Monday, February 20, 2017

Geisha in Kyoto? Probably Not: Five Ways to Tell Real Maiko from Cosplayers

Sorry, if your photos on Instagram are any indication, you didn't see geishas on your recent trip to Kyoto. 

It has to be said.

The reason I'm saying it here is because it's not socially acceptable to go around peoples' Instagram photos on the #travelgram tag and burst their bubbles with a comment saying “No, that's a tourist in a costume, not a real geisha” (though there is an account I follow dedicated to that very thing).

A bit of background: I'm addicted to Instagram. I follow a lot of people who travel. My Kyoto account falls into the popular "travel" category as a destination for globe-trotting folks. When they make it to Kyoto they sometimes upload photos like this with the caption: "I saw geisha!!!1 #inlovewithjapan" 

These are not real geisha, but ordinary folks in costume
No. Nine times out of ten, you did not. You saw, wait for it, dressed-up Japanese (and non-Japanese!) tourists. This flub seems to be coming up more and more often as "maiko for a day" costuming experiences are becoming more popular.

Some background on Kyoto and "geisha" or geiko as they are called here. Kyoto has been a center for the traditional arts for a thousand years, going back to when the Emperor moved his court there from Nara (in the 1800s the imperial palace was moved to Tokyo where it remains today). It has been a "tourist destination" for at least as long. Japanese people have loved Kyoto as a beautiful travel destination for at least a thousand years. Businesses to serve and entertain travelers have a long history here, and the 花街 kagai or traditional entertainment (red-light?) districts in Kyoto are remnants of them. Geiko and their apprentice counterparts maiko are professional entertainers and masters of several traditional arts including dance, musical instruments, tea ceremony, drinking games, and conversation. Are they basically high-end prostitutes? People with connections to the kagai will be offended and say no to such a question. Have they been so in history? Most likely. But who knows. A lot of things here are not allowed to be as black-and-white as in Western countries. The kagai is a very closed world even to the average Japanese person, that since WWII especially has worked hard to improve its image. The idea is that mastery of traditional arts (even those whose basic purpose is to entertain men) deserves respect and preservation, not criticism or divulging of sordid stories. I'm quite sure the kagai has its share of darkness going on, whether it's any better or worse than the typical hostess bar or even typical Japanese company practices is anyone's guess. 

But in any case, I find maiko—the real ones—stunning. They have made becoming a symbol of ideal female beauty from another time and culture into their full-time profession, starting apprenticeships from when compulsory education ends around age 16 (now there's a hairy human rights question foreigners love to bring up). At this stage they are called maiko and wear the high chunky wooden okobo shoes, long trailing obi sash, and dangling hair ornaments most people think of when they hear “geisha”. At age 20 they become full-fledged geiko or recognized masters of their arts, and they switch to wearing more subdued kimono, flatter shoes, a shorter obi, and wigs in a more elaborate style rather than their own hair, though with less accessories. Geiko are less often seen in the streets. The young, bright-colored maiko draw everyone's attention, I think they also have to go out more often to various functions and music and dance lessons. It's hard not to be fascinated. But this is an exclusive world where personal connections are more important than the money you're willing to spend (and you would still need a lot for a dinner with a maiko in attendance). In recent years this public fascination for the inaccessible has resulted in a booming business: maiko makeovers! 舞妓体験 in Japanese. These fancy photo studios concentrated in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto will apply the white makeup, dress you up in rental kimono, wig, and accessories, and arrange photo shoots for a day as a maiko. I think social media has contributed to the boom, as young people are on the prowl for cool photo op experiences. There's a very, very high chance the “maiko” you caught a glimpse of on your trip around Higashiyama are just normal Japanese girls out for a day of touring Kyoto, just like you!

Here are five ways to tell the difference, in order from easiest/most obvious to more subtle.

1. Location

Yes, the Gion area of Higashiyama is part of the old kagai there. But it is also the main tourist destination in Kyoto, especially the routes to Kiyomizu temple. The area is always very crowded. The real maiko know this and do not use these streets. If they must go through the tourist attractions they use the maze of tiny little back streets, or simply take a taxi. So if you see a maiko walking around the tourist attractions, she's probably not the real thing.

