Tuesday, October 25, 2005


JACL Interview

The good folks at Pacific Citizen, published by the JACL, contacted Japundit about a post I did regarding Fresh's Geisha Makeup line. You can read the resulting interview, conducted by Lynda Lin through email. I'll post the full questions and answers below so you can read them if you want to.

I did want to make the following point about the JACL. When I was growing up as a kid, my family used to go the Buddhist temple in Monterey. This was a wonderful chance for us to be close to Japanese culture, and I have wonderful memories of the potluck dinners, teriyaki chicken, and the glamorous Obon festival. For a long time, my father and my friend Debbie's father were the only to "gai-jin," or as they used to say, "hakujin," in the temple. Times have changed.

One of the great injustices of the 20th century was the internment of the Japanese Americans, often referred to as an evacuation. I never really knew about this growing up, and certainly did not learn about it in high school. Over time, I heard people at the Temple say things like, "Well, when I was at camp . . . " or "We met at camp." I strongly recommend you read When the Emperor Was Divine which expresses the subject just beautifully, without being sentimental, depressing or cloy.

The JACL has done much to document these injustices, and to remain vigilant on behalf of the many Japanese Americans. I remember seeing their newspaper at the houses of friends -- the wonderful Shiz Torabayashi, for example. I'm glad I was able to participate in one of their projects in a small way.

Questions and Answers

1. In your blog you mention that the Japanese would giggle at the "Memoirs" make-up line. Could you explain why?

I think we have to keep in mind that when something from one culture is used by another culture. it is necessarily reinterpreted. Pizza in Tokyo won’t be like the pizza we are accustomed to seeing in the States, and this often strikes Americans traveling abroad as funny. Similarly, these “Memoirs of a Geisha” products don’t really look Japanese and don’t have a concrete relationship to anything from the geisha world. I made the point on Japundit that geisha lipstick, for example, is a very specific product in Japan. It is paint found inside a shell and applied with a brush. The items sold by Fresh don’t look at all like anything that a true geisha would use. So, like an out-of-place-pizza, I imagine these products, with their displaced appearance, would strike some Japanese as funny. Others, who are younger, more traveled and more open-minded, might find them sort of interesting, in the same way that young Americans like to wear Engrish T-shirts as a form of personal expression.

2. The beauty product is well presented - the packaging is pretty and the ingredients sound pleasant and soothing - but "sake" bubble bath and rice face wash? What is your personal opinion of the marketing?

I’ve been to many spas in Japan and don’t remember ever bathing in anything containing sake. Most of the spas I’ve been to are very keen to explain to you which minerals or which herbs are contained in their waters (and which particular ailments these waters will cure), and you can certainly buy bath salts from most any drugstore to use at home. Certainly Japanese people use different beauty products than we do; one face scrub that I have used in Japan, for example contains charcoal.

But the Fresh products are clearly created less to bring to light certain Japanese beauty secrets, than to capture what are perceived to be quintessentially Japanese things. On the one hand, I find this sort of disappointing. The products were created without much cultural context, and for a public that isn’t really going to know the difference. This becomes even more interesting when we consider that we live in a world where numerous sushi restaurants airlift in fresh ingredients from Tsukiji to make sushi here in America; we are clearly lopsided we are in our understanding of other cultures.

On the other hand, we are only talking about makeup, and perhaps I should lighten up!

3. There are many lines of makeup that is geared towards modern minorities, but I think this is among the few that uses a cultural archetype. Why is the geisha image so attractive to westerners? Why don't we see more of other of other cultural archetypes from (ie) Latin or African American cultures?

Why don’t we see “Latin Temptress” products for example? ;-) It’s a good question. I think there are several points to be made here.

