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The Technology of Geisha

“Geisha” means woman of art and the term refers to professionally trained female artists and entertainers in Japan. Geisha reside in special districts called karyukai, dedicated to the enjoyment of aesthetic pleasure, which maintain its own rules and regulations, rites and rituals. In the karyukai, there are geisha houses called okiya, where a geisha lives and trains and is essentially, created. A geisha is constructed from many components: from her clothes, makeup, and hair accessories, to her perfectly trained movements and skills. By the definition of technology being something that is created and used, I would like to argue: through the technology that is worn upon her body and her composed behavior and intentions, the geisha herself becomes a gendered technology that is manufactured and used for the aesthetic pleasure of an audience.

Beginning from the outside, a geisha is marked by her kimono. Her kimono is a sacred emblem of her calling and an embodiment of her beauty. It is made from the finest and most expensive textiles in the world. From the quality of kimono, a geisha’s financial status, sense of style, family background, and even personality can be seen. Geishas require a constant supply of kimonos and as a result, the kimono business is one of the most important, and arguably technological, industries. Moving upwards, a geisha’s makeup is extremely elaborate. First the throat, neck, upper back, and face are prepared with an oil paste, which acts as a foundation. The area is then covered with white makeup, leaving three vertical strips on the back of the neck unpainted to accentuate its length and fragility. The chin, the bridge of the nose and then the upper chest are painted. A pink polishing powder is applied to the cheeks and around the yes and then white powder is reapplied over everything. Finally the eyebrows are painted red and then penciled in with black, and the lips are painted pink. Lastly, the hair ornaments are arranged. A red silk band is worn in the chignon, at the crown are: another band, pins made from coral, jade, and silver, with the family crest, and more tortoiseshell ornaments. A geisha’s body is essentially covered from head to toe in various cultural technologies that weigh over forty pounds in total and then balanced on 6-inch-high wooden sandals.

Not only is a geisha aesthetically judged from the outside, but her behavior and movements must be trained and perfected. At an early age, she begins dance lessons and the geisha spends every available moment practicing various choreographed dances. The movements are repeated until they are duplicated exactly from the teacher to the student and the geisha has absorbed the teacher’s mastery into herself. In her autobiography, the famous geisha, Mineko Iwasaki describes that “learning how to dance is more a process of total identification than one of simple copying” (84). Not only does the geisha learn how to dance, her movements are further choreographed in a strict routine of opening doors to enter into a room. Physical beauty is a requirement for the main performer who dances. If a geisha is not beautiful, she must be perfectly skilled at an instrument and her role becomes the accompanist to the main geisha. In this sense, the geisha’s physical actions and movements become technologically constructed in order for her to become the entertainer that she is.

When a geisha is not performing, her main job is to amuse the host and the guests and make them feel good. No matter what she is feeling or thinking, she bends to the service of others and becomes a master of creating an atmosphere of relaxation and amusement. Before each event, the geisha must do research on the host that she will be entertaining. If the customer is a politician, she must study his legislation and if he is a writer, she must read his novel. The geisha must be knowledgeable about current events, literature, traditional art forms, and any topic that allows her to engage in sharp-witted and insightful conversation. Furthermore, she must steer the entertainment depending on whether the host enjoys watching dance, engaging in conversation, or playing drinking games. The geisha must know the host’s personal likes and dislikes and commit them to memory in order to serve him better in the future. Occasionally, sensitive and private meetings require a geisha to become part of a protective wall. Her hair ornaments are pointed to defend customers from attack, her coral ornaments break apart in the presence of poison, and she stands guard to let the guest know when someone is approaching. Geisha entertain powerful people from all over the world and as such, they effectively become a diplomat, able to communicate with anyone. A geisha’s knowledge and intentions are constructed for her and this creation of the mind is technological in itself.

Geisha are recruited at a very young age, as early as five years old. She enters into a contract with the okiya and is required to live and train in the okiya for the contracted period of time: generally between five and seven years. During this time, she repays the okiya for its investment. In the okiya, there are often many generations of geisha: those just beginning their training and those who have reached the professional level. The proprietress of the okiya supports the geisha fully and helps manage their careers once they make their debuts. In a technological sense, the okiya becomes the factory where geisha are manufactured and constructed. Through the cultural technologies placed upon her human body, her perfected and choreographed movements and skills, and her assembled knowledge and intentions, the geisha erases the line between human and technology and becomes a gendered technology herself. She is owned by the karyukai community and used by the rich and powerful all over the world. The use of a geisha, as a technology, becomes a major status symbol in society. Although human to begin with, once a woman gives herself to the okiya, she is shed of her human-ness and constructed into the gendered technology of a geisha.

Iwasaki, Mineko. Geisha, a Life. New York: Atria Books, 2002.

2 Responses
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 16, 2009

    During our first set of panels, you certainly caught my attention w/ this idea that geishas, those “women of art,” are themselves “a form of technology,”
    and you’ve added a lot, in this paper, to my knowledge of just how this technological process works. What’s missing, though, is any attention to the “gendering” portion of the project; your paper is strikingly absent any reference to the accentuation of the femininity of the geisha, or the masculinity of her clients. I’d like to know more about exactly what sort of (prototypical?) gender relations are being reinscribed in these artful constructions.

    Remember the way our panels moved from performing individual lives to reporting on groups “from the outside,” as if we were anthropologists? Your single source is Iwaski’s biography—a great place to start, but not nearly adequate for the larger generalizations you are making here. Consider, for example, Veronica Chambers’ recent book on
    Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are changing Their Nation, which looks at young independent career women as social pioneers in a cultural vacuum, without any support from a widespread women’s movement.
    But my most demanding question for you has to do with your final claim, that as the geisha is constructed into a “gendered technology,” “she is shed of her human-ness.” What struck me so about your initial description of these “women of art” was that it dissolved any commonsensical division between “humanity” and “technology”–such a striking idea that I used it to kick off the second set of panels, by asking how applicable that analysis might be to all the groups represented: to what degree would it be accurate to call them “people of art”=”people of technology”= technological people?

    So I’m surprised to see you maintaining that binary here, in a paper that doesn’t locate itself in the larger context of our class discussions.

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