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Real and fictional geisha and what to read

Seven Circumstances investigates

In my previous post about The Tale of Genji and The Tale of Murasaki, I mentioned that when Arthur Golden published his novel Memoirs of a Geisha, he was sued for defamation of character by his main source after the Japanese edition of the novel came out. This statement needed some clarification, and when I was researching it, even more interesting facts came out, which I’d like to share. It turns out, as is often the case, that nothing is as simple as it appears, particularly in lawsuits about literature.

Memoirs of a Geisha was published in 1997. Written in the first person perspective, it tells the story of “Nitta Sayuri” and her struggles while becoming and working as a geisha in Kyoto, Japan, before, during and after World War II. It is a very romantic, dramatic novel, a real tear-jerker, packed with heartache and longing. I remember crying my eyes out, hoping that Nitta was going to be rescued by her benefactor (client) and the man who she is in love with, “Chairman Iwamura”. Yes, a male character only referred to as “The Chairman” by the other characters. Ah, and when they eventually do have their moment of togetherness, you can practically hear all the violins in the world starting to play! (Sorry, all the koto starting to play.)

Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden (Publisher: Vintage; First Paperback Edition, January 10, 1999; 434 pages)

Fascinating geisha

I know it is quite a weepie, but I did enjoy reading it, and every so often, I do read it again. The appeal of the novel was perhaps due to the mysteries that surround geisha. There are many, starting with the name of their profession:

The plural of geisha in English is geisha or geishas, and geisha seems to be the most commonly used term. The word geisha consists of two kanji: gei (芸, meaning art) and sha (者, meaning person or doer). Therefore, the most literal translation of geisha in English is “artist”, “performing artist” or “artisan”. The arts that geisha practice are mainly dancing, performing on musical instruments, and singing. The term geiko, rather than geisha, is used for geisha in Western Japan, including Kyoto and Kanazawa. This term directly translates as “woman of art”.

Geisha are not prostitutes, concubines or public entertainers – they are exclusive and refined artists, providing entertainment to clients at private events. Historically, individual geisha or their house (the okiya) could have fallen on hard times, which could have led individual geisha to turn to prostitution – a story as old as the world. But the salacious and sensational image attributed to them was formed and perpetuated because of the historical secrets and mysteries about them, and the fact that they never reveal the identity of their clients. Of course, this has made the geisha profession even more intriguing to outsiders and Westerners, even today.

The work of geisha is called a profession because it meets the definition of a profession, such as for lawyers, engineers, etc.: It is a paid occupation, it has barriers to entry, which includes having a high level of inborn artistic talent; it involves prolonged, some say life-long, training and education; it requires a formal qualification in order for an individual to practice; its practice is based on standards against which individual performance is measured; and it demands mastery of highly specialized, even arcane, skills. A real geisha is a professional.

Geisha are not to be confused with people of similar occupations in other countries, none of which still exist. (Refer to the explanation marked ✿ at the end of the article.)

Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by the famous geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, for precisely the reason mentioned above: breach of client confidentiality.

A geisha who wanted to remain anonymous

Mineko Iwasaki

Mineko Iwasaki (岩崎 峰子/岩崎 究香, Iwasaki Mineko, born 1949, now 79 years old) is a retired geisha whom Golden had interviewed for background information while writing he was writing the novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, the English version. Her lawyers asserted that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity, if she told him about her life as a geisha. This secrecy was because of the traditional code of silence that geisha have about their clients.

However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in the Acknowledgments part of the book (see, people do read those!), which led to her public exposure and the knowledge by her peers that she had breached their code of confidentiality. (Remember the definition of a professional.) This only emerged when the novel was published in Japanese. Consequently, she was harassed and threatened. In 2003, Golden’s publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court, for an undisclosed sum of money.

That did not lessen the popularity of the book – rather the opposite. In 2005, a film adaptation was released, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Zhang Ziyi in the lead role.

Poster of the film Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005
Theatrical trailer for the film of Memoirs of a Geisha.

Iwasaki had in fact retired at the height of her career as a geisha, at the young age of 29. She transitioned to a career in art after marrying artist Jin’ichirō Satō in 1982.

Iwasaki later went on to write a biography of her life, and a memoir, which show a very different picture of 20th century geisha life from that which is depicted in Golden’s novel. Her life story, co-authored with Rande Brown, was published as Geisha, A Life, in the US. She wrote a memoir, also co-authored with Rande Brown, called Geisha of Gion, which was published in the UK.

A prediction that came true

In her autobiography, Iwasaki speculated that the profession could be doomed if the industry failed to adapt to changing economic and social circumstances. Her prediction came true.

