In Siem Reap there’s a magical little restaurant where the ferns part and the lanterns sway in the tropical breezes. At night, the lights go on and the place twinkles charm. It’s called Madame Butterfly.
I’m not sure when it happened, but through the years the story of Madame Butterfly has become embellished and turned into a Mikado-esque fanfare. If you google “Madame Butterfly”, “Madame Butterfly Geisha” pops up. These two subjects have merged, and in many people’s minds are the same.
Both subjects offer plenty of mystique, glamor and pique our interest in the exotic. I believe it’s a result of this misunderstanding that the two are so often confused. I know. Opera is dramatic. It’s supposed to be. I get that. Puccini’s is one of the most beautiful ever written. Despite the superiority of the score, the opera is still a sentimental favorite, due to the potent mix of tragic love and gorgeous sets; parasols swaying, silk rippling and falling blossoms, all the trappings we’ve come to expect. Those who have attended a performance, or read the backstory know Cho-Cho-san and her horrible ending.
We feel her love for Pinkerton and we go with her on her naïve journey, as she waits, ever faithful, scanning the horizon line for him to return. Touching and poignant. If you’ve done you’re homework, or poked around my blog you’d know the story is largely made up, a myth the Nagasaki Tourist Board shamelessly exploits. It’s based on scant historical evidence. An old photograph and a kimono. The book, Madame Butterfly was published in 1903 by an American lawyer who was influenced by Loti’s famous Madame Chrysanthemum. Are you following me? Because here come’s the geisha connection.
It seems Loti’s story too chronicles a naval officer married to a Nagasaki geisha. Bingo. The novel was so influential in it’s day that it shaped western views of Japan. Or, more precisely of kimonoed Japanese women sitting around all day, emoting for officer lovers. But it did little to promote the truth about the real geisha as artist who studied her craft from an early age. In other words, a story that had no real basis in truth-the Glover House-the photograph of one of his many women wearing butterflies-and a novel became the image we see today; Madame Butterfly the Geisha.
Of course, this is largely due to ignorance and perpetuation of early 20th Century stereotypes of Asian woman as exotic sexual object. To be fair, some includes admiration for La Japonaise style, a craze for everything Japanese, albeit through western filtering at the time.
The geisha and the woman purported to be Madame Butterfly, if she existed at all, are not remotely connected. Period. But through the magic of cinema, novelists and dreamers they will likely be intermingled for a long time to come. And, I guess that’s not such a bad thing as long as people have the opportunity to learn the history and appreciate the craft of the geisha without being confused or sidelined by stereotypes and misinformation. One of the problems is that the geisha community itself, shrinking every decade is closed and guards it’s secrets well. I wonder how they feel about Madame Butterfly, and whether they are annoyed by the morphing of a fictional character into their realm?
It’s still a darn good story that refuses to go away and that’s okay by me.
The kago drops the daimyo off to the House of Great Muirya-a prestigious brothel where the lawns are manicured into impossibly, charming little gardens and cedar floors lead into a labyrinth of assignation tunnels.
This is not the daimyo’s first time or his second. He’s paid a bundle in ryo just to negotiate a meeting with the high class courtesan. He hasn’t been accepted. She’s late. She didn’t even show up the last time the meeting was requested. He’s donned the inevitable straw hat disguise, so no one knows he’s moving about such an infamous place.
The hat is of course a joke. Many samurai wear the same disguise but it seems a ritual that is tried and true in the Yoshiwara. He’ll give up his daishi and sword at the door before he enters the brothel. They don’t want any trouble, and besides everyone knows he’s here. His name is posted outside. If she accepts him, the room will be sumptuous. He can think of little else. He hasn’t seen her. There’s been drinking games, endless sake, geisha entertaining and he’s getting poorer each time but that’s the brothel’s idea. Make him wait. Spend his money. It’s been months and he’s a man of position and power. But still the courtesan refuses him. He’s determined all the more to have her, at least till his ryo runs out.
Yabo jingles kobans in his sash. He’s saved a lifetime all for this moment. He has enough for a meeting at the tea house to request a night with the famous courtesan. He wonders if his countrified airs will count against him. He jingles kobans again. He’s not handsome and the courtesan may well turn up her nose. Money will pay for anything, even a night with the girl of his dreams.
The shoji slides and she floats into the room, with a trail of silk and jasmine flowing behind her. The yabo and the daimyo look at each other. Who will she choose?
The woodblock was a Chinese import Japan took to her heart. The art existed before moveable type, but arrived late to the island nation. Ukiyo-e artists of the so called floating world flourished during the 17th Century and beyond. The floating world refers to the dominant culture in Edo celebrating beautiful women of the Yoshiwara, kabuki actors, history, and natural landscape.
The most famous artists, Utamaro, Hokusai, Harunobu and Hiroshige created a stir by publishing series dedicated to the most famous courtesans of the day. Tamigeko. Takao. Katsuyama. All sat for woodblock masters and became household names.
There was no better buzz or copy than to sit with a Ukiyo-e master. If a girl was really famous, the woodblocks created a stampede in front of the printer’s store, with no time for ink to dry. They were revered and treasured by men who dreamed of a night with the famous Takao. A sort of Edo Tigerbeat Magazine.
Rivals dared each other to sell out woodblocks faster, the winner declared the most desirable of her day. The brothels loved this free publicity because it drove up the prices of the girls. The woodblocks became collectors items and courtesans rose in the ranks on the strength of her sales alone. It was whispered that a woman who could sell out all her woodblocks, in record time, must be special indeed.
Kabuki actors were also popular topics of woodblocks. They often depicted courtesans themselves in their performances because it was forbidden for a woman to perform kabuki. It was often difficult to tell kabuki actors depicted as courtesans in woodblocks. Can you tell the difference?
