returning from Japan a few years ago, I was surprised to see that the States was
in a lather over "geisha chic"-which persists to this day. Chopsticks were stuck
in heads fair and dark. Madonna, that fashion chameleon, appeared in a red vinyl
kimono, with her hair in a sharp, asymmetrical bob that must be one of the
hairstyles Hollywood thinks of as that "funky Asian chick ‘do."
on earth, I wondered, do Americans want to wear stuff Asians wouldn’t be caught
didn’t have to go very far to find a reason. Passing a bookstore I saw a
gargantuan display of Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden’s "first-person"
narrative from the viewpoint of a geisha. After his bestselling book launched
the craze, Geisha, by a U.S. anthropologist and the only non-Japanese woman to
become a geisha, was reissued from its original 1983 printing.
what we need! I thought. More, please, on that lurid Western obsession, the
There’s still a lot of money to be made on us sexy Oriental females, it seems.
You would think people would be over it already, what with the "geisha" figures
in Giacomo Puccini opera Madama Butterfly and the musical Miss Saigon swelling
the ranks of the passive, the pathetic, the eager-to-be-sexually colonized. Add
delicious subservience-Madama Butterfly and Miss Saigon off themselves after
their white dudes hike up their britches and run off-and "famous Oriental sexual
techniques" and you have something as real as an Asian blow-up doll, all hot air
and fake plastic. What was behind the urge to do the geisha thing? Was it what
bell hooks called "getting a bit of the other"? Because for everyone who was
bored with being themselves, it seemed like geisha was the new persona to try
Man in Geishaface
not thrilled starting my investigation by reading Memoirs, even though it was so
popular it would be released as a movie in 2001. But many of the readers’
reviews on Amazon.com had revolved around the yummy voyeuristic quality of the
book-they described it as an entrée into the "veiled," "forbidden" geisha world
of "secrecy" and "mystery," so I thought, Who would pass up a chance to get
under those robes?
for all the buildup about the book being so exotic, what I found was
surprisingly familiar. Memoirs read like some kind of bodice-ripper
romance/Shogun hybrid, and our geisha Sayuri was pretty much just a Cinderella
in kimono. Behind its ostentatiously researched "Japanese" facade lies the same
old story of a poor little girl who transcends suffering and icky sex to find
though she is gifted with "cleverness," beauty, and an unusual pair of grey
eyes, nine-year-old Sayuri finds herself in the doghouse with the evil
stepmotherish character to whom she was sold by her desperate, dying father.
Sabotaged by the machinations of a jealous rival geisha "sister," Sayuri’s
future looks bleak until she runs into the Chairman, a kindly man who inspires
within her a desire to become a star geisha. Our brave Sayuri then suffers
through a squalid bidding for the privilege of taking her virginity, more
scheming by fellow geisha, and endless plot twists and turns, all the while
pining for the Chairman and trying to extricate herself from the affections of
the Chairman’s best friend Nobu. The suspense builds until a climactic, tragic
moment . . . but just as Sayuri thinks all her hopes are dashed, everyone is
saved by a Hollywood ending and lives happily ever after. (A Japanese ending
would have had the Chairman and Sayuri fall in love and be happy for three
seconds. Then, agonized by their betrayal of Nobu, they would wander off to
commit suicide together, and the cherry blossoms would fall upon their cold,
dead, but indescribably beautiful faces.)
That’s it? Is this why this book has been on the New York Times bestseller list
for more than 50 weeks? Because we like our Western ideology and fairy tales all
dolled up in ornately foreign frills?
Exactly, says Jan Bardsley, associate professor of Japanese language and
literature at University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill. "The values in Memoirs
are so American-the rags to riches tale . . . you gotta have spunk, believe in
your American dream with all its suggestions of upward mobility. But to put it
in these geisha robes [makes it] new."
According to Duke University cultural anthropology professor Anne Allison, who
interviewed more than 80 Memoirs readers, and examined Amazon.com reader
responses to the book for a paper entitled "Memoirs of the Orient," readers
delighted in the details in Golden’s book. All those factoids about hair,
kimono, dance training, and how to show your sexy arm while pouring tea give
readers a feeling of being "transported" by this "110 percent accurate,"
"educational" depiction of "a universe foreign to Western civilization." In the
words of one Amazon.com respondent, "Orientals have always been a mystery, but
this book taught me a lot."
what exactly are Americans learning about? Geisha, who are in no way
representative of all the women or people of Japan; and about something else,
too-how impossibly foreign and different (in other words, bad) things are "over
there." As one middle-aged man reading Memoirs on the train told me, "It’s all
about slavery-how barbaric is that? We got rid of that centuries ago."
kinds of readings not only reassure Westerners about the proper place of our
enlightened culture against that of unwashed others, but they let us pull the
wool over our eyes when faced with some truly sexist politics that are dressed
up as "Japanese." Most of the women in the novel are horrible to each other, and
the ones who have economic agency or who actively seek to succeed for themselves
as geisha are depicted as grasping ogres. Not surprisingly, this depiction is
not really authentic."[In real-life geisha culture] there is a culture of
women’s economic agency, and inter-geisha ties that take priority over those
between geisha and men," says Case. "The effacement of those from Sayuri’s
consciousness is clearly not authentic. . . . It makes it easier to align Sayuri
with passive womanhood, and the transfer of this American story to a Japanese
setting provides a kind of fig leaf for that passivity."
effect, a "Japanese setting" makes people feel like they are learning about the
culture first-hand, when really they are just seeing a made-in-the-U.S.A. Japan.
