From Geisha to Diva: The Kimono of Ichimaru

Westerners often misunderstand the concept of Geisha and think of them as something immoral or tawdry. In Japan, however, the occupation of geisha has a long and honourable history. Geisha were high class, well-educated hostess-courtesans, who entertained wealthy, sophisticated and powerful Japanese gentlemen who desired elegance, culture, and brilliant conversation in an exotic yet refined atmosphere. Association with geisha was desired not necessarily for sexual purposes but for their charming and genteel company. With the perfect balance of beauty, knowledge of the arts and cultivated etiquette, the geisha became a ‘living work of art’ and this was a source of pride for the geisha herself. The word geisha is made up of two characters, gei means ‘art’ or ‘accomplished’ and sha means ‘person.’ Therefore, it can be translated as ‘accomplished person’ or ‘person who lives by the arts.’ 

The kimono in the exhibit From Geisha to Diva: The Kimono of Ichimaru, on display at the Fernie Museum from June 7 to September 22, once belonged to this famed geisha and singer. Born a poor country girl, as a child Ichimaru was sold by her parents into a geisha house at the age of 14 or 15 and spent much of her early life working as a low-rank geisha or oshaku-waitress (one who serves sake) at a hot spring spa inn at Asama, Nagano Prefecture. She began taking shamisen (a little like a banjo) and singing lessons and soon came to enjoy a reputation as the geisha who possessed a ‘nightingale-like’ voice combined with elegant good looks and consummate skills with the shamisen. In 1926, she moved to Tokyo and was discovered by The Victor Recording Company shortly after. With the rise of popularity of phonograph recordings, she came to embody the soul of Japanese folk music. After the Second World War, she gained an unprecedented audience on radio, and then on television, having won the hearts of a beleaguered nation during the war. She passed away in 1997 at the age of 91.

Ichmaru’s kimono were tailor made. The texture of the weave, its colour, and the designs woven, dyed and embroidered into the garments are considered with a sensitivity to season and social context far beyond anything western clothing has achieved. It is a sublimely elegant costume that harmonizes with the interior spaces unique to Japan. Kimono culture is a world of its own.

The exhibit was developed by Barry Till, Curator-Emeritus of Asian art with the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. He has published and lectured extensively on the subject, organized over 150 Asian art exhibitions and travelled throughout Asia for National Geographic, Smithsonian Museum and many others. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from the Canadian Museums Association in 2008. On Saturday, June 8, he will offer a curator’s talk in the Museum Gallery at 1:30pm. The exhibit has been previously hosted by such museums and galleries as the National Geographic Museum (Washington, DC), The Royal Alberta Museum (Edmonton), the National Textile Museum (Toronto), and the Audain Gallery (Whistler).

The exhibit opens June 7, at 7pm, with Kimono & Sake, an evening of Japanese culture; tickets are now on sale for $20 from the Museum and on Eventbrite. Programming continues throughout the summer focusing on the traditional arts learned by geisha including traditional Japanese music, dance and calligraphy. The Museum will also offer a variety of hands-on family programs related to Japanese culture including sushi rolling, silk dying, and more. These programs are free with museum admission. For more details visit ferniemuseum.com.