"Off-duty" maiko in Miyagawa-cho on a spring afternoon. I didn't get a shot of their faces but they weren't wearing the white  makeup. Their hairstyle is what gives them away as real maiko!

2. Time of day

The maiko's typical day is made up of lessons and the occasional ceremony or event in the morning. She goes out at this time in a simple kimono without the white makeup on her face, so you might mistake her for simply a well-dressed Kyoto lady (there are many women in Kyoto who wear kimono when making formal social calls, or when practicing traditional arts). Her youth and her hair done up in traditional fashion will give her away to the practiced eye though. The afternoon is spent in preparation for the night's work: donning the giant obi sash and white makeup we all know and love. Real maiko start ducking out to work--to restaurants, hotels, and dance theaters—in full maiko ensemble between 5 and 6pm. If you see a maiko walking in the street with all her white makeup on in the morning or afternoon, she is probably a cosplayer.

3. Behavior

A maiko has to hold up yards of fabric to walk
A maiko's clients pay her okiya (boarding house?) for the time she spends commuting to the restaurant or bar. So she doesn't dwaddle around gazing at the sights, chatting with other maiko, or posing for pictures, and she most definitely does not eat or use a cellphone or camera en route to her destination. Maiko doing those things I can say with 100% certainty are tourists dressed up. Real maiko dash quickly, almost running, and usually ignore requests for photos. The typical Japanese girl is not used to wearing kimono or the traditional footwear and most cannot manage a graceful dash like the maiko, nor are they often in a hurry.
Also, a maiko walking with both hands free is not going to happen either. Instead of a purse they will carry small cloth and straw baskets, and they will also be holding up their kimono train. This something the photo studios miss. Maiko wear their kimono so they trail behind in a long train, and when walking they have to gather this train to the front and hold it up with one hand. Pardon the silly clipart but it shows what I'm talking about. Most kimono in most situations are not worn in this way but extra fabric is folded and tied up at the waist, so most Japanese people are not used to walking around holding onto a train. To allow unpracticed customers ease of movement (and probably also to minimize damage to the studio's property) customers are dressed in kimono tied up at the waist like a normal kimono. They can walk around without holding up yards of extra fabric, and their ensemble does not trail on the ground. If you look again the first photo I posted you will see this is the case for the two girls enjoying maiko style costume in Kyoto.

4. Age

As I noted previously, maiko are most likely teenagers, with an age range of 15-20 years old. After age 20 they either choose to retire from the kagai world (not so uncommon) or become geiko, and their kimono and hairstyles change completely. You will never see a real maiko older than 20. But, the photo studios cater to all ages. If you see a little girl in the costume, or a lady obviously older than 20, she is not a real maiko. Also, as a general rule, if the maiko has a figure similar to that of Matsuko Deluxe (Google him) she is not a real maiko.

5. Makeup and Accessories 
Maiko makeover studios boast about giving their customers an authentic experience, and some do get close, even fooling Japanese people unfamiliar with maiko. But they make mistakes in the makeup and hair ornaments. The dangly hair ornament on the side of the face is only worn by first-year apprentice maiko. During this year, they do not apply rouge to the upper lip, but just the bottom one. Here's a photo I took at an event some years ago: note her white upper lip and dangling flower-blossom hairpiece. The older maiko color both lips, but never again wear these dangling hair ornaments.
First-year maiko Umeraku. Note her lipstick and dangling hair ornament.

Older maiko Umeyae. 
However, maiko makeover studios and their customers don't seem to be aware of this. So if you get close enough to notice the all-too-common but incorrect full lipstick+dangling hair ornament combination, you'll know she's not a maiko. There are other more subtle differences as well, such as floral motifs in the kimono and hair ornaments that maiko change according to the season. The photo studios do not change their stock so much depending on the season, so the practiced eye will be able to instantly recognize a plum-blossom print being worn in summer, for example, a wardrobe malfunction a real maiko would never make. The quality of the white makeup is apparently different as well, real maiko won't look “ thickly painted” but the white makeup is incredibly smooth and in a way transparent—showing the natural quality of the skin underneath. Maiko hairstyles are also done using the maiko's own hair, but most makeover studios provide wigs instead, so if you get close enough to notice an odd hairline or smeary makeup, she's a tourist and not a real maiko.