Scholars and the geisha community itself insist that the geisha is not a prostitute, and yet there is the lingering suspicion among Americans that she actually is and that the Japanese aren’t telling the truth. This isn’t helped by the fact that the geisha community is very possessive of its secrets (which is their right, of course). The publication of “Memoirs of a Geisha” fueled this debate because the heroine of the book, Sayuri, endured a mizuage -- the selling off of her virginity. It’s unclear how realistic this portion of the novel truly is; certainly Mineko Iwasaki, the real life geisha whom Arthur Golden named as a source of inspiration, was less than impressed and sued Golden in a case that I believe is till pending. I went to the “Maiko Café” in Kyoto to see a young maiko dance; the only other Western person in the audience cornered me and asked me if “she was a prostitute,” which I strongly denied. A certain portion of our society perversely enjoys associating Asian women with wanton sex; witness the disgusting sex trips some men take to Southeast Asia. So, there’s one reason for the ongoing fascination with the geisha and all that she represents; some look at the geisha and immediately think of sex which, as we all know, sells.

An article in the New York Times a few weeks ago discussed the growing number of registered “Native Americans” and pointed out how many people feel dissatisfied simply being “Caucasian.” They want to have some sort of “ethnic” identity. So, clearly, people hunger not only to experience the “other” but to actually be the “other” because it makes them feel more alive, more colorful. I imagine that the Fresh products, like the tiered skirts and embroidered blouses for sale in Urban Outfitters, speak to this desire. Don’t forget, however, that people also immigrate to the US – my own mother is an example – and who immediately feel at home, as though they were “meant to live here.” So, it isn’t just Americans who long to be in another culture; there are others who long to be in ours. It’s worth thinking about what it is in our current world that is fueling this desire or illusion.

A less uncomfortable explanation to your question is that the geisha lives in the ultimate dress-up, aesthetically pleasing world. No wonder George Lucas ripped off the concept to create costumes for Natalie Portman. If you have seen a geisha in real life, it’s quite astounding to look at her carefully coiffed hairdo, her makeup, her rich robes, her skills, etc. Even the Japanese are fascinated by her. If you go to Kyoto today, you will see young Japanese girls pay for the chance to “dress up” as geisha, and to parade around for an hour or two and have their photos taken. It isn’t just the West who finds the geisha mysterious and compelling.

Ultimately, I find the geisha an alluring figure because, from the outside perspective, her role seems to be to master all the high feminine arts – beauty, poise, conversation, sensuality – and there are few defined roles for women within any culture which celebrate all these skills all at once. Stereotypes generally dictate that if a woman is smart, she can’t be beautiful (or is too sensible to worry about beauty); if she is beautiful, she will probably not be smart. The ultimate geisha gets to get away with being all these things – and she earns money in the process. How cool is that?

4. Some critics say the beauty products are examples that orientalism and Asian fetishcism still exists today. What is your response?

I think it is always going to be difficult to have any thoughtful conversation about beauty, beauty products and beauty standards without feeling like we are fetishizing or objectifying women – and this is true across all cultures. I remember being deeply frustrated as a young woman when I looked at magazines and only saw white faces portrayed as the “standard of beauty.” But I’m also skeptical when I hear men say, “I love Asian women.” What does that mean? That we are all the same and equally lovable?

I saw an article recently which talked about how finally Asian women are starting to show up in fashion shoots and on the runway. But is this really progress? On the one hand, as a woman, I’m glad to see Asian women alongside other colors. On the other hand, I’m not over 5 foot 9 and never will be, and most likely will never weight under 110 pounds, so I’m not exactly sure how the runway model Hye Park is doing me any good!

Then again, there are women, and I am one of them, who love beauty products and fashion as a form of personal expression. I wouldn’t want to live in a color-blind world. In our recent history, communists were all forced to wear the same clothing and were pretty happy to give it up. I think to completely cut ourselves off from all sensuality would be sad – it would rob us of a human element. I think my answers also shows how challenging it can be to live as a modern woman in this world; there are no hard and fast rules to make us happy, or to make us feel accepted.

Nice Interview, Marie, but Lin really butchered the article. She tries to invoke the old 'racial stereotype' issue, and did not mention any of the important points you expressed that dispel preconceived thoughts about Maiko and Geisha.

PC writers are notorious for using low brow methods of invoking controversy-- this has been the source of many heated debates at JACL meetings recently.

The good news is that there's a link to your blog in the article. Unfortunately the typical PC reader is a sweet little Obasan who doesn't have internet access.

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