Geisha are among the characters most identified with Japan. That’s true both outside and inside Japan; as one anthropologist has noted, the Japanese people “regard them as ‘more Japanese’ than almost any other definable group.”(1)
As the six hashioki above attest, during their heyday — from roughly 1800 until World War 2 — geisha were the glamour girls of Japan. They were admired for their beauty, for their elaborate costumes, makeup and hairstyles, and for the aura of elegance they exuded. The two kanji characters for the word geisha can be translated as “art person.” While it’s sometimes suggested they were associated with brothels, geisha were in fact entertainers who were trained in classical dance and to play instruments like the three-stringed shamisen. They were also skilled in both conversation and listening, and masters of flattery and witty repartee; being a delightful companion was part of their performance.
Many of us associate geisha with their ukiyo-e, or pictures from a floating world, portraits. These tokkuri, or sake bottles with attached cups, show three geisha as they were captured by famous ukiyo-e artist Kitagawa Utamaro. It seems entirely appropriate to decorate a sake bottle with a geisha picture, as keeping a client’s sake cup filled was usually part of a geisha’s service.
This hashioki actually reproduces a Japanese postage stamp that was issued in 1948 with featuring a famous painting created by Hishikawa Moronobu. While this appears to be the portrait of a woman, when this “Turning Back Beauty” painting was created in the late 17th. century many of the geisha portrayed were actually men playing the roles of women in the kabuki theatre. Japanese authorities thought that prohibiting women from working as entertainers or actors would reduce the likelihood of prostitution… but like most easy fixes, it didn’t completely solve the problem.
This hashioki depicts a kanzashi hair pin worn as a decoration by geisha. The kanzashi’s long pin enabled the wearer to anchor it firmly in their hairstyle. It may have also served as a convenient weapon if client decided to test the theory that a geisha was strictly an entertainer.
(1) Dalby, Liza. Geisha. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983, p. xiii.