Fly on the Wall—To The Geishas We Shall Go…Disguised as Japanese Locos?

Fly on the Wall—To The Geishas We Shall Go…Disguised as Japanese Locos?

Kathleen Hanna, of the post-punk dance band Le Tigre, in a song once sang (or, rather, spoke) “we favor the simple expression of the complex thought.  We are for the large shape, because it has the impact of the unequivocal.” To paint with broad strokes, like mapping one’s identity onto this or that spectrum, is how science works.  Individuality and cultural differences must diminish if we are to draw meaningful conclusions.

Take costumed entertainment; its history goes back to ancient times and reached one zenith during the Shakespearean era where every role was played by a man, or a woman disguised as a man who then disguised herself as a woman.  From scantily-clad strippers gyrating with their poles, to elegant ballerinas adorned in swan feathers, clothing and performance are inextricably linked within the theatrical realm of the live show industry.  In Las Vegas, at, for instance, the fabulous Sunset Strip, business is good for all sorts of burlesque dancers and entertainers—even as times changed and cultural assumptions about prostitution’s link to burlesque gave way to Nevada’s legalized brothels.  And in gender, well, drag queens have taken centre stage in the ongoing culture wars, not to mention in many a kindergarten classroom when an external presenter is contracted to do a show.  As kids this usually meant we’d all traipse down to the gym where our future sore bums would await as we heard tired renditions of ‘Ain’t No Cure For The Summertime Blues’.

Now, though, things are a little more serious in terms of costumes becoming one’s real-life identity for transgender people.  A few decades ago, old Ru Paul was an outlier embraced for her difference, and the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show conveyed the timeless quandary of when a man becomes a woman and then, realizing s/he’s now a lesbian, ends up wailing “Dammit, Janet, I love you!” We now live in a generally normalized realm of transgender-ism—happily, many would say, but one that puts a bit of a drag on folks who cross dress for fun.  As Ricky Gervais’s sidekick character said in the Netflix series ‘Afterlife’: “you don’t get the whole bloke who likes to wear a dress to parties on weekends just for kicks anymore, do you.”  Unequivocally, it’s okay to want to grow up into whichever gender we choose (a third or fourth option now seem increasingly marginalized, which is unfortunate given the fascinating nature of queer and genderfuck subcultures but that’s another story).  I mean hey, no one gets hurt—heck, even dressing up as a sheep or, as happened in Germany, having a festival of people who dress as dogs helps, and it keeps trade and convention centers in business.  Anyway, it all goes back in western culture to burlesque.  The way burlesque presents itself, and is received, through our society’s history, conveys a campy and coy sense of play and prestige, daring and dalliance.

But across the Pacific we find a different scene entirely.  Let’s say we hop on a jet from Vegas and land in Japan, like Taylor Swift in reverse as she attended the Super Bowl after a big show in Japan the night before.  Geishas, memoirs in tow or no, are a tourist attraction in Japan.  Geishas traditionally strolled the alleys of a neighbourhood called Gion, but tourists are now to be banned from visiting this district.  “Gion’s private streets could be closed, tourists would still be allowed to enter the main Hanamikoji Street, which is public.  The ban follows several incidents of tourists misbehaving in Gion.  In response to a 2018 questionnaire from the district council, a resident complained that a group of tourists surrounded a taxi that a geisha was traveling in, while another said a tourist had damaged one of the lanterns of their restaurant, The Asahi Shimbun reported.”

In our Beatlemania (not to mention Swiftie) culture this sort of thing might be expected; celebrities do tend to acquire droves of rabid adherents.  Where glamour is concerned, in the paper lantern and origami dove Japanese tradition, a certain decorum is expected—at least for Geishas and those who avail themselves of a Geisha.  Geishadom is a more personal, private, sort of exchange: a purchased conversation rather than a song and dance routine.  But the costume and performance, the grace and pomp as it were, is just as vital.  With the arrival of tourists, a culture clash reveals that, just as a comedian can joke about her husband’s mental health diagnosis in the way we civilians might not dare, the way that Japan sees its equivalent of a burlesque entertainers isn’t amenable to much diversity in audience participation methods.  Refined and well-spoken, Geishas appear a far cry from a stripper or dancer and yet, when we squint a little, we might see a certain comedy in the whole scenario.  Paying cash for a beautiful, finely-coiffed, woman’s company does sound like participating in the world’s oldest economy, but the joke only works if we remember that some of us are rightly and naturally a little more offendable than others.  Which is to say we must know our audience or face the consequences.

While the West’s tradition includes Sting’s classic love song Roxanne, “you don’t have to put out your red light” (marking her as an available hooker), in Japan some such areas of cultural countenance haven’t reached (or sunk to) the level of humor.  Globalization is a tricky beast, but hey, if you can laugh and smile about something when you’re feeling a bit put off that’s how you know that you can really and truly be serious with someone when you want to.  We don’t become educated so we can be dour do-gooders prevailing our opinions onto the minds of others; a university education is about opening our minds and seeing the fault lines and fissures that allow for cultural ruptures to occur and, truth be told, for true social progress to be made.  So let’s remember to respect the Geishas, and all cultural realities, while using our minds of science to put each ethnographic reality onto a useful spectrum of where it belongs in relation to this long journey of humanhood.

Hanna, K.  (1999).  ‘Slideshow at Free University’. Le Tigre Lyrics.  Retrieved from
Rakshika, V.  (2023).  ‘Gone to the Dogs: Hundreds of Human Canine Wannabes Gather in Berlin’.  The Straits Times.  Retrieved from