The popularity of geisha declined into the 20th century, particularly because of the high costs of their services, and because wars refocused the nation’s priorities. The dividing line between geisha, courtesans and prostitutes became blurred as people struggled to stay alive amidst fighting, epidemics and starvation. In May 1956 the Japanese Diet passed the Baishun bōshi hō, the Prostitution Prevention Act, which had the effect of defining and ring-fencing the activities of geisha. Sayo Masuda writes about that in chapter 9 of her book, Autobiography of a Geisha (referenced below).

Today, the arts and the creation of personas that are practiced by geisha – from their performances to their apparel, voices and makeup – have become historic relics. They are the protectors and practitioners of the art and culture of a bygone era.

The decline in the number of geisha continued until the mid-2000s, despite the efforts of those within the profession. However, following the advent of wider accessibility to the Internet, okiyas began publishing information about geisha and their lives, and recruits (called maiko, geisha-in-training) again started joining the profession for the sake of learning and practicing the traditional arts – as if they expected it to be like attending an exclusive finishing school.

However, today’s teenage girls who have a romantic image of geisha and are thinking of taking up the profession, had better read Liza Dalby’s account of how she trained to become a geisha in the early 1980s. It’s an extremely demanding, competitive life, and only the best artists succeed.

Recommended autobiography of a geisha

Sayo Masuda

Golden’s book, the subsequent scandal, and the film that followed, led to renewed public interest and the publication of new novels, autobiographies, memoirs and fictionalized biographies about geisha.

One that was very well received is Autobiography of a Geisha, by Sayo Masuda, translated by G.G. Rowley. It was published in English in 2003, and, at that time, Sayo Masuda, whose life story it is, was already 78 years old. She wrote it in Japanese, and it was published in 1957 when she was 32 years old. It became a long-seller, meaning a long-term best-seller, and was still in print by 2005, is still in print today, and was adapted for radio and television. It is really the story of one geisha, told from the horse’s mouth, no holds barred.

Autobiography of a Geisha, by Sayo Masuda (Biography, History; Translated by G.G. Rowley; Publisher: Columbia University Press, June 1, 2005, Paperback; 216 pages)

I have read it many times, and each time it makes me feel really sad. It is harshly realistic, grim, and tragic – and it is a biography, so it’s all factual. It depicts horrible ways of earning a living, starvation, suicide, and illness. There is zero romance in it. It is the true story of how Masuda’s poor parents sold her off as a child worker, and she ended up as a servant in a geisha house, and later became a geisha. Even later, she left the city and went to live in a remote rural village, which led to even more hardships. The romantic way in which the geisha world is sometimes depicted is not what Masuda experienced. Hers was a cruel world filled with constant “pain and struggle” – particularly during World War II.

The style in which she writes is that of someone who expresses what she feels and what she remembers, baldly and without restraint, and with no idea of how ghastly and almost fantastical the events sound to readers. She was barely literate at the time, and this is the only book she wrote. I won’t quote a passage from the beginning of the book that depicts the earliest years she can remember – though those parts make you gasp they are so brutal. The title of the first chapter is a forewarning: “A Little Dog, Abandoned and Terrified“.

Later in the book, after her brother, who she really loved, kills himself, she writes:

“I rushed there in a frenzy, and in that instant in the operating room, when I was shown my brother’s mangled body, I felt as if all the blood in my own body had begin to flow backward. My head was empty; the only thing I could feel was something tiny in there going round and round and round. I wanted to cry but no tears would come, and in the end I had to laugh hysterically. Everyone says that I went mad. If I’d really gone mad, I might have been happy, but I was quite sane. Day after day I would sit in my room staring into space, drinking nothing, eating nothing, just crying and muttering to myself.”

Autobiography of a Geisha, by Sayo Masuda, p. 130

The book contains gritty black and white photos, Acknowledgements, a Translator’s Introduction, extensive references, notes, and a bibliography, provided by the translator and the publisher. These are all given to properly contextualize the biography itself, which is actually quite brief.

If you really want to know about all the aspects of geisha life, including the ugly side, then you should read this. I have kept my copy all these years, because it is one of those strange but touching books that you can never forget. And you have to remember that this is the story of a real person, who wrote what she did to silence the demons in her mind, but then completely disappeared from public life. In 2000, this is what her editor wrote to G.G. Rowley:

“She is now an old woman of seventy-five; more than forty years have passed since her days as a geisha. At long last she has found release from her past suffering and achieved a way of life that is normal and tranquil. Those around her now are people who know nothing of her past. I myself have not met with her for more than thirty years. Please leave her in peace.”
– Response from Oda Mitsuki, Sayo Masuda’s editor, to the request of G.G. Rowley, the translator, to meet and interview Masuda (c. 2000).