So there you go, now you know how to tell real maiko from the tourists dressed up, and burst your own bubbles, should you come visit Kyoto. Let me know if you do, we can smirk at tourists who don't know any better together and then bum around the places where real maiko may be seen in the evening, if we're lucky...

A living symbol of ideal beauty from another time. The red on the back of the collar is also typical of a real maiko, a detail the photo studios often miss.

P.S. I don't actually know a whole lot about maiko. I've seen the real deal a grand total of three times in 6 years here, and only once was I able to get photos. A lot of the info and the names of the maiko whose photos I got were provided by some kind knowledgeable people I've connected with on Instagram. Hey, I learn things, so it's is good for something!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Done with Common Sense: In Search of New 常識

3/1/2014. We didn't hug or kiss for the last two years of dating/engagement so our pre-wedding photos were a bit awkward. 
In Japanese, people use the word usually translated as "common sense" or 常識 joshiki a lot, though more often and in a wider variety of contexts than we use the English phrase. 

You might recall the idea of a "high-context" culture from that college course Intercultural Whatnot 101. In contrast with low-context cultures (America is often held up as a textbook example), high-context cultures rely less on clear spoken or written communication to enforce behavior, and more on concepts like joshiki  "it's common sense, everyone knows you're supposed to do/be ____" In three years of marriage and three years as 社会人 "employed members of society" in Japan, we've had an awkward dance with this joshiki, and I'm thinking it's time for a new dance partner. 

First, how we tried to be normal:

We both went to college, Yuya got his Master's, then we started looking for jobs. We didn't question it at all. After education, one must work, and work=being employed. In Japan, this joshiki is narrowed more strictly to being employed full-time by a reputable company for life. Yuya pursued this and after a long two years job searching was finally employed by his current manufacturing company. He is what the Japanese call a salaryman, a white-collar employee of a company. We continue to put up with horrible working conditions without complaining all that much because "it's par for the course here, a lot of people are much worse off." As it turns out, the culture we found ourselves in pulled some mean punches that woke us up a bit. 

Here's how it all fell apart:

Punch #1: You're Doing it all Backwards
Our falling out with Japanese common sense started when we got engaged and announced our wedding date. Japanese friends and acquaintances were less concerned with our international marriage and more shocked at the fact that we were marrying before Yuya's job started. The Japanese way requires the man to be an established employee with a happy savings account before getting married. It didn't matter that I had graduated and was working full-time, that Yuya had completed his Master's degree (all that was left was the graduation ceremony two weeks after our wedding), or that he had accepted a formal job offer from the company and his job would be starting exactly one month from our wedding. We were committing "student marriage." For Japanese salarymen, marriage is not traditionally a private matter but you have to invite your boss (who comes to the wedding to give a speech saying thank you to the parents for raising a son with potential as a worker, though he does nothing but make mistakes and is useless in the office, hahaha, however he can greet people correctly so I'm happy to help raise him to be a real adult, blah blah blah) and give and return expensive presents from your workplace. We knew we didn't want to bother with all that and wanted to get married in my hometown, so we purposely decided to tie the knot before all those other obligations came into play. Over and over in the coming months we'd be so glad we decided to marry when we did, but we really had no idea how bad the next punch was going to be. 

