Discovering Humanity of Geisha—Why It’s So Crucially Important?

Maiko Ichisumi on the day of her official debut, photographed by Hideki Ishibashi for

We, as a media audience, have certainly witnessed quite a few important social issues within the past year. Some of them led to an unnecessary extreme, yet they all raised an important question—how to treat women, minorities, and traditional culture possibly in the most respectful way?

I’m an unapologetic loner, hence I’ve never felt the need to join any community, political party, nor organization officially. My fight for equality and respect has always been rather humble and lonely. However, in current social climate, I’ve got an urge to say out loud—it’s wrong to fetishize women by claiming a superior role of an anonymous commenter, especially on the internet. This behaviour has its source in the subconscious process of dehumanizing people who are familiar to us mostly from the photographs.

Maiko Ichisumi on the day of her official debut, photographed by Hideki Ishibashi for

I was born and raised in Poland in the 90’s—the society here was, in general, quite sexist and close-minded, judgmental towards ethnic and religious minorities, people of color, or sexual orientations. My early years were full of doubt, guilt, devoirs, and even fear—this world had clear rules of what was considered proper and socially accepted. For what it’s worth, I’m of a mixed-blood, primarily coming from an Eastern ethnic tribe and carrying an Italian surname. This background already made me an alien in the homogenous society.

Yuuraku Inari Daimyojin, a small shrine in the heart of Gion photographed by

Step by step, I’ve developed an interest to discover the ethnic culture of my grandparents and ancestors. My father divided his heart into three cultural sectors: our Eastern tribe, Japanese traditional art, and the Himalayas. All of them, visually appealing, had a significant impact on my later life and the way I’ve spent my free time. Throughout the years and art albums’ pages flipped, there was one particular topic that bugged and infected my mind—the geisha culture in Japan. It all started with whimsical Utamaro’s ukiyo-e at the local museum when I was a little kid and it gradually transformed into a professional scientific study, as well as my favourite hobby to get geeky.

Maiko Fukuno, photographed by Mait for

I soon found out that following this world brings a soothing effect on my teenage soul. At times when life was getting messy, I sought for comfort within the traditional art, but also within the geisha themselves. They happened to be my role models, besides the poster-worthy rockstars from the past. It was about of the same time when the internet reach and tourism industry burst onto the geisha quarters in Kyoto. Geisha sightings have become the thing, resulting in tons of raw photos available online. I shortly learnt about the unglamorous side of the profession, catching a glimpse of imperfection shown on the pictures taken by some unbothered tourists. Because of these particular observations, I could yell at myself: “stop whining, they have it as difficult as you do, you’re not special, you can get over it”. I realized that geisha also feel awkward, have acne, wear braces, suffer from heartbreaks and gossip, have weight problems (either being too thin or too thick). But at the same time, they need to deal with creepy paparazzi, heavy kimono, challenging classes, unfamiliar Kyoto dialect, and teahouses’ troublesome guests. With only a few days off, that is.

This part seemed to be unveiled only for me, however. Ordinary pedestrians talking in foreign languages in Gion had most likely no idea what it takes to become a geisha and how old these white-faced girls are. Most importantly, the tourists seemed to dehumanize the women they so-called “geisha-girls” completely.

Maiko Tomitsuyu at GionKoishi, photographed by Yoshiyuki Komori for

The distinctive white makeup paste makes the whole face looking like a fine-crafted mask. Could this impression make the outsiders perceive the geisha as living kokeshi dolls? Noticing this tendency, I decided to start a little blog back in 2011 to match the geisha images with their names and stories, and thus to give them the recognition they deserve. Throughout the years, I’ve achieved the primary goal of this project—to prevent treating the geisha as nameless nymphs stripped from their art skills and history, and to scold as many disrespectful tourists as I can.

Maiko Fukune during the Gion Festival of 2017, photographed by doichan for

Still, in the age of social awareness, we must acknowledge that geisha are the same human beings as us. Although it may sound freaky simple, it’s not an obvious reaction received by the geisha every day. The spectators can only assume how easy it is to work as a geisha. “They just need to be pretty, polite, and good at effortless dancing”—I’ve heard such opinions so many times. But girls who picked this profession admit that they had no idea how difficult it’s going to be. One of the top reasons for choosing this job is a glamorous image of a maiko, as seen on TV or in magazines. The narration is that maiko are like beautiful butterflies, graciously fleeting from one teahouse to another. Their job, according to this shallow appearance-oriented image, is to please everyone with their flawless “oriental” looks. I’m sure that every woman can admit that it’s impossible to be naturally perfect—it’s actually one big struggle.

Geiko Toshikana dancing at the Ryuhonji temple, photographed by Toshi_Wata for

The struggle applies to, among other arts mastered by geisha, the traditional dance as well. I was quite shocked when I attended my first nihonbuyo classes. I was already convinced that classical Japanese dance is extremely difficult—especially for someone who never dances even when completely drunk (don’t get me wrong, I just prefer to sit and joke around at parties)—but after my first class, every single muscle in my body was sore. It takes so much strength to control your body and make the dance look effortlessly smooth. A 5-minute dance requires maximum stamina and focus. What is more, dancing during menstruation is terribly demanding, and kimono makes everything even more exhausting. I couldn’t admire geisha more than after this early experience of nihonbuyo.

This particular dance move, performed by geiko Fumika, requires an unusual engagement of core, arm, and leg muscles. Photograph by Tigertakashi for

But detracting the seriousness of a geisha profession is just the tip of the iceberg. Another fatal issue is an existing fetish of Japanese culture and Asian women in general. Fetishism of specific beauty features happened to me, too. I’m often mistaken for a “Slavic girl” (Polish and Russian ladies are commonly considered as extraordinary wives and lovers, being hyper-attractive at the same time) by some crude gentlemen, possibly because of the country I was born in, my blonde hair, and blue eyes. To be entirely fair, I believe there are no national exceptions when it comes to the sexist stereotypes—though the purpose of this essay is to clarify why they are especially harmful to the geisha.

To get facts straight, apprentice geisha (maiko) are mostly teenagers, as I’ve mentioned before. Taking their age into consideration, I’ve stumbled upon opinions that geisha are either sexually available and promiscuous or devoted virgins (there’s a stereotype about “geisha girls” originated around the II World War—I’ll elaborate on this topic one day). I personally think it’s wrong to comment such sensitive matter because these teenage girls get simply embarrassed and intimidated. Moreover, sexual and romantic relationships of the geisha are their own private business and choice, not a public cause.

Geiko Tsunemomo dancing with a folding fan. Although this particular move seems to look effortless, a dancer needs to pull back their shoulder-blades, close an armpit, rotate a forearm, stretch a thumb, and hold the fan securely with the rest of the fingers. Photograph by SaikoKakihara for

But remarks regarding their love lives are not exceptional. Living in the digital era of social contradictions and being closer to each culture as ever, we must support and protect young girls all over the world—and yes, they also browse the web. Furthermore, they’ve got hobbies, favourite authors, musicians, celebrities, they speak English and other foreign languages. And, finally, they’re active on social media. It means that they may read every comment or meme. In case of the geisha, they can even find their faces advertising random sushi restaurants or tattooed on a stranger’s arm, surprisingly.

My only advice is (and I’ve come to the following conclusions after many years of my research): think twice before posting something online. Do not contribute to bullying. When you end up in Kyoto, try to not behave in a disrespectful way just because you paid for your trip a crazy amount of money. And, most importantly, always remember to help and encourage the ambitious girls all around the globe.

Maiko Fukuno in casual attire, photographed by Gaap for

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