Afterword – Autobiography of a Geisha, by Sayo Masuda

Recommended novel about geisha

Yasunari Kawabata

There is a large sub-genre of historical novels specifically about geisha – with geisha as protagonists, or set in the geisha world. Do a search on Amazon or Goodreads and you’ll see. Many novels are thoroughly rubbish. There are also spin-offs and rip-offs that sell purely because they have the word “geisha” in their titles, and I have to say they all look awful.

However, the novel Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, is considered one of the best, if not the best, novels about geisha.

Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata (Originally published in 1948; translator: Edward Seidensticker; original language: Japanese; original title: Yukiguni (雪国))

Snow Country (雪国, Yukiguni) is an acclaimed novel by the Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, considered a classic work of Japanese literature. It was among the three novels which the Nobel Committee cited in 1968, when Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

There is a link between this novel and the autobiography of Sayo Masuda, to which I refer, above. It’s thought, and mostly accepted as fact, that Kawabata based the character of the geisha Komako on the real life geisha, Sayo Masuda, who wrote Autobiography of a Geisha. As a result, then novel is said to have a high level of realism.

Onsen geisha “Matsuei”, also known as Sado Masuda, who Yasunari Kawabata met in 1934 at an onsen where she was working, and upon whom he based one of his main characters in his novel Yukiguni (Snow Country). Photo dated c. 1934.

It is the tragic story of the relationship between a Tokyo dilettante, “Shimamura”, a wealthy man who thinks himself an expert in dance, a provincial geisha, “Komako”, and a beautiful young woman called “Yoko”. It is set in a remote hot spring (onsen) town in Japan.

The novel opens with Shimamura travelling on a train, and seeing Yoko for the first time, her face reflected in the mirror of the train’s fogged-up window (note that the translation is in American English):

“In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.  

The mountain sky still carried traces of evening red. Individual shapes were clear far into the distance, but the monotonous mountain landscape, undistinguished for mile after mile, seemed all the more undistinguished for having lost its last traces of color. There was nothing in it to catch the eye, and it seemed to flow along in a wide, unformed emotion.”

Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, Part 1 (Quote from an excerpt from the book provided by the publisher, Penguin Random House Canada, retrieved Apr. 29, 2022)

The novel is famous for Kawabata’s forensic-level analyses and minutely detailed descriptions of landscapes, moments of beauty, thought processes and emotions.

Recommended non-fiction about geisha

Liza Dalby

Geisha, by Liza Dalby (Sociology, Social Science, History; First edition: 1983; 2008 edition – pictured – University of California Press, 374 pages)

Liza Dalby, also known as Liza Crihfield Dalby, is an American anthropologist. She wrote The Tale of Murasaki, as well as Kimono (2001), a study of the Japanese kimono, its history, designs, uses, and social significance. Her book, Geisha (1983), is based on her experiences in Japan’s various geisha communities, specifically in the district of Pontochō in Kyoto. Dalby is probably the first non-Japanese person to have gained entry into the exclusive world of the geisha, to have got to know individual geisha, and to have been trained in some aspects of the profession.

Having read this many times, there is one thing that particularly struck me: how geisha have to change their voices and mannerisms to meet an image of femininity and submissiveness: speaking in a particularly unnatural, high-pitched, breathy voice, and walking in a gliding, mincing shuffle in their kimono and geta. No, this is not a profession for a single-minded individual. It’s absolutely fascinating, though.

The book is detailed, precise and factual. It contains a lot of disambiguation. The spinoffs from the book, including a vaguely-related film, are anything but, and should best be avoided. At this link is an extract from the book, provided by the publishers, University of California Press.

✿Historic professions and roles similar to, but not the same as, geisha

Source: Wikipedia – links in the text. These roles and professions, and practices are all ancient or historical and no longer exist.

  • Taikomochi (Japan – male geisha)
  • Ca trù (Vietnam – female storyteller-vocalists and entertainers)
  • Devadasi (India – female temple artist)
  • Deuki (Nepal – the practice of parents offering up their female children, called deuki, to temples)
  • Kalavant (India – Hindu temple servants, particularly those who participated in music and singing known as Kalavantini, literally meaning an artiste)
  • Nagarvadhu (India – a courtesan and performer)
  • Kisaeng (Korea – women from outcast or slave families who were trained to be courtesans, providing artistic entertainment and conversation to men of upper class)
  • Yiji (China – high-class courtesans in ancient China)

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