Going Geisha

Noy Thrupkaew

[A]fter 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. Fashion magazines urged women to “Geisha-ize.” 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.”

Why, I wondered, do Americans want to wear stuff Asians wouldn’t be caught dead in? I was determined to investigate.

I didn’t have to go very far. Passing a bookstore I stopped dead in my tracks, caught by a gargantuan display of the New York Times bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha. Arthur Golden’s “first-person” narrative from the viewpoint of a geisha was only the first of many recent books on the subject. After his 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. Next came Mako Yoshikawa’s novel, One Hundred and One Ways, which recounted the trials and tribulations of three generations of Japanese and Japanese American women, one of them a geisha.

Just what we need! I thought. More, please, on that lurid Western obsession, the geisha!

Going Geisha - Kyoto Journal


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 Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthéme, the 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.

That most Americans know so little about Asia was bad enough. That all they know of Asia seems to be this retrograde, sexist image was worse. And that this image is inextricably tied to Asian and Asian American woman (just type in “Asian women” on the web for a special treat of HOT!!! SEXXXXY ASIAN GEISHA HOOCHIE MAMAS!) was the worst of all.

So it seemed extremely weird that people were actually wanting to do the geisha thing. Was it what bell hooks called “getting a bit of the other”? Was it trying to get all those sex secrets off us lusty Asian women, but without the nasty disempowerment that went along with it? Because for everyone who was bored with being themselves, it seemed like geisha was the new persona to try on.

White Man in Geishaface

Memoirs of a Geisha had started the most recent craze, and I was going to have to read it, even though the thought of a white male pulling what one reviewer called a “ventriloquist’s act” by writing from the viewpoint of a geisha didn’t thrill me.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, I hoped. After all, Memoirs was so popular it would be released as a movie in 2001. 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.” Who would pass up a chance to get under those robes?

But 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.

Born into a poor, rural family, Sayuri and her sister are sold by their father after he learns of their mother’s impending death. Gifted with “cleverness,” beauty, and an unusual pair of grey eyes, nine-year-old Sayuri, then known as Chiyo, ends up working as a maid in a geisha house. Her plain sister Satsu is not so lucky, and winds up as a prostitute.

At the mercy of the greedy “Mother” of the house, a creature with terrifyingly yellow eyes, and the beautiful but cruel Hatsumomo, the star geisha at the teahouse, Sayuri falls out of favor and fears that she will be condemned to continue life as a maid. But while she lies weeping on the street, a kind older man known as “the Chairman” stops to comfort her, looking deeply into her eyes and drying off her tears, offering her coins and his handkerchief before he leaves. Smitten by this encounter, Sayuri imagines “a world in which fathers didn’t sell their daughters,” runs off to the temple and tosses the coins into an offertory box, where she prays that the gods would “permit me to become a geisha somehow. I would suffer through any training, bear up under any hardship, for a chance to attract the notice of a man like the Chairman again.”

Miraculously, a “fairy godmother” of sorts appears to save Sayuri from her drudgery as a maid. Mameha, a famous geisha, becomes the “older sister” of Sayuri, fighting Mother and Hatsumomo on her behalf, plotting and planning her young protégée’s rise to the top. After much adroit political maneuvering by Mameha, Sayuri finds herself in the midst of a bidding war over her virginity. After the right to take her virginity is purchased for a record price, Sayuri’s rise to the top begins. But her path to the Chairman’s heart is not free and clear yet, as she has attracted the notice of his closest friend, Nobu.

After even more maneuvering, Sayuri manages to sleep with a man that both she and Nobu find disgusting in the hopes that Nobu would break off contact with her; but instead of being discovered by Nobu, as Sayuri had planned, the Chairman stumbles in. Just as Sayuri thinks all her hopes are dashed, she, the Chairman, and the readers are saved by a Hollywood ending and everyone 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 over the 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? Because we like to use other people’s cultures to indulge our own dirty little fantasies?

Exactly, says Jan Bardsley, associate professor of Japanese language and literature at University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill. “The books about Japan that do sell have lots of detail, which makes them seem so ‘different.’ But the values in Memoirs are so American — the rags to riches tale, complete with an evil stepsister and stepmother. It’s a hybrid of these American values — you gotta have spunk, believe in your American dream with all its suggestions of upward mobility. But to put 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 not only a feeling of being “swept away” from their “everyday lives,” but of being “transported” by this “110 percent accurate” depiction of “a universe foreign to Western civilization.” Some even find this work of fiction enormously “educational” on the subject of Japan. In the words of one Amazon.com respondent, “Orientals have always been a mystery, but this book taught me a lot.”

