Memoirs of a Geisha
The life of Japanese women in the 17th century
17th century Japan, marked as the ‘Edo’ period differed vastly from present times. Concepts of ‘equality’ and ‘feminism’ did not exist and women were considered inferior to men. The were thought of to be the ignorant gender whose primary purpose was to attend the needs of the men – mostly physical.
This belief system was directly derived from the Chinese Neo-Confucianism sect, primary from the works of Ekken Kaibara, a Neo-Confusianism philosopher. According to him, women were the inferior gender because they were ‘morally incompetent, possessed silliness, jealousy, ignorance and were the source of all lust’. They were considered the source of emotional attachment, which distracted the men from their path to enlightenment.
These notions were popularised through literature and art. ‘Shunga’ (Japanese erotic art) were in mass-circulation and production during the Edo period. Ihara Saikaku, the most popular writer of his time in his book ‘Five Hundred Disciples of Buddha – I’d Known Them All’ wrote about how a woman slept with a thousand men. His works depicted women as beings who were lust hungry and always ready to sell their body for money.
Women wore their hair down and straight until the Edo period, after which they started imitating men’s hairstyles. The hairstyles were very complicated, so they often went to hairdressers and wigmakers. The hairstyles also indicated their marital status and class. Some popular styles were ‘Osafune’, ‘Momoware’, ‘Taka Shimada’ and ‘Shimadamage’. Pale skin colour was admired and considered aristocratic. For this, a whitish foundation made of rice powder was used. Safflower was used to make red colour for the lips. Immediately before and after marriage, women would blacken their teeth using logwood extract for good luck. They would also shave off their eyebrows on their first childbirth.
Unlike Western sense of sensuality and fashion, the Japanese considered their naked bodies ugly and absurd. When their primary garment, Kimono was worn, skin was hidden as much as possible. They preferred a cylindrical body shape and not an hourglass one. For this, padding was done inside the kimono around the waist by women.
note: This series is part of my self-authored and self published coffee table book, 'Indian and Japan in the 17th century' (published 2016). The book is a comprehensive comparative study of the two nations, focusing on their art, architecture, religion, traditions, fashion, culture and economic stature during the century. For further reading, you can request a pdf of my book for free by dropping me an email.