I Entertain at a Teahouse-Folk Dances-The Sense of Form-The Organization of Society-Jitsuko Helps me Give a Party-Pretty Kokinoyou-Geisha Games-Rivalries of Geisha-The Cherry Dance at Kyoto-Theatre Settings- Unmercenary Geisha-Teahouse Romances-Restaurants, Cheap and Costly-Reflections on ReformTHE way to see geisha and maiko to the best advantage is at small parties where the guests are well acquainted and formality can be to some extent cast off. I was much pleased when I learned enough of the ways of teahouses and geisha to be able to give such a party.
"'Tis pleasing to be schooled in a strange tongue By foreign lips and eyes. . ."-Byron
My first essay as host at a Japanese dinner was not, however, entirely independent, since I had the help of a Japanese friend. It occurred at the charming Maruya teahouse, in the ancient town of Nara.
It was at the Maruya that I first began to feel some real understanding and appreciation of geisha dancing, and I think the thing that assisted me most was the fact that the little maiko executed several Japanese folk dances, the action of which, unlike that of most geisha dances, was to a large extent self-explanatory. One of these dances represented clam-digging. In it the dancers held small trays which in pantomine they used as shovels, going through the motion of digging the clams out of the sand and throwing them into a basket. The dance was accompanied by a song, as was also another folk dance in which two of the maiko enacted the rôles of lovers who were obliged to part because the mother of the girl was forcing her to marry a rich man. I was interested to notice in this dance that the gesture to indicate weeping-the holding of one hand in front of the eyes at a distance of two or three inches from them-is not taken from life, but is copied from the gesture of dolls in the marionette theatre. That is the gesture for a man. When a woman weeps she holds her sleeve-tab before her eyes, for it is a tradition that women dry their tears with their sleeves. When in Japanese poetry moist sleeves are spoken of, the figure of speech signifies that a woman has been weeping.
The girls who executed the last-mentioned folk dance were respectively thirteen and fifteen years old, and they were evidently much amused by the passionate utterances they were obliged to deliver. The one who played the part of the youth-a fetching little creature with a roguish face-was unable at times to restrain her mirth as she recited the tragic and romantic lines, and her rendition of them was punctuated by little explosions of giggling, which though they cannot be said to have heightened the dramatic effect of the sad story, her audience found most contagious. Then with a great effort she would pull herself together and try to live down the mirthful outburst, lowering her voice, to imitate that of a man, and assuming a tragic demeanor which, in a creature so sweet and childish, habited in silken robes that made her like a butterfly, was even more amusing.
People who follow the arts, or have a feeling for them, seldom fail to appreciate geisha dancing after they have seen enough of it to get an understanding of what it is. This, I think, is because they generally have a sense of form, and as geisha dancing is a sort of animated tableau vivant, a sense of form is the one thing most essential to an appreciation of it.
Indeed I will go further and proclaim my belief that, to a visitor who would really understand Japan, a sense of form is a vital necessity.
Japan is all form. In Japanese art even colour takes second place. Nor does the Japanese feeling for form by any means stop where art ends. It permeates the entire fabric of Japanese life. The formal courtesy of old French society was as nothing to the formal courtesy of the Japanese. The whole life of the average Japanese is so regulated by form that his existence seems to progress according to a sort of geometrical pattern. The very nation itself is organized in such a way as to suggest a compact artistic composition. Not only every class, but every family and individual has an exact place in the structure. A friend of mine who knows Japan as but few foreigners do, goes so far as to say that the shades of difference between individuals are so finely drawn that no two persons in Japan are of exactly the same social rank, and that the precise position of every man in the country can be established according to the codes of Japanese formalism. Though this may be an exaggeration it expresses what I believe to be essentially a truth. I visualize the social and political structure of Japan as a great pyramid in which the blocks are families. At the bottom are the submerged classes-among them, down in the mud of the foundation, the eta or pariah class. Then come layers of families representing the voteless masses, among which the merchant class was in feudal times considered the lowest. Next come the little taxpayers who vote, and these pile up and up to the place where the more exalted classes are superimposed upon them -for in Japan it may be said that there is practically no middle class. I am told that there are now about a million families who are descended from samurai. This is where the aristocracy begins. So the pyramid ascends. Layers of' lower officials; layers of higher officials, layers of ex-officials, high and low; layers of those having decorations from the Government; layers of army and navy families, and so on to where, very near the summit, are placed the Genro, or elder statesmen. Above them is a massive block representing the Imperial Family, and at the very peak, is the Emperor, Head of all Heads of Families.
