Tuesday 14 August 2018

The Victorians meet the Geisha - by Lesley Downer

Playing the shamisen by Felice Beato (1860s)
In 1867 a 24 year old Englishman called Ernest Satow was travelling around Japan. Satow could speak and read Japanese - he was the legation interpreter - and had heard all about the ‘famed singing and dancing girls’ of Ozaka (Osaka). He was referring to geisha, though the word with all its titillating associations had yet to enter the English language. Japan had been open only a few years and no one in the west knew much about it, nor had the geisha and the myths that surround them become the source of fascination that they now are.

Satow went to a party where some performed but was not impressed. ‘Some of them were certainly pretty, others decidedly ugly, but we thought their looks ruined any case by the blackened teeth and white-lead-powdered faces,’ he wrote.
Kiyoka of Shimbashi
by Kazumasa Ogawa, 1902

For centuries there had always been twenty stalwart Dutch merchants who inhabited the tiny Dutch trading post of Dejima, but apart from them Japan had been closed to westerners. Westerners first arrived in any quantity in 1853, when the American Commodore Matthew Perry hove into view with his four gunships bristling with cannon. The following year his crew billeted at the port of Shimoda demanded women. Anxious to protect respectable women and to limit contact between foreigners and ordinary Japanese, the shogunate sent them geisha, who were in any case the only sort of women suitable for such a job. Having enjoyed their company and spawned a fair number of mixed raced babies, the Americans wrote in shocked tones in their journals and reports about what a sexually lax race the Japanese were.

Thus from the very start of western interaction with Japan, the western arrivals - initially entirely men - had a distinctly ambivalent attitude towards Japan and Japanese women.
Kobayakawa Okichi of Shimoda by
Kobazakawa Kizoshi, 1930s

In 1858 the first American Consul, Townsend Harris, and his Dutch secretary, Hendrick Heusken, arrived. They too demanded women and put their negotiations on hold until they got them. As before, the only women available for the job were geisha. Townsend Harris was given a geisha called Okichi and Ofuku moved in with Heusken. According to legend Harris later left Okichi without a second thought and she ended up turning to drink and drowning herself.

Townsend Harris’s negotiations forced the Japanese to allow westerners to settle in Japan. They built a town - Yokohama - to house them. They also provided a pleasure quarters just outside, on the not unreasonable assumption (to the Japanese way of thinking at the time) that westerners, being men, would need one. There were geisha, courtesans, dancing, feasting - but mysteriously not many westerners went. The Japanese managers finally worked out that while westerners had the same impulses as them, they preferred to satisfy them surreptitiously, rather than be seen walking into the pleasure quarters in broad daylight.
The Teahouse Beauty
by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769 - 1825)

One of the most sympathetic visitors to Japan was Ernest Satow’s friend and colleague at the British Legation, Algernon Mitford, the grandfather of the Mitford sisters. He spent three years there in the 1860s and was very impressed by the orderly society he saw. He visited the most famous pleasure quarters of all, the Yoshiwara, which was, he wrote, a decorous place where prostitution was confined and ritualised and kept well away from ordinary people. Yokohama, however, with its western seamen and adventurers, was almost ‘as leprous a place as the London Haymarket’ - prostitution being, of course, at least as prevalent back home.

Eventually Japan opened up fully and westerners began to flood in, bringing with them all their Victorian preconceptions and prejudices.

Early visitors were shocked to the core to discover that men and women cheerfully bathed together in large hot baths. They concluded the Japanese were licentious, promiscuous and immodest, with a shocking lack of moral fibre - not surprising, given that they were pagans and thus inferior to the European master race. Then in 1882 one British visitor, well ahead of his time, began to wonder if perhaps the Japanese ‘simply did not look at each other’s nakedness with lust or lewdness, inconceivable though this may seem to the European mind.’

The easily shocked Victorians were also horrified by the way Japanese women casually slipped their arms out of their sleeves and rolled down their kimonos to breast feed in public. And once or twice a Victorian was out riding when a whole family- grandparents, parents and children - leapt from the bath and rushed out stark naked to have a good look at the extraordinary sight.
Girl playing a Gekin by
Baron Raimund von Stillfried, 1890

But the Japanese soon got the measure of western prudery and thereafter kept their clothes on, at least when westerners were around.

It didn’t take long before the word ‘geisha’ entered the English language. To this day people still worry about whether geisha do or don’t. There’s also the confusion between who is a geisha and who is an ordinary girl in a kimono.

One problem is that westerners are ignorant of the different sorts of kimono (the word just means ‘clothing’) and the different ways of wearing it and what they signify and thus can’t distinguish between respectable kimono-wearing women and geisha or courtesans. As a result geisha and ordinary young Japanese women exist ‘interchangeably in the western imagination in the twilight zone between respectability and decadence, between prudery and immodesty’ (to quote a wonderful book on the subject called Butterfly’s Sisters, by Yoko Kawaguchi.)

All of which is rather satisfying to western men, who have long been convinced that Asian women are of deliciously dubious morality, a quality embodied above all in the concept of the geisha.
Kyoto maiko by me

When I lecture on the geisha, I start out by explaining that the word means ‘artiste’ and that geisha undergo a rigorous five year training in classical Japanese dance and music, akin to becoming an opera singer or joining the Bolshoi ballet. But no matter how often I repeat that geisha are independent, empowered women, sooner or later someone will stand up and ask, ‘But are they prostitutes?’ The fantasy that geisha are ‘submissive’, trained in the arts of pleasing men, is one that western men are not prepared to relinquish.

My latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. 

If you’re curious about geisha you could also take a look at my oldie but goldie, Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World

And the marvellous Butterfly’s Sisters by Yoko Kawaguchi, Yale University Press, 2010
For more see www.lesleydowner.com.

Old photographs and woodblock prints of geisha courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks so much. I'd read of Matthew Perry's expedition and of Townsend Harris. None of the of the works I read (published in the 60s) mentioned the women sent to Perry's men, or to Harris and his secretary. Perhaps a "cleansing" of the full story.