Japanese Culture Teaching Notes



It's believed that the women who danced for warriors in the 11th century are the predecessors of geisha. Geisha girls and women are trained in a number of traditional skills; Japanese ancient dance, singing, playing instruments (a three stringed instrument called shamisen is an essential instrument), flower arrangement, wearing kimono, tea ceremony, calligraphy, conversation, alcohol serving manners, and more. Even after becoming a geisha girl, they keep improving their skills by taking many lessons. Nowadays, there are geisha girls and women who learn English conversation to serve English-speaking customers and learn computer skills.

Geisha District and Geisha House (o-chaya)

The districts where many geisha girls and women gather are called hana-machi. Some hana-machi were developed near temples and shrines where many o-chaya are located. Geisha used to entertain visitors at o-chaya. The o-chaya type of teahouse is completely different from those shops that merely serve tea or coffee. It's a sort of banquet house, which rents rooms for dinner parties. An o-chaya is usually a small Japanese-style house with wooden doors and tatami floors or Japanese-style gardens. Some o-chaya also train geisha and are places for maiko (young geisha girl) to live and go to work. Those o-chaya are called okiya.

To Become a Geisha in Japan

Since there aren't many people who want to endure the hard training necessary to become a geisha girl, the number of geisha is decreasing. Young girls who wish to become a geisha girl are usually introduced to an o-chaya through someone who has a connection to the teahouse.

The head woman of an o-chaya, called okami, interviews the girl with her parents, explaining how the training goes. If the okami accepts the girl as an apprentice to her o-chaya, the girl can begin her training immediately and live in the o-chaya if she has graduated from a middle school. Once a girl becomes a geisha trainee, she can't quit for 5 to 6 years. While helping with the chores and errands of the house, the young girl learns customs and social skills and begins music and dance lessons. After about a half-year, she becomes a young geisha girl called maiko (15-20 year old girls).

A maiko accompanies a geisha on her appointments to get to know the customers. Maiko girls wear a colorful kimono with long sleeves and high wooden shoes. Usually, when a maiko becomes 20 years old, she decides whether she will quit or become a geisha. If she gets married, she has to quit the job. If a maiko girl decides to become a geisha, the ceremony called "erigae" (literally means changes of collars) is held.

How to Party with Geisha in Japan

If a customer wants to call a geisha girl to a party, he/she asks the okami of an o-chaya, then the okami lets a management office (yakata) know about the request. The charge for calling the geisha girls is called "o-hanadai"

Unless you are referred by someone who is already a customer of an o-chaya, you aren't allowed to enter. O-chaya are very exclusive places. The charge for the service is billed to the customer from the o-chaya later, so it's important for the o-chaya to have a trusting relationship with customers. O-chaya don't do business with a newcomer without the proper referral. However, many well-known restaurants and Japanese inns in Kyoto have some kinds of connection to an o-chaya, so you can request them to send geisha to your party.

There are two basic types of geisha. One is called "tachikata" which mainly does traditional Japanese dance (mai). The other is called "jikata" which mainly sings, or plays an instrument. Tachikata are usually maiko girls and jikata are older geisha women. The cost for a party with geisha varies depending on the number of geisha, food, drink, hours, and so on, but you can even have a party beginning at about $150 per person for a regular two-hour appointment.

Where to Visit Geisha Girls and Women in Japan

In Kyoto, there are five hanamachi. The most famous is Gion. The Gion district is located on the west of Kawaramachi, Shijo-dori Street. The Gion district retains old Japanese-style buildings and the atmosphere is very different from other part of the city.

The best area to meet a geisha girl is Hanamikoji Street in Gion, where many o-chaya are located. If you visit the area in early evening, you might be able to see beautiful geisha girls before they go to their appointments. It's said that there are a couple hundred geisha in Gion. In Tokyo, Asakusa Hanamachi is the place to go to meet geisha.

Because some hanamachi were historically related to prostitution, this bias toward geisha and hanamachi districts still exists in modern Japan. However, geisha is an important part of Japanese culture and their performance and beauty still attracts many people from around the world.

Posted by ・Andrea :: 10:20 PM :: 1 Comments:

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Children’s Day – May 5th

May brings the reminder that in Japan, as in the United States, one of a nation's greatest assets is her children. (Unfortunately the Government forgets this and childrens services here are terrible.) May 5 is a government holiday called "Children's Day" in Japan, the day to stress the importance of respecting children and promoting their health and happiness. It is also the day for children to express their gratitude for the tender love and care they receive from their parents. Teenagers, especially, are reminded of this. On this day Japanese families celebrate Tango-no-Sekku, the Boys' Festival. With its special customs and observances, it is Japan's way of celebrating the healthy growth and development of her young boys.

This day was originally called Boys Day but it was changed to Childrens Day for political correctness. That and there is no official holiday on the calendar for girls, which I think is not fair.

