Jilara (jilara) wrote,

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Realizations about "geisha"

I was just struck by what I think is the biggest problem in trying to translate the concept of "geisha" into Western terms: language.

I will still despair over "Memoirs of a Geisha" and its westernized look and feel, but there is a more basic issue here. And I finally realized what it is.

The only term that western society has for the entire spectrum of the Japanese demi-monde (not the best term, either, but probably the best I can find) is "geisha." And the terms are dazzlingly specific, in the Japanese language itself. Heck, women from Kyoto even use use a different pronoun than other women... It's worse than Eskimo words for snow. It's probably closer to the Finnish terms for various shaman/magic-workers. My father told me there are huge numbers of terms for these, depending on what they do. Thus, to use English analogs, a village witch and a sorceress and a shaman would do different things, use different methods for what they do, etc.

Well, that is the issue with women in the Japanese demi-monde. An oiran and a geisha are very different, but to westerners, the distinction is unrecognized. Likewise many of the other classes ranging from "tea-house girls" to "night hawks." I've read enough classic Japanese literature to see the differences, and there are probably a couple dozen different classifications for "women who cater to men" in whatever way. Even "geisha" differ, in that "real" geisha (from Kyoto) have a different culture and customs and behaviors from those in Tokyo or at hot springs. They use different language, as women in Kyoto are wont to do, but it's even more pronounced (ironic term, that) in geisha culture. And until those outside the culture become familiar with the language distinctions (which will never happen) misunderstandings will abound.

I think, also, that I view it with the viewpoint of a Living History Reenactor. Until you live within a culture, you can't understand it. I try to portray people with authentic period attitudes and behaviors, as best I can research them. And they aren't always readily understood by those of the 21st century. Mythos abounds, as well as societal attitudes of the time. So, I think, it is with the geisha (and other Japanese women), doomed by both language and current western thought, to be forever misunderstood by the West.

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