My party in Nara having given me confidence, I gave a luncheon at the delightful Kanetanaka teahouse which overlooks a canal in the Kyobashi district of Tokyo.
I cannot claim much credit for the fact that this party was a success, since Jitsuko, the English speaking geisha I met at my first Japanese luncheon, was there to help me. Jitsuko's English, I must own, was not perfect. Nor would I have had it so, for I enjoyed teaching her, and learning from her.
"Naughty boy!" was one expression that I taught her, and I showed her how to accompany the phrase with an admonitory shake of the finger, with results which altogether charmed the American gentlemen at my luncheon.
One of these gentlemen, a new arrival in Japan and consequently entirely unfamiliar with Japanese fare, asked Jitsuko about a certain dish that was set before him.
"What is this?" he demanded, looking at it doubtfully.
"That fried ears," said Jitsuko.
"Fried ears!" he cried. "Not really?"
But it was not fried ears. Jitsuko had the usual trouble with her l's and r's. She had meant to say "fried eels."
Besides Jitsuko I had at my luncheon six of the lovely little maiko. One of them, an intelligent child called Shinobu-"tip-toes"-was picking up a little English. She sent for ink and a brush and wrote out for me the names of her companions. Later I had the names translated, getting the meaning of them in English-for geisha generally take fanciful names. They were: Kokinoyou-"little alligator"; Akika-"scent of autumn"; Komon- "little gate"; Shintama-"new ball"; and Kimichiyo, whose name was not translated for me, but who was the prettiest little dancing girl I saw in all Japan.
Though the Japanese idea of female loveliness does not generally accord with ours, I think Kimichiyo was an exception and was as lovely in native eyes as in those of an American, for she seemed very popular, and was at almost every Japanese-style party I attended in Tokyo. Moreover, though she could not have been older than sixteen, she carried herself with the placid confidence of an established belle. I have met many a lady twice or three times her age who had not her aplomb.
After luncheon the maiko dance for us while Jitsuko and another geisha played. Then, as my guest of honour had not yet acquired a taste for geisha dancing, the programme was changed and Jitsuko set the little maiko to playing games. First they showed us how to play their great game of ken, but though we learned it we could not compete with them in playing it. They were too quick for us. We pitched quoits with them-and were beaten. We played bottle-and-cup-and were beaten. And finally they introduced us to a Japanese version of "Going to Jerusalem," which they play with cushions instead of chairs, with the samisen for music. Of course they beat us at that. Who can sink down upon a cushion with the agility of a little Japanese girl? All in all, the Americans were beaten at every point-and thoroughly enjoyed the beating.
I could tell a story about the president of one of the greatest corporations in America. He was at my luncheon. He is a very dignified and formidable man, and is considered able. But he can't play ken worth a cent. Kimi-chiyo herself said so. She told Jitsuko and Jitsuko told me.
"In America he is a great man," I said.
"He is very slow at ken," Kimi-chiyo insisted, unimpressed.
"In business he is not slow," I told her.
"Perhaps. But any one who is really clever will be quick at ken."
I decided to avoid the game of ken in future. It shows one up.
Between the geisha of the various great cities there exists a gentle rivalry. Kyoto, for example, concedes a certain vivacity to the geisha of the five or six leading districts of Tokyo, but it insists that the Kyoto geisha have unrivalled complexions, and that the famous Gion geisha of Kyoto are more perfect in their grace and charm than any others in Japan. This they account for by the fact that the Gion geisha have a long and distinguished history, and that there is a geisha school in Kyoto, whereas the Tokyo geisha have no school but are trained by older geisha under the supervision of the master of the individual geisha-house to which they are attached. Similarly the Tokyo geisha consider those of Kyoto rather "slow," and regard the Yokohama geisha as distinctly inferior. Once I asked a Tokyo geisha to give a dance of which I had heard, but she replied with something like a shrug that the dance in question was given by the Yokohama geisha, wherefore, she and her associates did not perform it.
So far as I know there is not to be seen in Tokyo or Yokohama any large geisha show, resembling a theatrical entertainment, such as one may see in Kyoto in cherry-blossom season, or at the Embujo Theatre in Osaka every May. These exhibitions are delightful things to see, the Cherry Dance of Kyoto, in particular, being famous throughout Japan. The buildings in which they are held are impressive. The one in Kyoto was built especially for the Cherry Dance, and the interior of it, while in a general way like a large theatre, is modelled after the style of an old Japanese palace. The geisha dancers and musicians are splendidly trained and the costumes are magnificent.
