Think twice before you decide to be a geisha for Halloween

Photo by Darien Funk

She’s in a V-neck kimono with shot glasses attached to her belt, holding a fan with Chinese letters. She’s the model for “Smiffy’s Vodka Geisha costume”, sold at Amazon, eBay and other retailers. 

For a more conservative look, there’s Fashion Nova’s geisha costume, or Escapade’s “Playboy Geisha costume” — if pink bunnies and rhinestones are what you prefer on your kimono. 

These are well-known retailers capitalizing on the desire to dress up as members of a seemingly exotic culture for Halloween. Geisha is one of the most popular choices and it can be accompanied by yellowface

In recent years, geisha costumes have sparked controversy for cultural appropriation: Defined as “using elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn’t respect their original meaning or reinforces stereotypes”. 

Does it matter? 

Those against cultural appropriation will often say it promotes an inaccurate view. Smiffy’s Vodka Geisha costume, for instance, is a far cry from what actual geishas in Japan look like. 

Others believe cultures should be shared and celebrated. When it comes to geisha Halloween costumes, I find there’s not much celebration of Japanese culture occurring as there is sexualization and misinformation. 

In Western society, geishas are often seen as a type of exotic prostitute. If anything, the costumes celebrate a Westernized view of Japanese culture.

So what is a geisha really? 

Let’s cut to the chase — geishas are not sex workers. 

They attend to guests at teahouses and ryōutei; high-end restaurants in Japan. In addition, they perform classical arts such as dance and music. Both of which they have received years of training in.

They demonstrate omotenashi; visible and invisible hospitality in Japanese culture. 

Why are geishas sexualized? 

The perception of geishas as sex workers can be credited in part to American writer Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, which became a best-seller despite its many inaccuracies. Mineko Iwasaki, the real-life geisha who the novel is largely based on, even sued Golden for defamation. 

The novel stresses mizuage; a ritual where a girl loses her virginity to become a geisha. It’s a ritual that was widely discouraged in geisha communities and limited to a rite of passage in the few where it was practiced. It became banned in 1958. 

Another major reason geishas are seen as sex workers came from actual sex workers. Post World War II amid the influx of American soldiers in Japan, some women in the sex industry pretended to be geishas to seduce Western men- and wore costumes to boot. 

This created misunderstandings such as “Geesha girls,” an American mispronounced term for Japanese sex workers and nightclub hostesses. The majority of these women  are not geishas. 

What’s the history?

From 1603 to 1886, geishas were assistants to the oiran; high-class Japanese courtesans in major cities like Kyoto and modern-day Tokyo. They weren’t allowed to sit near guests, since the oiran were worried about losing customers. 

Even so, geishas eventually replaced oiran as the life of the party. There were well around 80,000 geishas in 1920s Japan when they were key to hospitality and entertainment — especially at government and large company dinner events. 

Their popularity dwindled with the onset of World War II. Today, there are around 1,000 geishas in Japan. 

Of course, we wouldn’t know any of that if we saw a girl in yellowface wearing Escapade’s “Playboy Geisha costume”. 

What now? 

There are so many Halloween costumes that don’t rely on stereotypical portrayals of Japanese culture to be sexy. I’m all for wearing a low-cut top and fishnet stockings to dress as a robber, a can of White Claw, or any of the other possibilities for college students. Just please leave our cultures out of it.

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