Geisha: a Japanese icon

The Leiden Ethnology Museum lies within walking distance of Leiden Central Station. It’s current temporary exhibition concerns a Japanese icon: the Geisha. This exhibition busts a few myths around this icon and allows visitors a look behind the scenes.

So: trying to get a more balanced view of the Geisha world, my friends and I met at the small café, right at the museum gate. After coffee, tea, chats, we headed into the large building.

This ethnology museum not only hosts the Geisha exhibition. It has room for a few more. So it’s best to concentrate on one exhibition. At least, this leaves you time to explore Leiden’s charming old town centre.

After putting our stuff in lockers downstairs, we went upstairs and passed through the ground-floor doors leading to one of the museum’s wings. The exhibition sprawls through several large rooms branching off to the left and right from the first one. Practically all aspects of a Geisha’s life, the use as icon, as well as history are dealt with.

Throughout the exhibition, there are video interviews with Japanese and European people, customers, and Geishas themselves. This gives a truly interesting many-sided view. It is interesting to learn that many Japanese (and quite a few Western) men dream of an evening’s entertainment with Geishas.

Of course, most of the interviewed women have a dim view of such an event. What goes on during such evenings? Thanks to the exhibition, my friends and I are now at least aware, there is a difference between ordinary courtesans and the Geisha.

One of the exhibition rooms actually houses a teahouse. Of course, films related to this ceremony are on show there. But the walls of this room are also covered with 19th and early 20th century photos. There are portraits of former Geishas. I only knew them from the stylised woodcuts, which Vincent van Gogh liked. I still have to find out more about Yuki Kato, the Geisha who married an American millionaire.

Another room shows the Geisha as icon being used to market things. This room also has several videos. Like other visitors, I especially liked the video interview with a Canadian, who explained a bit about Geisha CRM and life behind the scenes.

Other rooms tell about the training. Girls need to make up their mind at around secondary school age. Endure the hard work and training to become a Geisha, or head for university or any other career. Of the girls who opt to train as a Geisha, between 50 to 75 percent drop out.

Of course there are rooms full of beautiful costumes, fabulous hair ornaments, wigs, shoes, musical instruments, make-up, and much more. Meaning and symbolism are everywhere, especially in the costumes and hair ornaments. Kimonos, belts, and other items of the Geisha costume not only change per season. In the case of a trainee, hair ornaments change each month of the first two-year-training period.

It was also interesting to hear about and see the changes, which took place over the last two centuries. Nowadays, wigs are worn. I hope these will allow the women to at least sleep more comfortably. Clothes are now wrapped far tighter than they used to be. The reason given was, that outside working hours,  the traditional clothes are now often swapped for more comfortable ones.

We especially enjoyed the woodcuts on a wall in the last exhibition room. They are a running comment on an imaginary “day in the life of Geishas”. Our favourite was the one in which a tired Geisha thinks she’s all alone and customers have left at last. She takes a swig out of a kettle.

Though these woodcuts made us laugh, the harsh reality was also there: Geishas are at the beg and call of customers and can’t afford any scandals. Moreover, their working life of fame and splendour is short.

There was so much to see and experience, that I will certainly visit this exhibition again. However, my friends who only spoke English will not. Most of the information next to exhibits, as well as most of the videos are translated, but in Dutch.

So my Portuguese friend overlooked exhibits showing the impact of the Portuguese upon Japanese society. My American friend had to ask me to translate captions and explanations – and did not want to do that too often. Had things been different, this exhibition would have been an absolute “must see” for expats, tourists, and Dutch alike.

Many people claim “Memoirs of a Geisha” is a good book, or have seen the film? There are translations available of memoirs written by Japanese Geishas, like Mineko Iwasaki. I think as an introduction, you may like a book like “Geisha”, written by the American anthropologist Liza Dalby, known as the “blue-eyed” Geisha.

The exhibition “Geisha” can be visited at the Volkenkunde Museum, Leiden till the 5th of April 2015. For more info and help to plan a visit: Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde.

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