Punch #2 It's for Your Own Good
I still remember that June evening in 2014, when Yuya came home from work one Monday after midnight, in tears. I work from Tuesday to Saturday, and Yuya the traditional Monday to Friday, so on Mondays since I have time I usually cook something nice while waiting for him to come home. Our newly married life was going pretty well. I'd recovered from a bad case of influenza I contracted right after returning to Japan from our honeymoon, and was enjoying cute little details of our life together like having to buy two icecreams for dessert instead of one. Yuya usually came home from work at 6pm. That day, I made his favorite hamburgers and even put together a colorful salad. Like, way more food groups than I usually bother to cook for one meal. I had it all out on the table and ready to go by 6:15. Maybe Yuya had stopped by a convenience store. 6:45 came, and I put saran wrap on our food. At 7pm I put it all back in the refrigerator. At 8pm I tried calling him, no answer. I forgot all about the dinner I'd made. I knew something had gone very wrong. When he came home at last at around 12:15 am, he explained through tears what had happened. He had suddenly been given an impossible amount of tasks to do, berated for not doing them faster, and when he finally finished at 9pm, he was treated to a 3-hour "training lecture" from his boss, an absurd performance that included screaming, dehumanizing insults and personal attacks, slamming hands on the table and kicking the walls. Watch the movie Whiplash, by the same director of the current hit La La Land. The "professor" character in it has a lot in common with a typical Japanese manager (usually without the physical violence however). This after-hours lecture was to become a weekly ritual and the work load was not diminished. Yuya never came home before 10pm after that. The hammer had come down. We were now true salarymen.

Related: Overwork in Japan, and my view of the education system that creates it

Punch #3 Married Couples Spending Time Together? How Dare They.
So here we were in 2014 and for half of 2015, in no good emotional state (Yuya getting the brunt of it before he managed a transfer to a slightly better division), hearing "Oh isn't it great he's got steady employment and already married at his age, you lovebirds must be happy" from all sides, and mostly from our church. No, it's not like that, I wanted to say. It's not material happiness in "beautiful Japan," it's a wasteland. Maybe you see the tiny, shiny gold nuggets but what I see is just that ugly monster No-Face (if you get that reference, let's be friends). We asked for prayers sometimes. But our church has a lot of wealthy people in it, bosses and managers and even presidents of companies, people who've "been there, done that" the whole length of the corporate ladder, and given their youth to their beautiful Japan they love so much. I was shocked to tears in front of everybody when it was decided by vote that Yuya had been chosen as a deacon. Apparently in our denomination, one can't say no to something decided by popular vote. Being a deacon meant long Sunday meetings with Christian salarymen from the end of the church service until evening. "Being young is tough, but he's married and an employee now, it's time he took on more church duties. Isn't that what a pure faith demands? It's God's will." I was extremely angry, actually. They knew our only day off together was Sunday. They knew his workplace was toxic. They asked for our prayer requests but they obviously didn't care a fig about them. They assumed that to be young was to suffer, to suffer was to be made holy, that as a matter of course married couples didn't need to have much time together, that we were interested in being unselfish people who put the needs of the organization over our personal ones. I had always thought church was a safe place and that a shared faith transcended cultural differences, because that's how it had been when we were children (i.e., unemployed students) and between Yuya and me. Now that was shown to be a delusion on my part. In the years since then I've been invited a few times to the Ladies Fellowship. "I don't have time," I'd growl to Yuya, "Even if I did, why would I want to spend it exchanging pleasantries about what a good woman Ruth was, after what they've done? They don't even like their husbands. We have nothing in common." My own sin is I haven't yet figured out what forgiving our church looks like. It will definitely not entail going along with their salaryman family value system. It probably means I should swallow my hurt and pride and spend a bit more time with them, listening to them. 
Recently, I was "head-hunted" and invited for an interview with an executive trying a new business venture. I explained I wasn't seeking new employment but I'd consider it if the conditions were better for me than my current employer, and that most full-time English teaching jobs require work on Saturdays but that left only one day off with my husband, so ideally I need a job with Saturdays off. The exec and her cronies burst into squeals. "Aww, lovebirds!" "How sweet!" "Newlyweds? How long have you been married?" When I said, "Three years," the room went silent. Shrinking ice cubes tinkled in lipstick-stained glasses. "Well dear, you'll find out life isn't like that. The only thing you should care about is if your husband is healthy and employed!" The cronies laughed uproariously, but I couldn't find anything funny about her comment. Apparently any lovebirding beyond the first year is socially unacceptable.