Rapid changes of scene are made in these theatres by means unfamiliar to American theatre-goers.
As in our playhouses, flies and drops are sometimes hoisted upward when a scene is being changed, but quite as frequently they sink down through slots in the stage floor. Also, in the dimness of a "dark change" one sees whole settings going through extraordinary contortions, folding up in ways unknown in our theatres, or turning inside-out, or upside-down. One feels that their stage is generally equipped with less perfect mechanical and lighting devices than ours, but that a great deal of ingenuity is shown in the actual building of scenery. One of the most astonishing things I ever saw in any theatre was the sudden disappearance of a back-drop at the Embujo in Osaka. The bottom of this drop began all at once to contract; then the whole funnel-shaped mass shot down through a small aperture in the floor, like a silk handkerchief passing swiftly through a ring.
The most perfect illusion of depth and distance ever saw on a stage was in one scene of the Kyoto Cherry Dance. From the front of the house the scene appeared to go back and back incredibly. Nor could I make out where the back-drop met the stage, so skilfully was the painted picture blended with the built-up scenery. When the performance was over I inspected this setting and found that the scenic artist had achieved his result by a most elaborately complete contraction of the lines of perspective, not only in the painted scenery but in objects on the stage. A row of tables running from the footlights to the rear of the stage had been built in diminishing scale, and rows of Japanese lanterns, apparently exactly alike, became in reality smaller and smaller as they reached back from the proscenium, so that the whole perspective was exaggerated. The stage of this theatre was not in fact so deep as that of the New York Hippodrome or the Century Theatre.
At the geisha dance in Osaka I asked what pay the hundred or more geisha musicians and dancers received, and was told that they are not paid at all. There are two reasons for this. First, it is regarded as the duty of all geisha to celebrate the spring with music and dancing; and second, they consider it an honour to be selected for these festivals, since only the most skilful members of their sisterhood are chosen.
Geisha, you see, are not entirely mercenary. When two or three of them go off for a little outing together, or when they shop, they spend money freely; and there are stories of geisha who pay their own fees in order to meet their impecunious lovers at teahouses.
In Japanese romances the geisha is a favourite figure. A popular theme for stories concerning her is that of her love affair with a student whose family disown him because of his infatuation. The geisha sweetheart then supports him while he completes his education. He graduates brilliantly, securing an important appointment under the government, and rewards the girl's devotion by making her his bride. Or if the story be tragic-and the Japanese have a strong taste for tragedy-the student's family is endeavouring to force him into a brilliant match, wherefore the self-sacrificing geisha, whom he really loves, takes her own life, so that she may not stand in the way of his success.
There was a time a generation or two ago when Japanese aristocrats occasionally took geisha for their wives, much as young English noblemen used to marry chorus girls. But those things have changed in Japan and it is a long time since a man of position has made such a match. The plain truth is that, however justly or unjustly, the geisha class is not respected. They are victims of the curious law which operates the world over to make us always a little bit contemptuous of those whose occupation it is to amuse us. Moreover, geisha are not as a rule highly educated, and it is said that this fact makes it difficult for them to adjust themselves to an elevated place in the social scale.
Thus it comes about that, when geisha marry, their husbands are as a rule business men or merchants on a modest scale.
Yuki our treasured maid, had a friend who became a geisha, but who retired from the profession through the matrimonial portal.
"She smart girl," said Yuki. "She too head to be geisha."
"Why did she become one, then?" I asked.
"Her family have great trouble. Her father need fifteen hundred yen right off. Must have. So she be geisha. But after while she meet rich man in teahouse, and he pay for her, so she don't have to be geisha any more, and they get married."
Some excellent people I met in Japan-Americans imbued with the spirit of reform-objected strongly to the geisha system, contending that it is a barrier to happy domesticity. They felt that so long as there are geisha in Japan the average Japanese husband will have them at his parties, and will continue his present practice of leaving his wife at home when he goes out for a good time. I suppose this is true. Undoubtedly, to the Japanese wife, the geisha is the "other woman." And as is so often the case with the "other woman," in whatever land you find her, the geisha has certain strategic advantages over the wife. Like good wives everywhere, the Japanese wife is concerned with humdrum things-the children, housekeeping, the family finances-the things which often irritate and bore a husband if harped upon. But the circumstances in which a husband meets a geisha are genial and gay. Her business is to make him forget his cares and enjoy himself.
