Is the Geisha on the verge of extinction?

The term Geisha refers to women who are traditional Japanese performance artists. They specialize in Japanese dance, music and singing and are easily recognized by their distinctive appearance. They wear elaborate kimonos and wigs, and paint their faces white.

Geishas are not only artists, but also trained hosts. They entertain business men and other clients with sparkling repartee during parties known as ozashiki.

In a recent feature on CNN, Selena Wang describes the contemporary life of a geisha, and how they are now struggling to survive in a world where the traditional customs of the past are slowly fading.

The uncertain future of the Geisha

“Geishas, once praised as ‘flowers of Tokyo,’ are fading to become nothing, like other traditional cultures. Geishas used to be a big business and part of life, but now it is only surviving as a culture to preserve.”

Hisafumi Iwashita, a professor at Kokugakuin University and an expert on geisha culture

Fiona Graham is an Australian anthropologist who trained as a geisha for 11 months in Tokyo. She became the first white foreigner to be officially recognized as a geisha. Nowadays she is known as Sayuki and she runs her own geisha establishment in Tokyo’s Fukugawa district. She is also involved in training upcoming performers.

“Geisha literally means ‘artist,’ so if you don’t love your art, then it’s not going to work. The geisha world is where you can learn about every Japanese tradition. When you’re in Japanese tea houses, you’re seeing the best of Japanese architecture, pottery, paintings, best of Japanese kimono, cuisine, Sake, music, dance. Everything is combined in the geisha world.

The geisha world has been declining for 100 years. To put it in perspective, classical music has (also) also been in decline for 100 years. But I don’t think classical music is going to disappear.”

Fiona Graham aka Sayuki, an Australian anthropologist

According to Graham the number of geishas in Japan has dwindled to a few hundreds. This is a major decline from their heyday in the 1920s, when it was estimated that there were around 90,000 geishas across Japan.

The importance of tourism

It is clear that action needs to be taken to preserve this ancient art form. According to Hisafumi Iwashita, the only way that this tradition will survive is if it is intrinsically woven into the tourism offering of the country. This has already been done to good effect by Kyoto. In fact the city is an excellent case study on how Japan can “sell” its culture and traditions.

“Kyoto is a city that has been selling its old history. For the geisha world, Kyoto’s way of marketing worked, and Tokyo should learn from it.”

Hisafumi Iwashita

Follow this link to read the full feature on CNN.

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