Sisters of the Gion


Respectful attitude towards women is the best indicator of a highly developed society. The lessons of history tell us that the place and role of women had always been defined by a region (place of residence), social and family status, age, native religious concepts, cultural traditions, and the era in which she was born. The well-being of a woman was also influenced by her virginity in her youth, and the number of children (especially sons) in adulthood. In closed societies of Eastern countries, where the traditions of the forefathers are jealously guarded and honored, woman is often treated with condescending disdain. Her life is solely accompanied with housekeeping, child-rearing and caring for her husband. Japan stands among the countries where an attitude towards women has been quite contrasting for centuries. In ancient times they were considered as goddesses, but in the Middle Ages an ambivalent attitude towards women appeared. This lasted until the twentieth century. The position of women in Japanese society even today often depends on the veneration of traditions, but it is more a formality than a true approach. History proves that neither wealth no social status could protect women from being dependent on men for centuries. At all times, she distorted his support, and he, in his turn, was searching for a way of possessing her. A striking example of this statement is the era of geishas, especially the first half of the twentieth century, when Japan was on the verge of great changes. Marginalized women continued to serve men hoping for their protection while the latter could quietly leave their female companions whenever it was convenient for them. Thus, women in traditional Japanese society were dependent on men, and their positions as well as social rights were determined by their support and patronage.

A period between the two world wars was a difficult challenge for Japanese society, especially for women. Gradually old traditions died and western trends appeared on a territory of the state. Numerous people adhered to the teachings of the older generation, but they were unable to protect the population that faced a changing world. Exploring our research subject, particular attention should be paid to the movie Sisters of the Gion (Gion no Shimai) directed by Kenji Mizoguchi in 1937, that tells a story about difficulties in relations between men and women and their place in Japanese society. In order to understand of the discussed film in depth, the movie`s plot should be studied.

Plot of the Movie

The Gion is a district of Kyoto, with numerous “fun houses,” where geishas work to satisfy men. Here is a home of two sisters-geisha Umekichi and Omocha. Older sister is a true geisha that honors the laws of this profession. When Umekichi’s patron, Mr. Furusava lost his fortune, she continues to support him. She cares about the man and allows him to stay in her house far from his official family and shame. Her younger sister considers him as a burden. She is confused and angry because of Umekichi`s refusal to seek for a new supporter. Thus, Omocha decides to settle this issue on her own.

Younger sister creates intrigue and, as a result, gets rid of Mr. Furusawa, leads Umekichi to a new potential patron, and finds a rich man for herself. However, at the end of the story, she becomes a victim of her own cunning, when Kimura gets cruel revenge upon Omocha. When Kumura has been a clerk in kimono/cloth shop, she has tricked him to get expensive kimono for her sister, and then leaves Kimura and becomes his boss`s mistress. Umekichi refuses to work with her new client and meets with Furusawa despite everything, but at the end of the film he leaves her and returns to his wife. Both deceived and abandoned sisters remain alone.

Rights of Women and Their Statuses in Society

Position of Married Women

The film reveals the true picture of relations between men and women. Moreover, it underscores the sad condition of unmarried women. The movie shows conversations between married women and their husbands. Thus, a wife of impoverished Mr. Furusawa does not hide her anger when they are forced to sell items at auction. According to the rules of propriety she is obliged to support her husband in silence. Instead of this, Furusawa’s wife reminds him that years ago she possessed the richest dowry and now she is ashamed to return to her father’s home. Moreover, the woman went to stay with her parents without her husband, who goes to live with Umekichi.

Another married woman, whose image is partially disclosed, is a legal wife of Omocha’s old patron. She keeps dignity and acts respectfully towards her husband. When Kimura tells her about his infidelity, everything changes. The woman creates a scandal, boldly showing their indignation and, as a result, making her husband return to Omocha.

We should pay special attention to the traditions of the previous century that were still widely anchored in the society to understand the reasons for the described behavior of married women (Silva-Grondin).

According to the laws of that time, a place of a woman was within her home. She had to raise children, take care about her husband, support other members of family and be responsible for household. On the one hand, there is a traditional representation of women in the East. A married woman is completely subordinated to her husband and is considered to be a defective social being. The Civil Code adopted in Japan in 1898 (Satoh 131) confirms a position of women in the society. The main character of a family is Father. He chooses the place of the family’s residence, disposes of all property, and conducts the family business. Father locates the assets of the family at his own discretion. He permits or denies children’s marriages, and this rule applies for daughters until they reach the age of 25, and for sons – until the age of 30.

According to the Code of 1898 married women are not considered as full members of the society. The core responsibility of a wife is to give birth to a male heir, because the eldest son receives all the family’s property (the right of primogeniture). Thus, she is required to do housework.

A married woman could not witness in court or make a claim without her husband`s consent, as well as independently conduct business. She has no right to initiate divorce, except in cases where a husband leaves their family, or treats its members in a very cruel way. Betrayal of wife (but not of her husband, of course) is a reason for divorce and criminal prosecution. Thus, we admit that the law in Japan of the Meiji period (the second half of the XIX century) created patriarchal family, as it has been throughout the history of Japan. Vestiges of the past still remained in the first half of the XX century.

The next stage of change in gender relations began with the introduction of compulsory education for men and women after the Meiji period, when Japan rapidly and diligently borrowed and assimilated Western ideas. However, education provided to males and females was far from equivalent. For this reason, the key task of girls’ schools was provision of targeted education that literally translated as “good wives and wise mothers.” Classes in schools for girls were mainly focused on housework; women were ought to help their husbands and to be able to teach their children everything they needed.