A popular form of erotic woodblocks, shunga was enjoyed by men and women during the Edo period. Hokusai published many erotic woodblocks, and the artists supported themselves supplementing their income. Everyone had their stash. It was cheap, widely available and catered to the masses.
“… living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.” Asai Ryoi
Japanese Courtesans 101
So now you know that the geisha is not the same as the historical courtesan who ruled the Pleasure Quarters over three hundred years ago, and the geisha was a little opportunist who slid into the vacuum created by the decline of the courtesan. You’re interested in the Flower and Willow world of the Edo period. Great. Don your kimono and geta but don’t don’t call a Tayu an Oiran. Here’s why.
In Cecile Segawa Seigle’s definitive book, Yoshiwara, she makes the case that early prostitutes of Edo’s red light district Yoshiwara, were daughters of displaced daimyo and high-ranking samurai who were disgraced and fell on hard times, dismissed as ronin, masterless. In other words, these women already possessed some of the skills necessary to become a high-class courtesan; grace, extraordinary manners, refinement, classical training in the arts, calligraphy, and if they were lucky, pleasing beauty. Many brothels rose up in the shrewd hands of wily ronin who carved out alternative livings as brothel owners or scouts for potential new blood.
In the beginning there was the yujo, or sex worker with no distinction, other than the anecdotal evidence that the prostitute was easily recognizable by her sash or obi which was tied in the front.
With the later modern period, the brothels began to be licensed as a way to control what the government could not stop and had very little will to do so. It should be understood that Japan had no shame or condemnation of sexual relationships outside of marriage. A wealthy man was encouraged to take a mistress, and visit his courtesan, if he could afford it. Prostitutes, like kabuki and other fringe elements of society were looked down upon as low cast, yet that didn’t stop the men from visiting or the artists from singing their praises. They came in droves and soon a subtle caste system began to rise within the brothels and tea houses themselves.
The more money a man could pay, the higher ranking beauty he might obtain.
The ranking system was well underway by the 1700’s. It worked like this. A girl might grow up in a brothel, she might show great promise, work as a kamaru, child-helper to a high-ranking courtesan, carry her tobacco box and wait on her while the courtesan entertained her clients, hope to find a sponsorship, an Onee-chan or Big Sister as she climbed the ranks to teenage apprentice, or shinzo. But she might be pretty, she might be smart that doesn’t necessarily mean she had that special something, the X Factor, to become a Tayu. Sometimes your little sister could grow to become your greatest rival.
Cream Rises to the top
The Tayu was the top courtesan of her day, a precursor to the famous Oiran. She was a woman of singular grace, beauty and charm, a woman so sought after, if she played her cards right, she had her pick of any man, and could turn down anyone not to her liking. Of course, the unwritten rule, that new Tayu, very indebted Tayu, didn’t turn anyone down..in the beginning until she built some political clout in the brothel. This could take years. Time and tide were a courtesan’s worst enemy. It was a race to beat the clock before time took away her greatest assets, and only the most beautiful and sought after could hope to attain the prize; to be bought out of one’s contract by a wealthy benefactor.
The Tayu dressed beautifully, in layers of billowing, rare kimono of exquisite weave, though less ostentatious than the Oiran, with less kanzashi hair sticks and the trappings we associate with the over-the-top Japanese Courtesan.
The Tayu like the Oiran, walked in a grand procession down Nakanocho Boulevard in her impossibly high shoes. So high, she needed the assistance of men workers at the brothel, wakamono. When she wasn’t sleeping till ten, or entertaining clients, she walked barefoot-with a pale pink wash over her feet. The foot was erotic, but the bare feet was to show a courtesan’s toughness and fortitude.
“Those who walk barefoot in life hold their pain inwards and withstand much.” JM Ledwell
The Oiran-Something old is new
By 1750 things were shifting. The Yoshiwara was a bastion as well as a den of iniquity, often called the Nightless City, it thrived, despite several run ins with reactionary councilmen and near fatal fires. The Oiran, etered the stage. The sumptiary laws were written during the Kansei Era by a man named Matsudaira who wanted to stamp out what he saw as dangerous displays of silk by the lower order of society. People loved the courtesans, they came watch the processions, or Dochu and artists like Utagawa and Utemaru only served to spread their popularity. The most famous courtesans, like Tamigiku and Takao sold out in hours. Efforts to proscribe what was seen as ostentatious dressing, even certain colors, gold threads and certain silks were never successful for long. As a result of these waxes and wanes in the laws, the Oiran was poised to take the center stage.
Dochus became ever longer, shoes became taller, and courtesans hair-gigantic knotted wigs stuffed with kanzashi– became the Oiran’s stock and trade. The obi, tied in front for tradition to showcase her very availability, seemed to cascade like a mountain to the knees.
There are a few ladies today in Tokyo who are keeping the Tayu tradition alive. If you go to Kyoto, and know where to look, you may just see a living, breathing artifact from he past.
Today, the Oiran’s popularity show’s no sign of stopping. She’s frequently the topic of manga and anime. One of my favorite movies, Sakuran, stars the lovely Anna Tsuchiya who plays Kiyoha, a kamaru sold to a brothel as a child only to work her way up and find heartbreak in love, where she only wants to see if the cherry blossoms bloom the same outside her prison walls. Fantastic costumes. Fantastic soundtrack, the whole package.
If you are interested in Tayu and Oiran, you must see this movie. If you’ve seen Sakuran, let me know what you think.
This is the trailer. The opening song, Gamble fits the film in so many ways, Enjoy, peeps!