The expense of the geisha system is also urged against it. To dine at a first-class teahouse, with geisha, costs as much as, or more than, to dine elaborately at the most expensive New York hotels. It is well for strangers in Japan to understand this, since they often jump to the conclusion that the Japanese teahouse, which looks so simple-so delightfully simple!-by comparison with the gold and marble grandeur of a great American hotel dining room, must necessarily be cheaper. I remember a case in which some Americans, newly arrived in Tokyo, were entertained in the native manner by a Japanese gentleman, and felt that they were returning the courtesy in royal style when they invited him to dine with them at their hotel. Yet in point of fact their hotel dinner-party cost less than half as much per plate as his Japanese dinner had cost. While one does not value courtesy by what it costs, it is important not to undervalue it on any basis whatsoever.
There is, of course, a great variation in the cost of meals in teahouses and restaurants, and the fact that those which are inexpensive look exactly like those which are expensive helps to confuse the stranger. A great deal may be saved if one does without geisha. Also there are very agreeable restaurants in which the guest may cook his own food in a pan over a brazier which is brought into the dining room.
This chafing-fish style of cooking is said to have been introduced by a missionary who became tired of Japanese food and formed the habit of preparing his own meals as he travelled about. Now, however, it has come to be considered typically Japanese.
There are two names for cooking in this simple fashion. The word torinabe is derived from tori, a bird, and nabe, a pot or kettle; and gyunabe from a combination of the word for a pot with gyu, which means a cow, or beef. The Suyehiro restaurants, having three branches in Tokyo, are famous for torinabe, as well as for an affectation of elegant simplicity and crudity in chinaware. A good place for the gyunabe is the Mikawaya restaurant in the Yotsuya section, not far from the palace of the Crown Prince.
To be more specific about prices, I gave an excellent luncheon of this kind for four, at one of the Suyehiro restaurants, at a cost of about four dollars and a half, whereas a luncheon for the same number of persons, with geisha, at a fashionable teahouse, which looked just about like the other restaurant, cost thirty dollars, and a dinner for eight with geisha, came to fifty-three. All tips are however included on the teahouse bill. One does not pay at the time, but receives the bill later, regular patrons of a teahouse usually settling their accounts quarterly.
Adversaries of the geisha system informed me with the air of imparting scandal, that one sixth of all the money spent in Japan goes to geisha and things connected with geisha, presumably meaning restaurants, teahouses, saké and the like.
"A reformer," says Don Marquis, the Sage of Nassau Street, "is a dog in the manger who won't sin himself and won't let any one else sin comfortably." That is a terrible thing to say. I wouldn't say such a thing. It is always better in such cases to quote some one else. But I will say this much: If I were a reformer I should begin work at home- not in Japan. I should join the great movement, already so well started, for making the United States the purest and dullest country in the world. I should work with those who are attempting to accomplish this result entirely by legislation. But instead of trying, as they are now trying, to bring about the desired end by means of quantities of little pious laws covering quantities of little impious subjects, I should work for a blanket law covering everything-one great, sweeping law requiring all American citizens to be absolutely pure and good, not only in action but in thought. I assume that, if such a law were passed, everybody would abide by it, but in order to make it easier for them to do so I should abolish restaurants, theatres, motion pictures, dancing, baseball, talking-machines, art, literature, tobacco, candy, and soda-water. I should put dictographs in every home and have the police listen in on all conversations. Light-heartedness I should make a misdemeanor, and frivolity a crime.
Then, when our whole country had reached a state of perfection that was absolutely morbid, I should consider my work here done, and should move to Japan. But I should not stop being a reformer. Assuredly no! I should start at once to improve things over there. Take for instance this report that one sixth of all the money spent goes to geisha and such things. I should try first of all to remedy that situation. One sixth of the national expenditure represents a vast amount of money. Think of its being spent on good times! Such a lot of money! Still it isn't quite enough. A quarter or a third would be better than a sixth. It would make things perfect. Not being a Japanese wife, I should advocate that.
I see but one serious objection to this plan. Should Japan become any more attractive than it now is, the Japanese might feel forced to pass exclusion laws. If they were to do so I hope they would not discriminate against people of any one race. I hope they would bar out everybody-not Americans alone. Because if they were to bar us out and at the same time allow the riffraff of Europe to come in, that might hurt our feelings. It isn't so hard to hurt our feelings, either. We are a proud and sensitive race, you know. Yes, indeed! It is largely because we are so proud and sensitive that we treat the Japanese with such scant courtesy. That's the way pride and sensitiveness sometimes work. Of course the Japanese are proud and sensitive, too. But we can't be bothered about that. We haven't the time. We are too busy being proud and sensitive ourselves.