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Posts Tagged ‘Yoshiwara’

As my more regular readers known, last year (Spring 2011), I was immensely fortunate to get to take part in a kabuki production here at the University of Hawaii. I played the taikomochi, and also got to serve as dramaturg for the show.

Having never heard the term before, as soon as I found out I was playing a taikomochi, I did a little research, and wrote a blog post explaining my findings. In summary, a taikomochi was the guy at the teahouse who helped facilitate things, helping to make arrangements/appointments, communicating between restaurants (venues) and the teahouses, between clients and courtesans, and sometimes sitting with a party and helping make small-talk, or playing the fool to help provide entertainment.

But I had no idea that the term was still used today, outside of traditional contexts (geisha houses, kabuki), as a regular everyday word. Apparently, it is used today to mean someone who is really good at buttering people up, always knowing the right thing to say to make someone else feel good about themselves. I think the connection to the teahouse context is obvious. A large part of the taikomochi’s job in the teahouse was to make everything go smoothly for the client, to make sure he had a good time, whether that means making sure that arrangements/appointments go smoothly, or making sure that conversation flows nicely at the party.

Wow. My big thanks to my friend Yasu, for happening by chance to bring up this word in conversation, and for explaining it.

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So, I’ve been cast as a taikomochi for the spring’s kabuki performance. But what is a taikomochi? No, it has nothing to do with Bubbie’s icecream-filled balls of pounded rice (mochi, 餅).

I figured it must be written as 太鼓持、taiko (太鼓) being a drum, and mochi (持ち) meaning “to carry.”

Right: A tsutsumi, or taiko, drum like that which a taikomochi would have played, though he would have also played shamisen and presumably other instruments as well.

c. 1925, by lacquer artists Kamisaka Sekka and Kamisaka Yûkichi; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2005.194.

Right: The wrong kind of mochi. We’re not talking pounded rice, here.

So, a drum-carrier. But what does that mean? Am I part of the hayashi, the orchestra? Judging from the context within the play, I could be a member of the retinue of the merchants and/or samurai who have rented out the back room of the teahouse for their party. But what would a samurai or merchant need of a drum-carrier? This isn’t the Union Army, that we should be talking about drummer boys.

Wikipedia identifies taikomochi as male geisha, before going into deeper detail. Okay, that makes more sense. A geisha (芸者) is a person (者) of the performing arts (芸); a “drum carrier,” too, would be a musician, an entertainer. That makes sense; I like that. So, I guess my character works for the teahouse, as a geisha would, providing entertainment, but not (necessarily) sleeping with the clients.

Let’s see what Cecelia Segawa Seigle, reigning expert on the Yoshiwara has to say on the subject.

One explanation for the origin of the term is said to derive from the time of Oda Nobunaga. The drummer Yozaemon, in service to Nobunaga, it is said, was “jealous of talented pupils, so he favored the untalented sycophant Idayû who was good [merely/primarily] at holding the drum;” Idayû thus came to be called taikomochi.1

I like the other story she provides better. In Buddhist processions, the drum would traditionally follow the bell. Since kanemochi (鐘持), or “bell-carrier,” is a homonym for kanemochi (金持) meaning “someone with a lot of money,” it’s a sort of ironic or sarcastic jab at the entertainer (the taikomochi) who follows around the wealthy client.1

Things, of course, do not remain constant over the course of the entire Edo period (1603-1868); after all, this is the period that saw the introduction of the shamisen, the rise of the geisha, the shift from male geisha to female geisha, and sooo many other shifts and developments over the course of the period. So, we cannot really generalize that the Yoshiwara (and the taikomochi) within would have operated the same in 1650 as in 1750, as in 1850. But, as our information is limited…

Segawa Seigle writes that in the Genroku period (1688-1704), this is more or less how it would have worked: A client would hire a taikomochi or two to entertain him and his party until the courtesans (who apparently took some time…) were ready.2 Have I mentioned that I have yet to read her book through? I do apologize that my understanding of other matters surrounding this is a bit weak – I’m really just skimming through the book for references to taikomochi and working from that, for now. I do very much hope to read the book eventually – maybe over summer break? – but for now, I apologize if I make any poor assumptions about aspects of how this all worked.

