GEISHA or SHIRABYOSHI? WEDDING RING or PAINTED TEETH?

UNUSUAL FACTS ABOUT MEDIEVAL JAPAN

One of the more fun aspects of writing, or more specifically, conducting research for my writing, is the odd and interesting facts that pop up.

In my debut novel, THE SIXTH PRECEPT, about half of the action in the book takes place in medieval Japan, specifically the early 16th century known as the Muramachi or Sengoku or Warring States Period. This was a very chaotic time in Japanese history where the daimyos or warlords were fighting among themselves for power. No one central authority had yet to organize everyone. No shogun during that century of warfare was powerful or resourceful enough to centralize control until the Edo Shogunate in the early 17th century became the top dogs.

My initial idea was to have a geisha as one of my central characters, a geisha with prescient powers (I just liked the idea of a geisha, having just read the book and watched the movie Memoirs of a Geisha). However, during my research I found that geishas weren’t around in the early 16th century. Uh oh. Now what was I going to do? It turns out a type of precursor to the geisha did exist at that time. These were the shirabyoshi who essentially performed the same types of services and practiced the same kind of art as geisha although dancing was their primary talent.

With a global “find and replace,” I changed my geisha character to a shirabyoshi. In truth, my characterization of my shirabyoshi character may not be completely accurate (For instance, some sources site the geisha predecessor as the actress/prostitutes known as oiran but that sounded too much like a fantasy or SF name so I went for the more Japanese-sounding name, as silly as that sounds since they’re both Japanese terms). In a novel with time-travel, mythological Japanese creatures and masked vigilantes, I figured some artistic license was okay.

Also, one source I consulted stated the first geishas were men. Initially jesters to the daimyo known as taikomochi, these men’s roles as entertainers and assistants to the oiran were eventually taken over by the female geisha.

Another factoid I discovered is, during a certain period in Japan’s history, when a woman got married, instead of receiving a wedding ring, she painted her teeth black. This was known as the ohaguro style. I thought that was very interesting and sort of bizarre and wanted desperately to put that in the book. However, the same thing happened–that custom wasn’t around yet during the action of my medieval Japan sections. It didn’t become commonplace in Japanese society until later in the 17th or 18th century and lasted into into the early 20th century.

I was disappointed but was able to include that in the sequel, which I’m writing now. Black teeth! How cool is that?

http://www.amazon.com/The-Sixth-Precept-Larry-Ivkovich/dp/0615554245

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “GEISHA or SHIRABYOSHI? WEDDING RING or PAINTED TEETH?

  1. Getting period detail right can be trouble! Good for you for doing your research first.

  2. You might be interested to know that Ohaguro is still practiced in various hanamachi. When a Maiko is going through Sakkou (Very last stage before she debuts as Geisha, it lasts for about a week) she will paint her teeth black, sort of following the old marriage customs when brides did that, as a Maiko is is marrying her profession when she becomes a Geisha. ^^ Another marriage ritual that they still practice in the Geisha culture is right before a Maiko becomes a Geisha, they cut a bit of the hair off (Now that piece of hair is synthetic, but back in the day, it was her real hair.) A close cultural cousin to Oiran are Tayuu, they existed in the same time frame, and there are still a couple around today. ^^

  3. Interesting information about the background of your writing. Didn’t know the first geisha were men. Looking forward to reading more.

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