A Secret History: American Representations of Geisha Society
Geisha society has traditionally been shrouded in secrecy, which partly accounts for the many myths and mysteries that surround it. Whilst there have only been a few early-and mid-twentieth century examinations of geisha culture, including Akiyama Aizaburo’s Geisha Girl (1926), P. D. Perkins’ Geisha of Pontocho (1954), Adolphe Scott’s The Flower and Willow
World: The Story of the Geisha (1960), and Sara Harris’ House of 10,000 Pleasures: A Modern Study of the Geisha and of the Streetwalker in Japan (1962), interest in geisha culture has proliferated in the period since the 1990s. Only in recent years has the real, obscured history of the geisha been explored extensively, as well as the contemporary life of Japan’s remaining geishas. Signifi cantly, many of these explorations have been largely spearheaded by American anthropologists interested in Japan and other scholars of Japan.1 The traditionally highly regulated and very secret world of Geishahood has also recently been penetrated by a series of Western observers, including two American women who have been trained in the arts of Geishahood, and their subsequent narratives describing this experience are also explored here. Contemporary American books about the history of geisha culture include Liza Dalby’s reprinted Geisha (1998), Lesley Downer’s Geisha (2000) and Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha (2001), Kyoko Aihara’s Geisha (2000), the translation of Sayo Masuda’s Autobiography of a Geisha (2003) and Mineko Iwasaki’s Geisha of Gion (2002). Western fascination with the closed world of the Japanese geishas continues, as seen by the enduring popularity of cultural representations (from Pierre Loti’s Madame Crysanthème in the 1870s and John Luther Long’s “Madame Butterfl y” in 1899, to Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfl y, and David Henry Hwang’s 1988 postmodern version M. Butterfl y onwards), to later fi ctional representations. As I discussed at some length in my 2002 monograph, Negotiating Identities, the publishing industry’s current predilection for texts about an exotic ‘orient’ is directly traceable to the recent success of Arthur Golden’s depiction of geisha life in Japan from the 1920s to the 1960s in his novel Memoirs of the Geisha as well as the subsequent fi lm version, also entitled Memoirs of a Geisha. Both book (1997) and fi lm (2005) served up a mixture of tantalising eroticism and exoticism, culminating in the account of the apprentice geisha Sayuri’s mizuage, or ritual defl owering, by one of her patrons. Memoirs of a Geisha has been phenomenally successful and extensively instrumental in reviving interest in geishahood. Coterminously, the world of geishahood in Japan’s ‘hanamachi’ or geisha quarters, whilst still defi ned by silence and mystery, has in recent years increasingly granted a degree of limited access to outsiders, both within Japan and beyond; and in the United States this has spawned a new literary genre charting the history and practices of geisha culture, and the role of geisha women in contemporary Japanese society, one which is tantalisingly at once anachronistic yet modern.