Apparently, though we rarely think of them being there, taikomochi were present throughout the history of the Yoshiwara, and in fact increased in number over the years, even as they lost their position as the chief entertainers to female geishas (and courtesans). They accompanied and entertained clients’ parties with song, dance, shamisen, and comic stories – pretty much the same things female geisha would specialize in. Apparently, at some point, the taikomochi split between musicians and those more skilled at comedy, and the term came to be applied more heavily to the jesters, to those who played the buffoon.3 Not that it necessarily makes a huge difference given my extremely small part, but I think I intend to play a proficient and upright musician rather than a buffoon, if given any choice.

Above: “Party Scene in the Yoshiwara” by Gessai Gabimaru, 1800. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 11.7592.
Could one of these men be a taikomochi? I wonder.

A novel from 1711 provides some tips for success as a taikomochi: To start with, a taikomochi must never upstage the clients, nor the women, but must always be humble; he is one of the lowest in station in the room, and must act like it. He must be sly and witty, but never show himself to be smarter or more knowledgeable than the patron, and must do whatever possible to protect the patron’s dignity and reputation. The taikomochi similarly must also watch out for himself, taking care not to drink more than the patron – or, if the situation allows, not at all. He must be witty in his foolishness, in just such a way as to make the whole situation playful and to make the patron say “what a fool you are!”3

The novel goes on to explain how patrons might sometimes buy a courtesan for the taikomochi, not as a genuine gift to the taikomochi (who, in the story, might prefer to have the money himself rather than having it spent on buying a woman for him), but rather, as an additional entertainer who would therefore be present at the patron’s parties.3

Here’s where it gets interesting. Who are the taikomochi? Where did they come from, and how did they get to become taikomochi? Well, the story for the women geisha and courtesans is a whole story unto itself, but Segawa Seigle writes that many taikomochi were themselves patrons, clients of the Yoshiwara who could not afford to maintain such an expensive lifestyle, and so turned to becoming entertainers. This was a way for men ruined financially by their expensive adventures in the pleasure districts, and now penniless, to still enjoy being a part of the world of the pleasure quarters – and possibly, I suppose, though Segawa Seigle doesn’t say it explicitly, to pay back debts owed. Known as nodaiko (野太鼓), these relatively talentless amateur entertainers would follow a daijin (wealthy patron/client) around, being the butt of his jokes, joking around with shinzô and kamuro (the child servant-apprentices to courtesans), eating, drinking, maybe even getting to bed a shinzô if the patron was willing to pay for it, and otherwise participating in pleasure quarters life as an actual member of that community, albeit a rather low-ranking one with little or no funds to his name. Nodaiko, like geisha or courtesans, also sometimes received garments or other gifts from patrons… Segawa Seigle describes them explicitly as “professional spongers.” Talentless though many of them might have been, they were valued by patrons who desired a larger entourage, and someone to make fun of, slap upside the head, and the like, all in good fun, of course.3

Taiko also sometimes acted as intermediaries, telling a patron when a courtesan was going to be late or couldn’t meet with him at all, and, leaving the patron there in the greeting room (or even in the genkan, I suppose, or even out on the street, perhaps), going deeper into the house to speak with the courtesan to arrange a new appointment on behalf of the patron. In her description of the patron striving to become tsû (that is, to become a real regular in the sense of really knowing his way around the pleasure quarters, being known, knowing all the ins and outs of the social protocol, knowing the girls and the teahouses), Segawa Seigle describes how a man might seek to manufacture an image of even being “too cool.” After finally earning the cred to be granted an appointment with a high-ranking courtesan, he sends two taiko to tell the tayû (the courtesan) that he needs to reschedule; furthermore, they were to then schedule him, intentionally, for a time when the tayû had another patron, thus essentially enforcing his image or position as being more important than that other patron…4 So, anyway, we can see that the taiko often played these kinds of roles as intermediaries. I still remain a little unclear as to whether the taiko belonged to a teahouse as geisha and courtesans did, or if they were more closely associated with a given patron, following him from one teahouse to another.

And, that is just about all that Segawa Seigle has to say about the taikomochi. Seems an intriguing sort of character. Not that I’d necessarily want to be one in real life, of course, penniless, constantly serving as someone else’s lapdog, always on a lower rung than nearly everyone else around – the women, the clients, even the children (read: apprentice geisha/courtesans) – but, as a character, and as a thread in the colorful tapestry of our imagined, romanticized Yoshiwara, I find the taikomochi quite interesting. … Maybe I could play one in an RPG sometime ^_^

A quick cursory Google search would seem to indicate that the tradition of the taikomochi as an entertainer – possibly moreso in the vein of the jester, the comic storyteller – continued until quite recently, or still continues today, judging from the posters and photos that pop up on a Google Image Search.

