Going Geisha



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

dead in?


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

I was

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

her prince.


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?"

said Allison.


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




Leave a comment