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The Only Male Geisha

Exhibition at Japanese Cultural Institute, Cologne 2018

Through fine interweaving of video, photography and sound, the exhibition illuminates the artists’ encounter with Japan’s only male geisha, Eitaro Matsunoya. The contemplative works hold the viewer at an enticing distance that respects his oblique persona and his wish not to be fully understood or assimilated.

Eitaro Matsunoya attracts curiosity both nationally and globally. As head of his family-owned geisha house, he performs in female kimono, is a cultured host with a studied effeminacy, and has perfected the gestures and dances of a women’s profession. Matsunoya’s one-of-a-kind story is an alluring portal into a rich history of non-normative gender expression in Japanese performing arts. He also presents a fascinating meeting point of individualism and nationalised identity.

Matsunoya is unique in Japan: he identifies as male, while sharing his artistic occupation exclusively with women. This life-choice was radically anticipated by his mother, who trained him to be a geisha from an early age. At work, Matsunoya is a geisha like any other: does his gender matter?
Gender always matters, but perhaps more important is that Matsunoya embraces his difference in order to revive a traditional art for which he cares deeply. For Diernberger and Saunders, their encounter with Japan’s only male geisha – as well as the other artists they met as a result – has pushed them to interrogate their strategies for identifying with difference.