EDIT: An Update

——
I don’t imagine I’ll have time to read it any time soon, but I have finally obtained myself a copy of Cecilia Segawa Seigle’s book “Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan,” which contains wonderful anecdotes, bringing the pleasure districts to life, and providing greater details on the district than any other source I’ve come across. All footnotes/quotes in this post are from this book.
(1) Segawa Seigle. p256n30.
(2) p66.
(3) pp117-118.
(4) pp132-133.

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I really wish I was in NY and could attend these events. Any NY-based readers out there?

*“Thinking on the way to the Yoshiwara: Poetry and Pictures about the trip to Edo’s Courtesan District”
Professor Timon Screech, SOAS, University of London

The Yoshiwara was Edo’s premier courtesan (or ‘pleasure’) district. It existed for some 200 years, so that thousands of men would have gone. Pictures of the Yoshiwara were very commonly made, and form one of the major themes in art of the Floating World. Yet it is never asked how people actually got to the district, nor have representations of the journey to the Yoshiwara ever been properly investigated. This talk will engage with such material, and will offer the theory the pictures and poetry worked to create a sense of difference and transformation in the traveller incrementally, as the journey unfolded.

The lecture will take place at 6:15-7:15 p.m., April 8, 2010 and will be held in Room 934 Schermerhorn Hall. Given the spatial constraints, attendees are encouraged to arrive by 6 p.m.

I was fortunate to take a course with, and otherwise get to know, Prof. Screech during my time in London. This topic, the poetic or metaphorical symbolism or allegory of elements of the trip to the Yoshiwara, played a prominent role in the course, and while I must admit I do love to hear Tim speak about just about anything, I really do have a particular interest in this topic.

*And the following week:

Soshitsu Sen XV Distinguished Lecture on Japanese Culture

The Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University will host a rare public lecture by the Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura. Mr. Morimura will deliver the annual Soshitsu Sen XV Distinguished Lecture on Japanese Culture at 6:00 p.m., on Wednesday, April 14, 2010, at Columbia’s Miller Theatre. The title of Mr. Morimura’s lecture is “Why I Posed as Yukio Mishima.”

The title of Morimura’s lecture, “Why I Posed as Yukio Mishima,” alludes to a controversial 2006 video work in which the artist took on the persona of Yukio Mishima (1925–1970), the internationally celebrated Japanese novelist. Four decades ago this year, Mishima staged a highly public suicide at the headquarters of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, an unforgettable scene that Morimura imaginatively recreated in his 2006 video.

Morimura is the twenty-second eminent figure to deliver the Soshitsu Sen XV Distinguished Lecture on Japanese Culture. The annual lecture series at Columbia University was established with an endowment from the Urasenke Foundation of Kyoto, Japan. Named in honor of Soshitsu Sen XV, former Grand Master (Iemoto) of the Urasenke School of Tea, the Sen Lectures aim to expand American awareness and understanding of Japanese culture. The series began in 1988 with a lecture by Soshitu Sen XV entitled “The Heart of Tea.” Subsequent lecturers have included the novelists Natsuo Kirino, Taeko Kono, and Ryotaro Shiba, the poets Gary Snyder and Makoto Ooka, the composer Toru Takemitsu, the stage director Tadashi Suzuki, the photographer Fosco Maraini, and the graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo.

Donald Keene Center Prize

Directly prior to Morimura’s lecture on April 14, the Keene Center will award the Fourth Donald Keene Prize for the Promotion of Japanese Culture to Impressions, the journal of the Japanese Art Society of America (www.japaneseartsoc.org). Julia Meech, editor of Impressions, and. Joan D. Baekeland, president of the Japanese Art Society of America, will accept the award at a brief ceremony in Miller Theatre.

For further information, please contact Ms. Kia Cheleen, Assistant Director, Donald Keene Center: kcc2126@columbia.edu

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Anyone who has discussed the topic of geisha and courtesans in Japan has surely come across this issue. Certainly, it’s a question that has been asked of me numerous times by my father, and others with only a passing knowledge of Japanese history. And, until now, I have always defiantly denounced the idea that geisha engage(d) in prostitution.

After all, it was as a product of the Occupation era that Americans came to be familiar with the concept of the ‘geisha girl’ (mispronounced, as it often is today by the average person on the street, as gee-shah, not gay-shah), the whores who populated red-light districts such as Yokohama’s Isezaki-chô, dressed in traditional kimono (as, I suppose, many women still were at that time in their everyday lives) and either purporting to be part of this long tradition, or simply misconstrued by the Americans as connected to real geisha tradition. Granted, all of this connects too to American and European perceptions and encounters in the bakumatsu and Meiji through early (pre-war) Shôwa periods as well, but I would hazard a bet that the Occupation played a very major role in shaping this piece of ‘conventional wisdom’ which still persists today.

