosh's photo gallery, along with future information about tours of Kyoto and visual arts. The site is currently under construction, though there are some photos in the photo gallery.

Geisha - Japan Photo Guide - A site showing different photos of geisha and maiko, along with where to find them when you are in Japan.

Benihana - Geisha - A nicely constructed page on the culture, society and some history of the geisha.

Geisha (Geiko) - An Australian site with information on both geiko and maiko, as well as ukiyo-e pictures and photos of geisha.

MAICA - A site focusing on maiko. MAICA, in Kyoto, is a place where you can go and dress up as a maiko for a few hours. The site has good photos of maiko (or people dressed up as maiko).

Japan's Traditional Male Entertainer (Houkan/Taikomochi) ARAI - a site about the Taikomochi, the male counterpart to the geisha. These are the traditional jesters of the flower and willow world in Japan.

Taikomochi or Houkan, the Male Counterpart to the Geisha... - my own site with information about the Taikomochi, or Houkan, who are the male jesters and amusingly erotic storytellers and entertainers of Japan.

EDO Tradition Plan - In Tokyo, this place offers everything from a Taikomochi Course to a Hangyoku (Tokyo's apprentice geisha) and Geisha metamorphosis Experience Course!

Memoirs of a Geisha - Wikipedia's entry on the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, a 2005 film adaptation of the novel of the same name.

Books

Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile
The Peabody Essex Museum
Hardcover - September 2004
ISBN: 0807615455

This book is still to be released.

Geisha: A Unique World of Tradition, Elegance and Art
John Gallagher
Hardcover - October 2003
ISBN: 1856486974

I don't have a copy of this book, yet.

Exotic and mysterious, Japan's geishas have long enthralled westerners. But who are they, exactly? Take a fascinating peek into the geisha's world of tradition and ritual with the help of a most unique book. Four see-through vellum sections, of four layers each, begin with a "naked" geisha; they show, stage by stage, how a geisha's unique costume and make-up are assembled. You'll view the subtle changes of appearance through the round of seasonal events, and the elaborate array of equipment, from wigs to fans to clogs, in the geisha's wardrobe, as well as everything she needs to do her demanding jobs. Equally revealing is the incredibly detailed information about the women's lives and history; the minute gradations of rank; and their rigorous training. An entire network of dance schools, teahouses, temples, and offices revolve around the geisha and her work. This is a unique and illuminating look at a riveting subject.

Geishas
Berenice Geoffroy-Schneiter
Hardcover - May 2003
ISBN: 2843234239

I don't have a copy of this book, yet.

Geisha ... at the slightest evocation of this little Japanese word there appears instantly before the eyes of Westerners a succession of images swaying gently between languorous voluptuousness and erotic fantasy. And yet, far from being a simple "creature" destined to satisfy carnal pleasures, the "geisha" sums up the quintessence of Japanese refinement. A source of inspiration for print artists who took the curve of a shoulder, the roundness of a breast and the delicacy of a neck to satiation, she embodies, above all, the ideal "Woman." This intelligent and cultured coutesan is simultaneously musician, poet and dancer. Westerners prefer to celebrate in her the myth of the girl-woman, mid-way between spouse and doll.

Autobiography of a Geisha
Sayo Masuda, G. G. Rowley
Paperback - Feb 2004
ISBN: 9780099462040

The glamorous world of Kyoto's geisha is familiar to many readers. This book presents a different view, one that bears little resemblance to the elegant geisha quarter frequented by illustrious patrons. Masudo Sayo was a geisha at a hot springs resort, where the realities of sex for sale are unadorned by the trappings of wealth and power. In accordance with tradition, she first worked as a servant while training in the arts of dance, song, shamisen, and drum. In 1940, when she was sixteen, she made her debut as a geisha.

Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West
Lesley Downer
Hardcover - Feb 2004
ISBN: 9780755310326

I would love to have a copy!

The first Japanese actress of modern times, Sadayakko (1871-1946) shared the stage with Isadora Duncan and influenced Puccini's writing of Madame Butterfly. Like many geisha, who were considered social outcasts, Sadayakko married into the theater at age 19 by choosing a husband, Otojiro, from among the "riverbed beggars," as actors were then known. She joined him on stage during his troupe's first American tour, but soon she became a bigger star than he.

Geisha of Gion
Mineko Iwasaki
PaperBack - December 2002
ISBN: 0743220374

This was a fantastic book about the life of Mineko Iwasaki, atotori of the Iwasaki geiko family in Gion. It went through from her early life, through her becoming a maiko and a geiko until she left the geiko community and what she is doing today. The book has a lot of interesting information about geiko and their habits and corrects some of the misconceptions of geisha that may have been brought up in Memoirs of a Geisha. Fantastic reading.

Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World
Lesley Downer
Trade Paperback - December 2000
ISBN: 0747271062

This books had a lot of information on the history of geisha - from the history of the predecessors of the geisha (including the original male geisha) until now, with snippets from geisha in different areas of Japan today.

Little Songs of the Geisha: Traditional Japanese Ko-Uta
Liza Dalby
Paperback - November 2000
ISBN: 0804832501

I don't have a copy of this book, but you can see images of pages of the book at this site.

