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Photo courtesy of Tom Harr

The Apprentice: 'Geisha Toyochiyo Making Up,' a photo by Francis Haar.

The Painted Smile

Western stereotypes meet Japanese realities in new show about geisha at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum

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THE NEW SHOW at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile, clears up the biggest Western misconception about geisha: that they are prostitutes. Gei means "art"; sha means "person"; and that's exactly what they are: art people trained in the arts of music, dancing and conversation.

The confusion arose beginning in the Edo period (1615-1868), when geisha frequented the same circles as the courtesans of the pleasure quarters. Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly further broadened the misconception. American servicemen in post-World War II Japan only added to the misunderstanding by returning home with wild tales of "gee-sha gals," who in actuality weren't real geisha but prostitutes dressed up like geishas to attract foreigners.

Geisha spend years perfecting their craft. They don't get married, but they do have kids, and they devote their lives to the arts. Since Japan is a society where men traditionally haven't brought their wives along to social gatherings, geisha just provided music, performance and rousing conversation at a high price.

In the 1920s, there were around 80,000 geisha, but that number is now down to about 6,000, as traditional geisha roles are now primarily filled by hostess bar girls. That is, if you walk into a karaoke bar, the hostess will sit down with your party, pour your drinks and engage in flirtatious banter. If you get slammed with a $500 tab after being there 45 minutes, what you're paying for is the girl's companionship and conversation.

This is also how a geisha works, except she performs with a three-stringed banjolike instrument called a shamisen, and she dances. She provides an overall enchanting escape for groups of men. You spend a few thousand dollars to have her at your dinner party, and as a result, very few Japanese ever get to actually get to experience a geisha.

All of this confuses Westerners because there is no such equivalent here. Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha, writes about the phenomenon in the exhibit's glossy 159-page accompanying book, which is far more interesting than the exhibit itself. The book features intriguing essays by Leslie Downer, Andrew L. Maske of the Peabody Essex Museum who curated the show, and, especially, Berkeley-based Liza Dalby, the only foreigner ever to have trained as a geisha.

Dalby writes that although the prostitute myth is slowly disappearing, "we would be foolish to assume that the question of the sexual availability of the geisha does not still lie just below the surface. Thus the portrait of the geisha as sexual toy, groomed in ornate traditional fashion, trained in the arts of pleasing men, remains firmly framed in the Western gallery of female icons."

This is true even with the hostess bars today. As soon as you sit down at the table, the decked-out hostess girl sits next to you and begins pouring beer without even asking if you want a beer or not. She engages the conversation and helps you sing the karaoke songs. And from a Westerner's point of view, it's impossible to tell if the entire scenario has anything to do with sex or not.

And it gets even more peculiar. By now, everyone's familiar with the odious stereotype of Japanese women as subservient, shy and submissive, as well as the pathetic Western male fantasy of the "exotic" geisha-type girlfriend who can barely speak English and who functions as a selfless doll, wanting nothing but to make her master happy.

But Dalby also points out how Western females fantasize about geisha. Ever since her book, Geisha, came out in 1983, Dalby has received dozens of letters from American women convinced they were geisha in previous lives, and many of them ask how to become a serious geisha. According to Dalby, they're attracted to the geisha myth, but from the opposite side of desire:

That is, they seem to identify with the image of mythic femininity, holding men in thrall and living aesthetisized lives for the sake of art. What appeals to these women is the fact that geisha do not marry, that they are not under the thumb of a husband, that they live in communities of women, dress elegantly, and devote themselves to art. This view from the other side of the icon tends to leave sex out altogether or else invert the servility element, transforming the woman into dominatrix mode.

Arranged chronologically, Beyond the Painted Smile begins with several wood-block prints and other artifacts from the Edo period when Japan was still closed to the outside world. We learn that courtesans had to tie their obis in the front and not the back. We learn how to identify the geisha and the courtesan just by how they wear their hair and kimonos.

Other works in the show include hanging scrolls, musical instruments, hair ornaments, ceramics, videos and, on one wall, several kimonos from the famous geisha Ichimaru (1906-97), who went on to release several CDs. Ichimaru was one of the few geisha who transformed their success as geishas into other careers. She collected kimonos all her life.

Movie posters depicting the Western misconception of geisha adorn one wall of the gallery. The Barbarian and the Geisha, featuring John Wayne, is there. So is Sayonara, with Marlon Brando and an exquisite Japanese star named Miiko Taka. And of course, we see a poster of My Geisha, with Shirley MacLaine, a flick that exaggerated even more the stereotype solidified by Madama Butterfly.

With the show and the gorgeous catalog, we also learn much about maiko, or geisha apprentices. Maiko, hich literally translates as "dancing child," are teenage girls engaged in the initial first years of geisha training. These are the evocative icons you always see--the girls with the painted white faces, impossibly red lips and elaborately styled hairdos. If you prowl through Kyoto's Gion district, you'll often see them walking around. They always go out in full dress, and they're magnets for camera-toting tourists.

The show concludes with contemporary photographs by Yoko Yamamoto, chronicling her work during the last two decades. Yamamoto spent 20 years behind the scenes with geisha culture and is one of the few who have earned the trust of this closed community. Many of the photos depict real geisha in their own environments, showing perhaps more than ever how much the profession has changed while still adhering to ancient tradition. Almost like a secret society, geisha culture will always remain an absolute mystery, even to many Japanese, and that's precisely what adds to its allure.


Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile runs through Sept. 26 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco. Tickets are $5-$10. (415.581.3500)


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From the August 11-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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