Book: Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha
Thanks to bookyish for scanning the front cover.

An uncomfortable, unforgettable, necessary read.
434 pages, ★★★★★

A Japanese-born woman in New York recalls her youth as a geisha in 1930s Japan.

Reading this, though, I learned more about the sex trade than about Japan.

Protagonist Chiyo was taken into an okiya (geisha compound) as a 14-year-old virgin. There, she learned the arts of etiquette and seduction, and was trained to sing, dance, play music, tell stories, pour tea and sake, and entertain rich businessmen and aristocrats. The most valuable skill she learned there was how to endure commodified sex. Her sister, Satsu, was also taken, but promptly sold into prostitution under the new name of Yukiyo. Geishas are, in a way, upper-class equivalents of prostitutes. Both are paid by the hour for entertainment—including sex.

After being given training and kimonos, geishas are bonded to their okiya by unrealistically large ‘debts’, which they must spend many years repaying to their bosses through geisha service. For some, geisha training is a once-in-a-lifetime investment that will make them rich and powerful (by meeting a danna, or sugar-daddy), while for many geishas, it marks the beginning of a downward spiral. In this respect, too, the geisha industry is remarkably similar to the sex trade.

In fact, geisha is written “芸妓” in Japanese, which translates as “artistic prostitute”. Uneducated, uncultured geishas (i.e. prostitutes) can only entertain their clients with sex—because they don’t know how to sing, dance, pour sake or play music.

Protagonist Chiyo leads a successful geisha career. She tries to find a suitable danna in a company that makes electrical appliances. Her successful run begins when a high price is placed on her virginity (as verified by incessant hymen-touching), and she is able to repay her debts to the okiya with ease.

Pleasing male clients is paramount for the geishas. At one point, the okiya boss arranges a meeting between Chiyo and the doctor—a potential suitor—by carefully cutting her with a knife and then sending her to hospital. It paid off: the doctor ultimately purchased her mizuage (virginity).

I see glamour in politicians racing to please millions of voters, or in celebrities frolicking around to attract millions of fans. But for some reason, I feel sadness in seeing geishas cater to the irrational whims of one person. I find the idea of a “VIP celebrity” industry quite disturbing. Admittedly, this conclusion is based on gut instinct and not on logic.

There are 50 characters in this book, many of whose beautiful names are lost in translation. Women’s names which mean “Bean Leaves” and “Little Lily” in Japanese are stripped of all meaning when transliterated as “Sayuri” and “Mahema” in this book. The original Japanese version is probably more beautiful than the English one. I can’t read Japanese, but I’d like to see the original Japanese names to complement the English.

The geisha industry is shaken upside-down when Japan loses the war in August 1945. Okiya are dismantled and many geishas are sent to work on production lines, where the struggles of geishahood pale in comparison:

“Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper” — final sentence

I recommend Memoirs of a Geisha for anyone who loves Japan, and for anyone who doesn’t know much about the sex trade. Not all geishas are glamorous, and not all prostitution is tragic; there are debatable ethical boundaries between the two, which I’m not even going to attempt to discuss here. The ethical debate becomes even more complex when you substitute sake (in this book) for the modern substance-of-choice, cocaine. Memoirs of a Geisha certainly makes you think. ★★★

7 thoughts on “Book: Memoirs of a Geisha

    1. There’s another book called “Geisha: A Life” (a.k.a. “Geisha of Gion”) which gives a supposedly different reflection of the same geisha’s life. That’s on my reading list, too. Have you read it?

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      1. No, my literary knowledge of Japan starts and ends with the Memoirs of a Geisha. I have read several accounts of the life of women in China, Wild Swans by Jung Chang as the most notable, but also Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.
        I look forward to your future book reviews…🙂

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