A fascinating look into the world of the Geisha through the 400-year-old art of Ko-Uta, the traditional song form sung to three-stringed shamisen music. A vivid evocation of the romanticism of feudal Japan.

Geisha
Liza Dalby
Paperback - October 2000
ISBN: 0099286386

This has a lot of information on what happens inside the geisha world, as Liza Dalby actually became a geisha for a while, so it has a lot of information about the modern workings on the geisha society in Kyoto.

Geisha: a Living Tradition
Kyoko Aihara
Hardcover - August 2000
ISBN: 1864366575

This has many photographs of clothing and other items relating to the geisha - from the geta they wear to the little things the maiko wear in their hair in the different seasons to the different styles of cloth that they geisha wear at different times of the year. This is very good for actually seeing their clothing and makeup and such. It's a photo book more than anything, unlike the previous two books.

The Life of a Geisha
Eleanor Underwood
Hardcover - November 1999
ISBN: 0765117398

Another photo book, this book only has a little information about geisha, some of which seems based on Memoirs of a Geisha. It has some good photos, and a lot of vintage photos of geisha and other Japanese vintage photos.

Geisha: The Life, the Voices, the Art
Jodi Cobb
Paperback - October 1998
ISBN: 037570180X

I don't have a copy of this book, but I would like to get one!

Cobb is a staff photographer at National Geographic and has been the recipient of numerous awards for her work. These photos provide an intimate portrayal of geishas in the modern world. An introduction by Ian Burham offers interpretation of Cobb's portraits, and Cobb's own well-researched essay sets the context.

Memoirs of a Geisha
Arthur Golden
PaperBack - September 1998
ISBN: 0099771519

This is an enjoyable book about Sayuri and the geisha world in pre-war Japan. It was this book that started me buying more books about geisha, enhancing my interest in the world of the geisha!

Taikomochi no Seikatsu
Sotetsu Fujii
Unknown Binding
ASIN: 4639001355

A Taikomochi's Life is the title of this Japanese book. It is out of print.

Videos

The Secret Life of Geisha
A & E Entertainment
Colour, NTSC - 1999
ASIN: 0767023234

Being only in NTSC format, this video isn't avaliable in Australia, so I have been unable to get a copy.
The Secret Life of Geisha takes an unprecedented look at one of Japan's most enduring, exotic, and misunderstood traditions. Narrated by Susan Sarandon and featuring Arthur Golden, author of the bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha, this mesmerizing documentary enters a forbidden world "shrouded in mystery and steeped in ritual".

News Articles

Vanishing arts of old Kyoto

Ex-geisha takes objection to "Memoirs of a Geisha"

Geisha's memoirs 'tarnished' by Golden portrayal

Kyoto's secret women's business

Ghosts haunt floating world of the geisha

Net revives geisha culture

Geisha Hairstyles

Special thanks go to Axia Hirayama for showing me a number of these links! Thank you!

Seventy-Year of Creating Hairstyles - A great two page interview with a Japanese hairdresser who works with the old fashioned mage styles with photos and descriptions of how Tokue Yumioka makes the Shimeda style.

The World of Bunraku - This is the final installment in a four-part series about wig making and hair dressing, it talks about making wigs for puppets, without images, but it could be changed slightly to work for wigs for people.

Japanese Hairstyles - A page about traditional Japanese hairstyles worn from the Kofun period to the early Showa period.

Nomenclature - A small Japanese page with link drawings, showing which parts of the hair are used to make the Japanese style mage.

Featured Chignons - A Japanese page with line drawings and a few instructions on how to turn one hairstyle into a chignon.

Doing Up the Japanese Hairstyle - A Japanese with with small photorgaphs of how to do up a long haired wig into a Japanese style, with photos of the equipment used.

Shimada Mage Matsuri - A Japanese page with some photographs, showing the Shimada Mage hairstyle.

Geisha Songs

A white fan
spreading out
lasting forever
the firm pledges
like the silver node of the fan
shimmering in shadows
the boughs of pine trees
the splendid leafy color of
a deep green
the clearness of the pond
in the garden approached
undisturbed by waves of wind
the surface of the water
What an enviable life,
don't you think?

* * *

I got up and opened the shoji screen,
and looked out on the full moon night,
but there was nothing there,
but a cuckoo crying to himself.

* * *

I know she is light and faithless,
but she has come back half-repentant,
and very pale and very sad.
A butterfly needs
somewhere to rest at evening.

* * *

When it's the man I love
he goes by and doesn't come in
but men I hate -
a hundred times a day

* * *

When I pour sake
for the man I love
even before he drinks up
I blush like a cherry blossom

* * *

You and me
we live inside an egg
me, I am the white
and wrap you round with my body

* * *

Tonight as I sleep alone
I am on my bed of tears
like an abandoned boat
on the deep sea

* * *

I dreamed we were back together.
My laughter woke me up.
I searched frantically all around me,
My eyes full of tears.

* * *

The loves of a little while ago
and the smoke of tobacco
little by little leave
only ashes

* * *

When I've got the blues
as deep and deep can be
I want to pass the rest of my life
as a nun


© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2000 - present

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