"All of the cultural detail makes you feel like you are confronting the other,
but you are only confronting your own cultural stuff in different garb. What
makes it easy and pleasurable is that you are touring this world in a skin that
is pretty much culturally your own," says Case.
interpreted as "cultural tourism," Memoirs, which is enormously popular among
women, provides a kind of slipknot for readers who "[don't] want to think they
were just reading a Harlequin romance," according to Allison. Case concurs,
saying, "Women are buying those [drugstore] novels. They’re kind of guiltily
addicted, but Memoirs relieves that guilt because it is ‘culturally
educational.’ And then you can distance yourself from that plot-instead of
declaring, ‘I don’t identify with that, I don’t want to be that passive,’ you
can say, ‘she’s a geisha, that’s what it’s like in Japan,’" Case says.
as troubling is the way readers, most of whom have never been to Japan or spoken
to a geisha, have marveled at Golden’s ability to capture the voice of a geisha
so "accurately." "Some readers even told me they liked it more because Golden is
a white man-why would it be interesting if it was written by a Japanese woman?"
therein lies a problem that is bigger than Memoirs’s distastefulness as a book.
"It’s not Arthur Golden’s fault," says Bardsley, "but in the . . . context of
Japanese ranking twentieth in literatures translated and the fact that most
Americans can’t name a single Japanese or Asian American woman, his voice
becomes so much more powerful."
powerful as to muffle the voices of real geisha, it seems. Iwasaki Mineko, the
real-life geisha that Golden thanks most profusely in his acknowledgments, has
since renounced her connection to the book. Claiming that it is wildly
inaccurate, and borrows details of her life that she had disclosed to Golden
over the course of a week’s worth of interviews, she has even threatened to sue.
According to Allison’s paper, Iwasaki thinks of the book as "a ‘potboiler’ where
geisha appear as prostitutes-more a fantasy of Western men than an accurate
representation of Japanese geisha."
through the grey eyes of a fictional geisha, Memoirs presents a challenge to
those intent on dismantling dominant Western images of Japan. ("Mount Fuji,
cherry blossoms, samurai, and geisha," groans Bardsley.) Sayuri’s light-colored
eyes stand as an apt metaphor for the book itself. Presented as Eastern in shape
and Western in color, Sayuri’s eyes are as much a manufactured hybrid as the
book, all fairy tale and "ethnography," fantasy too often mistaken for reality.
Ultimately, Sayuri’s eyes are a dead giveaway of the man pulling the
strings-they reveal her as nothing more than a white man in geishaface.
Discarding the Kimono
Memoirs tantalizes readers, most of them women, with the opportunity to
experiment with their own sensuality between the book’s covers. As Allison says
in her paper, "women are flirting with a different sensuality: in the delights
of reinventing oneself, playing with masquerades and charades, and finding
pleasure in being the object and performer of eroticism." To imagine oneself the
master and creator of oneself as a sensual work of art, to feel the intoxicating
power of one’s own sexuality-these are heady emotions. So what’s wrong with
trying that on? Well, nothing, except when you throw a real geisha out of her
robe so you can get in it. Nothing, unless you parade around in a racist and
sexist image too often projected onto Asian and Asian American women. (Just type
in "Asian women" on the web for a special treat of HOT!!! SEXXXXY ASIAN GEISHA
sad that the geisha image has become a source of fantasy and sexual play for
U.S. women readers. With the horny-ho flava and trodden-on subservience that
Westerners ascribe to geisha, you have an image that is far from liberating.
That this image is the mode of fantasy for women certainly says a lot about how
limited our options are for picturing a powerful sexual identity-how we are
taught not to claim our own sexuality, but to project and shoehorn sexual
fantasy into an image that we can embrace, try on, and then discard as not our
Luckily, some feminist critics are using the momentum of the geisha craze to
critique these very systems that are so damaging. "Teaching Golden’s book is
good because we can address lots of images about Japan and the so-called exotic
Oriental girl," says Bardsley. "We can talk about geisha . . . to expose how we
feminize Japan, eroticize Asia." But it goes beyond Asia, as any critique of
geisha should. As Bardsley says, "We can discuss how *all* women are implicated
in these mass-produced fantasies."
earlier version of this article, which also addressed Mako Yoshikawa’s One
Hundred and One Ways, and Liza Dalby’s Geisha, originally appeared in the
November 2000 issue of Sojourner. Noy can be reached at