If one travels through Japan from the latter half of April to early May, one sees nearly everywhere huge, gay-colored Koi-Nobori, carp-like streamers made of paper or cloth, which fill with wind and seem to swim in the air. Together with long red and white ribbons, the carp are hoisted on a bamboo pole, mounted by a pair of gilded pinwheels, high above the rooftops.

Some pictures can be seen on my picture page at :

Fujieda Park

A carp (fish) is flown for each son in the family, a very large one for the eldest, the others ranging down in size. The carp has become the symbol of the Boys' Festival because the Japanese consider it the most spirited of fish, so full of energy and power that it can fight its way up swift-running streams and cascades. Because of its strength and determination to overcome all obstacles, it stands for courage and the ability to attain high goals.

No one knows for sure when the observation of the Tango-no-Sekku began but some historians trace it to an ancient rural Chinese custom (Sechie), in which the royal guards wore ceremonial helmets and carried bows and arrows, which became popular at the Japanese court during the days of the Empress Regnant Suiko (593-629 A.D.).

One legend relates that the festival is a branch of a custom practiced by farmers in May, the time when insects begin to appear to harm the young plants. The farmers tried to drive the insects away by frightening them with bright banners and grotesque figures. Later, these figures came to represent warriors famed for their fighting power. As the Musha-Ningyo (warrior dolls) became more artistic, they were gradually displayed indoors, not to scare away insects but to remind the young boys of the family of manliness and to ward off evil spirits.

Another legend traces the origin of the Boys' Festival to Tokimune Hojo's victory over the invading Mongols on May 5, 1282. As a result, Samurai families erected the flags and streamers in celebration of the victory. Others believe that the unification of the country by the Ashikaga Shogun in the 14th century had been celebrated in this fashion on every May 5 until interior decorations came to be emphasized.

Special Boys Day Statues

In the modern observance of Tango-no-Sekku, a display is arranged in the tokonoma, or alcove, in the guest rooms of Japanese houses. Among the decorations are a miniature helmet, suits of armor, a sword, a bow and arrow, silk banners bearing the family crest and the warrior dolls which represent Kintaro, a Herculean boy who grew up to be a general; Shoki, an ancient Chinese general believed to protect people from devils; and Momotaro, the Japanese David the Giant killer. These statues are all hand made and sewn. They are beautiful and very elaborate, as well as extremely expensive.

Girls are the guests of their brothers on this occasion just as boys are guests of their sisters on the occasion of the Girls' Festival on March 3. Their parents provide them with the traditional delicacies such as Chimaki (sweet rice dumplings wrapped in iris or bamboo leaves) and Kashiwa-Mochi (rice cakes containing sweet bean paste wrapped in oak leaves).

The Iris

Shobu, the Japanese iris, the long narrow leaf of which is somewhat like a sword in shape, has always been closely associated with the Boys' Festival. The iris leaf is prominent in the observance of Tango-no-Sekku because the sound of the word Shobu, although written with different characters, implies striving for success.

On May 5, the Japanese steep the leaves in hot water and enjoy the fragrant Shobu-yu (iris hot-bath) because of the traditional belief that the iris bath is a miraculous prophylactic against all kinds of sickness. Many public bathhouses, particularly in the districts where the people are less affected by western influence and are accustomed to taking hot baths in the morning, open their doors early in the morning on May 4 and 5.

Also for the festival, finely chopped iris leaves are mixed with Sake to produce a drink (Shobu-sake) especially enjoyed bv the Samurai of old.

In ancient times, iris leaves were also believed to have the mysterious power of extinguishing fire and for this reason, in rural areas today, people still observe the custom of putting iris leaves on the eaves of their houses on May 5 as a talisman against the possible outbreak of a fire or presence of evil spirits.

(Most of this write up I found on the Internet, somewhere?, and I just added and changed a few things.)

Posted by ・Andrea :: 7:22 PM :: 0 Comments:

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Sumo is Japan's national sport and it has been since 1909. In Sumo the two participants face each other just wearing the special sumo loincloth. They battle each other trying to knock each other out of the sumo ring. Sumo is very popular in Japan and can been seen on TV and listed to on the radio. There are 6 professional sumo tournaments a year. In sumo there is much rituals that are involved in the matches. Recently there has been many foreigners allowed to participate in sumo from places such as Hawaii and Mongolia.

Origin of Sumo
A ccording to Japanese legend the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match. The supremacy of the Japanese people on the islands of Japan was supposedly established when the god, Take-mikazuchi, won a sumo bout with the leader of a rival tribe. Apart from legend, however, sumo is an ancient sport dating back some 1500 years.

