Fact: Bates’ alumni are comprised of many successful individuals in a variety of different fields. This past Thursday and Friday, the Bates community was lucky enough to welcome back Yuko Eguchi, class of 2003, to give a lecture and demonstration of arts of the geisha and Japanese tea ceremony. Eguchi is currently a Ph.D. candidate studying ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburg.
Last Thursday night, I had the pleasure of seeing Eguchi’s lecture on the Japanese geisha and a performance of geisha singing and dancing. When I arrived in Muskie Archives, the room was packed with people. Walking up to the podium in a beautiful pink and white kimono, Eguchi began her lecture with some humor, speaking in rapid Japanese then asking the audience if anyone understood her. With some bewildered looks and chuckles from the audience, Eguchi launched into her lecture (in English this time), focusing on the nearly hidden life of the Japanese geisha.
A geisha is a highly trained hostess learned in the ways of traditional Japanese song, dance and conversation. The earliest account of a geisha goes back to the seventh century. It was only when Westerners came into contact with Japan that they misconstrued the meaning of these hostesses and confused them with high-class prostitutes. As Eguchi explained in her lecture, the word is made of two parts: gei meaning “art” and sha meaning “person” or “doer.” So the literal translation of the word is “someone who does art.”
Towards the end of the lecture, Eguchi performed two songs and three dances. It was during this portion of the evening that the audience all sat up a little straighter and craned their necks to get a better view. The singing performed was very different from anything I had ever heard. The notes were strung together in a short, guttural rhythm. What was at first a bit shocking to the senses, became more pleasing to ear the more I listened.
After she finished singing, Eguchi demonstrated traditional geisha dancing. Eguchi told the audience that she had taken ballet for many years and the shift from ballet to traditional Japanese dance was drastic. In ballet, dancers strive to elongate all their movements and primarily use their outer muscles. However in Japanese dance, the movements are much smaller and the use of interior muscles is crucial. Through her movements, the audience was able to follow along to the song because each dance move represented a line of the music to which she was dancing.
In an interview the next day, Eguchi recounted the many ways her Bates education prepared her for the wider world. As a Music Composition major, Eguchi took theory classes and constantly did the reading and writing that comes with the territory. One of the best aspects of a small liberal arts school, like Bates, she said, is that “the professors were there all the time to help me out, which you don’t get many big mammoth schools.” The student-professor relationship is a factor that cannot be replicated at schools with upwards of twenty five thousand undergraduates.
Eguchi has a message for us students. “Don’t take it for granted,” she said. “I learned how to live life just by talking to those professors.”
It was only once she got to Bates and left her home country that she realized how important it was to represent and remember her Japanese heritage. In the interview, Eguchi told me that, in Japan, there is a saying, “Under the lighthouse is dark.” In describing the statement’s meaning, Eguchi said, “You look outside and search elsewhere, but you forget your foundation, your history, your culture. That is the part that I was missing.” Eguchi then found teachers back in Japan to help her.
She said, “my inspiration now, is that my teachers have been keeping this tradition for so long, hundreds of years, it is a shame to let that go. So I have to be involved and I want younger people to do the same.”
Eguchi emphasized that learning about her culture is “partially an inspiration but partially a responsibility to pass it on to the younger generations, to keep it going.” It cannot be overlooked that without studying culture, it may eventually be forgotten.
At the end of our interview, Eguchi left me with this final thought. She said, “Students have more power than they think.” It is up to us to remember the past and to make sure it has a place in our future.