Related: How I experience Collectivism in Japan

Punch #4 We're Not Alone
Our Japanese friends from college days started working and getting married around the same time we did. Just like us, they started dropping like flies, running into similar and even worse problems in their churches and workplaces. I'd thought Yuya had just gotten stuck with a really rotten (but rare) psychopath boss, but more and more it looked like his methods were being employed in varying degrees across all industries and work environments. Turns out, it's joshiki to "train" new blank-slate employees with what would probably be labelled harassment, hazing, and bullying in America. Our female friends experienced rampant sexual harassment and sexist discrimination as well. One friend was hospitalized for extreme work-related stress. Another frequently got tears in his eyes when we asked about his job. The younger generation is changing, however. Most have quit at least once, some have started their own businesses or joined NPOs. One shocked his company by reporting a supervisor who "jokingly" waved a box-cutter at him (no one had ever bothered considering such a thing criminal before), resulting in the supervisor getting fired, also rare in Japan. The bottom of the totem pole is getting fed up. 
Since dating and getting married, we've met and come into contact with many couples like us: foreign wife, Japanese husband, living in husband's country Japan. One day I mentioned to Yuya, "Come to think of it, not one of the international couples we know is doing the salaryman thing here, except us!" It was a lightbulb-floating-over-our-heads moment. 

Punch #5 "I Had to Work with a Bunch of Foreigners!" "お疲れ!”
As much as I try to be normal and respect the Japanese way of doing things here, my very different value system means I'm often blind to expectations of me, or simply unwilling to fulfill them (not a legitimate excuse here at all). I will never attain native-level Japanese language and communication skills. My non-Japanese body is in itself a disqualification from true membership in society. It's not like in America, where foreigners are praised for becoming American and integrating into society. It's expected here that foreigners are different and "not one of us," nor can they ever be. I am made to think my own company considers me a nuisance that must be borne to make a profit, since one can't really compete among English schools without a foreign face. One of my students is working for a company that in cooperation with an NPO has hired some adults with various disabilities. She often complains about how hard it is to communicate with them, how frustrating they can be, how very lacking in joshiki and the most basic skills. "They sound like foreigners in a Japanese company," I thought to myself, shocked at both the offensiveness of the thought and also the implications of it I could see played out in the society around me.* The words of an activist for universal rights made me think long and hard: "Disabilities are not in people, but in the environment." What if, for example, there was a society made exclusively for and by people in wheelchairs? Or one for blind people? Those of us considered "able" now would be at a disadvantage there. Another lightbulb was flickering on. 
*note: I don't mean to compare foreigners in Japan or myself to people with disabilities. I don't have any at the moment, and I'm aware my status both as foreigner and as abled grants me many privileges from society. 

Conclusion: Maybe We Don't Have to Be Stuck
Our American friends are shocked to hear these things and say, "If you don't like it so much, why don't you move/quit/leave? It's your life, you can live it your way and do your own thing," unaware of how that concept just doesn't exist in Japan and how hard it is to actually do, once entangled in various webs of obligation and expectations that come with being a member here. But we are realizing, since I'm not Japanese, we are forgiven much. The crushing burden of duty and joshiki that irks Yuya so much, he already cast aside long ago in choosing to become Christian (a foreign religion) and marrying me (a foreign wife). Maybe we don't need to keep trying to force square pegs into round holes and keep doing what everyone else is doing. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" --maybe, the hand holding the hammer was of our own creation-- "but the nail that sticks up too much is left alone." We have to stop kidding ourselves and realize we started off abnormal here, and if our plans and dreams for the future work out, we are tumbling toward entropy, at least as far as "normal" is concerned. If we succeed, our sweet revenge on common sense will be less sweet because "Oh well foreigners and the Japanese weird enough to marry them are always doing wacky stuff" will be the excuse made for us. But on the other hand if that's the case, why in the world are we not doing the wacky stuff, like married date nights, starting our own business, or living in a third country, or adopting? That escalated quickly, I know. But maybe, the wacky is closer to our true joshiki, which in the end for us as Christians must be in submission to Christ, not to the cult of the American Dream or of Japan the Beautiful Country, or even of Millennials Changing the World. I'm getting tired of feeling stuck, anyway. Time for some new 常識。