Its origins were religious. The first sumo matches were a form of ritual dedicated to the gods with prayers for a bountiful harvest and were performed together with sacred dancing and dramas within the precincts of the shrines.
In the Nara Period(The 8th century)sumo was introduced into the ceremonies of the Imperial Court. A wrestling festival was held annually which included music and dancing in which the victorious wrestlers participated. Early sumo was a rough-and-tumble affair combining elements of boxing and wrestling with few or no holds barred. But under the continued patronage of the Imperial Court rules were formulated and techniques developed so that it came more nearly to resemble the sumo of today.

A military dictatorship was established in Kamakura in 1192 and a long period of intense warfare ensued. Sumo, quite naturally, was regarded chiefly for its military usefulness and as a means of increasing the efficiency of the fighting men. Later in the hands of the samurai, jujitsu was developed as an offshoot of sumo. Peace was finally restored when the different warring factions were united under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. A period of prosperity followed, marked by the rise to power of the new mercantile classes.
Professional sumo groups were organized to entertain the rapidly expanding plebeian class and sumo came into its own as the national sport of Japan. The present Japan Sumo Association has its origins in these groups first formed in the Edo Period.

In olden times, sumo tournaments were held twice a year in shrines and temples for a week or 10 days, although the allotted time was some-times extended because of inclement weather. The first permanent Koku-gikan opened in 1909 in the Ryogoku section of Tokyo next to the Ekoin Temple, which was the site of the outdoor basho from about 1808 to 1906. Actually, it was first called the Josetsukan, but it was soon renamed the Kokugikan. It cost 500,000 yen (a goodly sum in those days) to build. It was in this original sumo hall that such great yokozuna as Hitachiyama and Tachiyama performed. Except for a single loss after his 45th consec-utive win, Tachiyama would have won 100 bouts in a row since he went on to win his next 55 matches.

The original Kokugikan served well for eight years until it burned down in November 1917 and it wasn't until January 1920 that the new one was ready for use. In the meantime, the hon-basho were held in the compound of Yasukuni Shrine. Despite damage by the 1923 Tokyo earth-quake and World War II bombings, this second Kokugikan survived until it was finally torn down in 1983. The Sumo Kyokai, however, stopped using it as a sumo arena with the completion of the Kuramae Kokugikan in 1957. During those 37 years, it witnessed the exploits of such great yokozuna as Tochigiyama, who stopped Tachiyama's winning streak, and Tsunenohana in the 1920s, Tamanishiki and Futabayama, who set one of greatest records in sumo with 69 consecutive wins, in the1930s and Tochinishiki in the 1950s.

Part of the roof of the second Kokugikan was destroyed during the fire-bombing raids of March 10-11, 1945, but it survived. After the Allied Occupation authorities gave permission for the Sumo Kyokai to hold a hon-basho therein November 1945, they took it over and turned it into an ice-skating rink. Although the Kyokai was allowed to hold the 1946 November Tournament there, it wasn't able to reclaim uninterrupted use of the Kokugikan again until just before the Occupation ended in April 1952.

Posted by ・Andrea :: 11:18 PM :: 0 Comments:

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The Sumo Topknot

Sumo, a symbol of Japanese culture to most of the world, leaves its patrons with no doubts about its athletes’ exertions in the ring. However, most people don’t know how much effort the supporting staff puts into the wrestlers’ appearance … specifically their hair.

During an exhibition tournament, Tokofuta, a hairdresser specifically trained to style a sumo’s hair in its distinctive topknot, demonstrated the unique hairstyle called oichomage on sumo wrestler’s hair. The name, oichomage, was named after the gingko leaf since the hair style looks similar to the shape of the leaf.

Originally, Tokofuta wanted to become a sumo wrestler. When he realized such a career was not in his future, he filled a vacancy left by a retired tokoyama, the proper name for sumo hairdressers in Japanese.

There are 53 tokoyama who belong to each of the 53 sumo stables. Stables, which literally means room, are both living and training facilities where young wrestlers train to one day become professional wrestlers.

Disciplined under an apprenticeship, tokoyama pursue their careers devoting themselves to practice how to handle wrestlers’ long hair to make mage, or topknot, for wrestlers every day.

There are two hairstyles for sumo wrestlers. One is chonmage, a simple topknot style all the wrestlers wear after they have sufficient hair length, which is about two years. The other is oichomage, which is the hairstyle only top division wrestlers are allowed to wear.

Each tokoyama has a toolbox, with four different kinds of combs made of tsuge, or boxwood, which is the highest quality; magebo, a pinned stick; hand-made string to tie wrestlers’ hair; and pomade. A tokoyama can fix a wrestlers’ hair anywhere as long as he has his toolbox.

There are many intricate procedures to make a perfect oichomage hairstyle.

“I learned the technique as I watched carefully how senior tokoyama worked on rikishi’s (wrestler’s) hair and practiced on the younger rikishi’s hair,” said Tokofuta. “Everything was kind of on-the-job training. You had to have a sharp eye to observe the difference and acquire skillful tokoyama techniques,” said Tokofuta. “It is important to find out each rikishi’s hair texture and to crumple hair well to make a good mage. Every day I practiced the basic technique on young rikishi’s hair.”

