Friday, September 16, 2005


Behind Every Good Geisha . . .

If you read Memoirs of a Geisha, then you know that there a host of characters who help to create the whole mystery and allure of being a geisha.

Actually, the term geisha is a bit misused in the States. A taxi driver in Kyoto once berated me when I used the term, pointing out that in Kyoto, one must say geiko, which means something entirely different. A geiko, he insisted, is very clearly a practioner of the arts. The term geisha is unfortunately mixed up with lots of bizarre American stereotypes (his words).

Before a woman becomes a geiko, however, she is a maiko. The beautiful costumes and head-dresses that we all admire are actually the domain of maiko.

Last year when I was in Japan, I had the good fortune to visit a small, traditional family home where the wife and husband practice the traditional art of hand-embroidering the kinds of garments worn by maiko-san.

Here you can see a small sample of the brilliant silks used to embroider basic silk fabrics.

The stitching is all done by hand. You can see the pattern loosely sketched onto the fabric; the needle and thread bring the design to life.

Maybe they were pulling my leg, but they told me that this particular garment belongs to "The most beautiful maiko-san currently in Gion." Who knows if that is true (and if it is, I certainly hope she doesn't read the Interent, and will not notice yours truly wearing her clothes), but I appreciated the idea that being a maiko-san is very much a living art and that people still gossip about who is beautiful, who is smart and who is not.

One interesting note; the husband and wife team insisted to me that these days very cheap hand-embroidered fabrics are coming in from China. They pulled a pile of garments out of a chest and began to say to me; "This is from China. This is from Japan." They insisted that there was a visible difference as to the skill level.

I don't know what to say about this except that it shows to me how much of a greater awareness there is of China looming to the West, with hundreds of skilled workers. I'm not sure I buy the idea that Chinese hands are less capable than Japanese; in fact I don't. I will say that on my last trip to Japan I did see a number of new fans in the souvenir shops; the bright colors and unsual color combinations were definitely not a traditional Japanese aesthetic. All things -- and all cultures -- undergo change. Certainly the Japan of the early 1900s isn't the same as the Japan of today, and only part of this is due to industrialization. We will see how traditional arts like kimono embroidery adapt and change as China grows more powerful.

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