Only after the World War II, all Japanese, regardless of gender, got equal rights guaranteed by the country’s new constitution (Eto 177-178).

Nevertheless, only the urban female population of Japan was such position. In rural areas, women as well as their husbands participated in production. Japanese women never had any inherent oppression, contrary to notions of the Europeans. A wife behaved timidly, as it was required by the culture and traditions. For this reason, sometimes women behaved very powerfully and independently at home.

At the same time, it is necessary to note that even all-sufficient women were seeking protection of men, because a man’s word had weight in the society. Thus, a married woman without her husband was not taken seriously. At the end of the movie we observe clear evidence of that fact. Mr. Furusawa`s disappointed wife thanks to her connections finds a new job (factory manager) for her husband, and the wife of Omocha’s patron forces him to stay with his family. Both the women appreciate their status and fight for it.

Dependent Position of Geishas

In contrast to married women, geishas’ position was very shaky. Only the most diligent and talented girls could stay in the spotlight. Traditional Geishas were very serious about their profession.

Geishas are traditional Japanese artists that entertain their customers (guests) by dancing, singing, conducting tea ceremony, or holding a conversation (Facts of Japan – Geisha). Despite the fact that the term “geisha” is the most common in the designation of such artists in the Japanese and the rest of the world’s languages, there are other names for this profession now. Thus, in the Kansai region (with Kyoto being one of the largest centers of geisha culture), the terms “geiko”  and “maiko” for younger girls have been used since the Meiji Restoration.

The movie gives a fairly complete picture of the life of geishas. They depend on good will of men. Their success is influenced by their manner, special talents, and quality of their kimono. A geisha’s well-being is dependent on the presence of a rich protector.

Talented Umerichi enjoys Mr. Furusawa`s support. When he loses money and business, she finds herself almost in poverty. Her commitment to the old traditions does not allow her to easily find another patron. Umerichi considers it unacceptable. The movie shows her sacrifice and self-denial. She does everything to make Furusawa happy, considering that he helped her to become a real Geisha years ago.

Omocha does not agree with her elder sister. According to her point of view, geishas must not follow the Code that is created by men. Unlike her sister, she despises men and is ready to do anything in order to live well. She is educated and follows the Western influence (Sato 26). Umerichi always wears a kimono and behaves very modestly. Omocha wears Western style dresses and behaves quite freely. It is observed that the old traditions wither away and market relations concerning such a sensitive area appear. Omocha conducts herself as a prostitute and it is emphasized in the film.

Moral Conflict between Sisters of the Gion

A moral conflict is an integral part of the movie. Poverty and disrespect of the society make Omocha refuse the geisha’s codes of law. She is a bold and daring girl for her age and epoch. In her opinion, women do not have to endure humiliation. She tries to convince her sister that women are considered to be toys in the men`s hands.

Umerichi is not willing to support her sister. She is a traditional geisha who wants to earn an honest living. The most proper way is to serve one man as long as possible. For example, in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, this concept of behavior is very clearly delineated. A presence of a patron is salvation for a girl. Thus, every decent Maiko should reach it. Umerichi does not respect the methods of her sister and avoids intrigues. It is difficult to say what she feels for Furusawa. It can be assumed that she loves him, but tries to hide it. A geisha has no right to love. She follows Furusawa and agrees to live with him apart from Omocha. Nevertheless, it does not save her from disaster.

It is sad to say, but ironically Omocha is right. It does not matter whether a Geisha behaves with dignity, or uses dirty methods to earn money. The bottom line is equally sad. Furusawa returns to his wife thus leaving Umerichi. At the end of the movie Omocha asks rhetorical questions. She wondered why such a profession as “geisha” exists if it brings so much suffering to women. Despite pain caused by revenge taken upon her by a man, Omocha says that she will never agree to obey males. In essence, she represents a new formation of women, feminists (Mackie), which challenges the established tradition.

Umerichi remains loyal to her convictions and beliefs. In spite of her grief and loneliness, she is proud of her behavior. The woman says to her sister that she can walk with her head held high, because she has always conducted with dignity and made Mr. Furusawa happy and satisfied.


The researched movie proves that a position of women in Japan had been ambiguous for centuries. However, the fact that every woman needed the support of a man is evident. Only the status of a married woman gave her a relative freedom. Geishas, who at first glance were independent, suffered a lot. Their lives depended on the patronage of rich males. In fact, they were treated like subjects even more than married women who were able to rely on the support of their families.

Traditions demanded from women to observe the rules of propriety. Thus, it was practically forbidden to express one’s beliefs openly. Nevertheless, there were such people as Omocha that went against the society. Her image cannot evoke sympathy from a point of view of traditional Japanese women, given the era in which the film was created. However, the modern researcher feels respect, because Omocha, unlike her sister, realizes and acknowledges baseness and negligibility of her condition. Thus, she refuses to put up with it. We can condemn the methods that are used by Omocha, but we must admit that her vision is progressive and her attitude to life is bold.

Umerichi embodies a character from the conservative past. She reveres traditions and identifies the true image of a Geisha, which serves men, using her talents and knowledge. We conclude that Umerichi is pleased with her position and expresses humility. For this case her path is predetermined and the woman follows the flow of life not expecting too much from it. The core objective of this character is to adequately pass severities and save her honor as Confucianism teaches.

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