While wrestlers are relaxing or concentrating before the bout, the tokoyama’s bout actually begins. Only skillful tokoyama are allowed to do the oichomage hairstyle just like only top division wrestlers can wear it. The oichomage protects wrestlers from head injury to as it softens the impact in case the wrestler falls off from the ring, which is around 22-inches-high. Fragrant wax is used to keep the arrangement in place, and senior wrestlers wear various elaborate styles as a sign of their position in the sumo hierarchy.
There are six tokoyama ranks according to their skill and their years of service.

Upon entering the sumo profession, young wrestlers stop cutting their hair in order to fashion the traditional chonmage topknot.

Worn since ancient times, the chonmage style became defunct after the Meiji Restoration (1868) when Japanese men cut their hair by government order in the short Western style of the times. Sumo wrestlers were exempt from the order, as the traditional topknot served as head protection.

On retirement, wrestlers are transformed back to civilian status at the hair cutting ceremony. Eventually the retiree gives up his fighting name, and is thereafter referred to by his birth name.

The retiring rikishi does not only lose his career. In an elaborate ceremony called a danpatsu-shiki, supporters pay for the privilege of cutting strands of hair off a rikishi's chonmage. At the end of the ceremony, the rikishi's oyakata takes a pair of scissors and makes the final cut of the topknot. The rikishi is now retired.

Posted by ・Andrea :: 11:17 PM :: 3 Comments:

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Kabuki: A Brief History

Created around the year 1600, around the same time the English began to form colonies on the American continent, the history of Kabuki is as long as that of the United States and just as multi-faceted.

Kabuki was created by Okuni, a shrine maiden from Izumo Shrine. Her performances in the dry river beds of the ancient capital of Kyoto caused a sensation and soon their scale increased and a number of rival companies arose. Early Kabuki was much different from what is seen today and was comprised mostly of large ensemble dances performed by women. Most of these women acted as prostitutes off stage and finally the government banned women from the stage in an effort to protect public morals, just one in a long history of government restrictions placed on the theater.

This ban on women, though, is often seen as a good move because it necessitated the importance of skill over beauty and put more stress on drama than dance, putting Kabuki on the path to become a dramatic art form. Another development was the appearance of onnagata female role specialists, men who played women.

The last quarter of the 17th century is referred to as the Genroku period and was a time of renaissance in the culture of Japanese townspeople. As the main form of theatrical entertainment for commoners, there was a great flowering of creativity in Kabuki. It was during this period that the stylizations that would form the base of Kabuki were created. The playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon and actors like Ichikawa Danjuro and Sakata Tojuro left strong legacies that can still be seen today. It was also during this period that the close relationship between Kabuki and the Bunraku puppet theater began and the two would continue to grow while influencing each other.

The decades after the Genroku period saw numerous cycles of creative periods followed by refinement. In the early 18th century, the rise of skilled playwrites in the Bunraku puppet theater helped it to briefly eclipse Kabuki in popularity. Indeed, it was remarked by one observer that it seemed as though "there was no Kabuki." Actors responded by adapting puppet plays for the stage and creating stylized movements to mimic the puppets themselves. The late 18th century saw a trend towards realism and the switch of the cultural center from Kyoto and Osaka to Edo. One consequence of this was the change of tastes in onnagata acting. While onnagata trained in Kyoto who had the soft, gentle nature of that city had been valued before, now audiences preferred those who showed the strong pride and nature of Edo women. An increasing audience desire for decadence as seen in the ghost plays and beautification of murder scenes marked early 19th century.

The opening of Japan to the West in 1868 affected Kabuki and the rest of the country profoundly. Though it was freed from numerous government restrictions, Kabuki was faced with the important challenge of how to adapt to a changing world. Actors like Ichikawa Danjuro IX strove to raise the reputation of Kabuki, which since its beginning had been seen as base by the upper classes, while others like Onoe Kikugoro V worked to adapt old styles to new tastes. The defining moment of the period, and a symbol of the success of their efforts, was a command performance before Emperor Meiji.
Though Kabuki survived government oppression during the Edo period, the loss of many young actors in World War II and censorship by occupation forces after the war, it faces its most difficult enemies in modern forms of entertainment like movies and television. Its position as a "traditional" form of theater often makes it seem stuffy, and people are not as familiar with the special peculiarities of Kabuki as they used to be. Still, popular actors continue to bring audiences into the theater and there has recently been a "Kabuki boom" centered around young people. Kabuki continues to be a form of entertainment enjoyed by a wide range of people, just as it has been for 400 years.

Posted by ・Andrea :: 11:08 PM :: 0 Comments:

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