Most more informed accounts of the geisha, including even the novel and film “Memoirs of a Geisha”, show the geisha as markedly different from courtesans, i.e. prostitutes. The geisha is not hired to have sex with a client; she is hired to entertain, with music, dance, conversation, and pleasant company more generally. We should see geisha as refined professionals, the gei (芸) in geisha meaning “the arts”, as distinctly contrasted against the prostitutes, or yûjo (遊女, lit. “girl of pleasure”).

This image, to which I have long clung, however, is complicated by the assertion of Cecilia Segawa-Seigle, one of the leading experts on the Yoshiwara, that “As the early Yoshiwara was primarily a place of entertainment and socializing, sex was a discreet and secondary aspect of the business. Indeed, Edward Seidensticker has gone so far as to liken an evening at the Yoshiwara to an afternoon of tea.”1

Courtesans, after all, were not simple low-class, filthy whores. The Yoshiwara and other pleasure districts were the cores of Edo period popular culture, the courtesans trendsetters and fashion symbols. They were expert at conversation and pleasurable company, and I think, at music and dance as well. The Yoshiwara represented its own world of complex etiquette and proper behavior, and the higher-level courtesans reserved the right to refuse a client.

Still, the courtesans were, by definition, in the business of selling their bodies, while geisha were not, at least in theory. Remember “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which emphasized within it that geisha are not prostitutes, but are refined, elegant women, truly professionals of the arts? Remember how upset many people were at the portrayal of the mizuage rite of passage, in which men bid extraordinary amounts of money for the honor of being the one to deflower the main character, Sayuri?

Ukiyo-e expert Gina Collia-Suzuki, in a recent brief but strong blog entry, attacks this notion, asserting that geisha of the Edo period absolutely *did* engage in acts of prostitution, though it should not be confused for being a part of their primary profession.

Collia-Suzuki also claims that Mineko Iwasaki, the geisha whose life, revealed through interviews, was the basis of Arthur Golden’s novel, was essentially lying when she denied that the mizuage ceremony involved the selling of a geisha’s virginity for money. Modern morals and attitudes being what they are, Iwasaki-san would probably have been quite embarrassed and ashamed to admit such a thing, and more importantly, perhaps, she may have had in mind the protection of the reputation and image of the geisha as a whole (i.e. and the geisha still working today).

In the end, while I have the utmost respect for Ms Collia-Suzuki’s expertise, it would seem that this topic remains a controversial one. Though it does seem quite reasonable to think that the geisha of the Edo period, so closely associated with the pleasure quarters as they were, did on occasion, “on the side”, engage in acts of prostitution, I think it should be nevertheless acknowledged and emphasized that this was not a part of their profession, not a part of what it means to be geisha. As for the mizuage, as far as I can tell, the jury is still out on that one; I have heard and read arguments on both sides asserting very strongly that they are the one who is in the right.

In any case, if there is one thing to take away from all of this, I think it is this: As for our preconceptions of the geisha, courtesans, and pleasure districts of the Edo period, as we continue to learn every day, nothing in our world is as simple as conventional wisdom or stereotypes would have it. Courtesans were not simply whores, but were seen as cultured, refined, fashion idols and trendsetters, at the core of Edo period popular culture, experts in entertainments. Geisha, meanwhile, were, and are, experts of traditional music and dance, far more refined and cultured than the stereotype of the geesha girl which seems to have settled in American minds; yet, that is not to say that they never engaged in acts of prostitution on the side.

Thanks much to Gina Collia-Suzuki for bringing up the subject and for her valiant attempts to set the record straight.

—-
1) Segawa Seigle, Cecilia. Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993. p152. citing Edward Seidensticker. Low City, High City. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1983. p18.

Image above a bijinga ukiyo-e woodblock print by Utamaro, portraying a young woman playing shamisen and practicing narrative chanting, or singing. I’m not sure if she is a courtesan (as the elaborate hairpins would seem to imply) or a geisha (as the relatively simple and plain garments would imply), but in any case, I thought this a not half-bad image to represent the fact that beautiful women of the Edo period, whether courtesans or geisha, were experts of the arts, and not simple prostitutes.

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