But what exactly are Americans learning about? Geisha, a dying breed that in no way represents 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.”

These 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. “Women in charge [in Memoirs] are the bad women. The good women are looking for true love. There’s a certain American ideological investment in that,” says Alison Case, an English professor at Williams College.

As for the positive relationship between Mameha and Sayuri, it turns out that the Chairman had told Mameha to take the girl with the startling eyes under her wing. A relationship of mentoring and sisterhood is revealed as nothing but Pygmalion by proxy. After Sayuri learns of the Chairman’s actions, she says, “When my gaze fell upon my hands in my lap, I saw them as hands the Chairman had made.”

Worst of all is the way that Sayuri pines for the Chairman for years after her short encounter. All her actions are dedicated to being with him — she finds no joy in honing her formidable dance skills, except as a vehicle to express her sorrow that the Chairman is not her patron, or danna.

But this kind of all-for-your-man attitude is not really authentic, argues Case. “[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. The effacement of those from Sayuri’s consciousness is clearly not authentic. The effacement serves the larger cultural resistance to perceiving women as active meaning-makers. 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.”

In 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 that doesn’t challenge “American values” but upholds them, Case says. “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. It’s like staying in a hotel, going with tourists to a twenty-minute ‘tea ceremony.’ You’re not going to have to kneel for three hours,” says Case.

If 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, “That drugstore plot has appeared over and over again. Women are buying those 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.

Memoirs also offers women readers a chance to experiment with a different kind of sexual identity—that of the geisha who both performs and is the subject of her own erotic femininity. The concept of conceiving one’s own sexual identity is an important one, but the way it has been attached to such a negative, orientalist image is deeply troubling.

Just 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.” That Golden is a white man gains him even more applause — “I couldn’t believe the author was a white man,” is the gist of many Amazon.com reader comments — in much the same way that a straight actor gets extra points for “acting” like a lesbian, or a “normal” one for playing a mentally challenged person. “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.

And herein 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 whole context of Japanese ranking twentieth in literatures translated and the fact that most Americans can’t name a single Japanese woman, or an Asian American woman, his voice becomes so much more powerful.”

So 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.”

Told through the grey eyes of a fictional geisha, Memoirs also 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 — “too much water” says a fortune-teller — 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.

Sexing Up the Geisha

Is it better or different when a Japanese American woman — the great-granddaughter of a geisha, the author bio informs us — tries on the identity of a geisha? I was certainly hoping so. Mako Yoshikawa’s One Hundred and One Ways seemed promising. Kiki Takahashi, the Japanese American narrator, tells the stories of her mother and grandmother—the mother who eloped with a man to America, only to be abused and abandoned, and the grandmother who suffered through her geisha training and earned great love. Kiki herself is haunted, quite literally, by the ghost of her beloved friend Philip. After reading the back of the book I thought, “Hey, a Japanese American author writing about a Japanese American woman with a geisha as a grandmother. Maybe she’ll find a way to reclaim the image from the realm of stereotype.”

It didn’t quite turn out that way, and I should have known that from the first paragraph. As Kiki pulls on her clothes, she says, “I dress at a leisurely pace, pulling my underpants up and sliding into them with a swivel of the hips, snapping on a bra with all the strut and reluctance of a striptease. I may have spent most of my life in New Jersey, but the blood of a geisha courses through me yet.” From the start, Kiki buys into the Western stereotype of geisha as whore, and recreates herself in that mold, making us (me, at least) an unwilling co-conspirator and voyeur.

But although Kiki seems to be quite fond of thinking of herself as a sexy geisha, she doesn’t like it if anyone else does. She accuses her nice Jewish lawyer boyfriend Eric, “Are you sure you don’t have an Asian-woman fetish?” after he asks if he can call her by her Japanese name, Yukiko, also the name of her geisha grandmother.

The second chapter begins with a racial epithet that a drunk white man had accosted her with at a party: “The slit between an Oriental girl’s legs is as deliciously slanted as her eyes. Or so the saying goes, according to one man who never did find his way to my bed.” With this statement, Kiki’s sexuality as a Japanese American woman becomes both a point of vulnerability, and the site of revenge and power through the denial of sex. But instead of providing insight into the matter, she just turns herself into another stereotype — the sexualized lotus blossom victim and the emasculating dragon-lady sexual temptress all in one.

Kiki describes geisha in the same contradictory ways. “In Japan and even America,” she declares, “the word ‘geisha’ casts a spell of enchantment, conjuring the apparition of a beautiful woman, demure, docile, highly sexed and, most of all, always available.” Her next statement links this image to how she believes white men lay claim to her in perceiving her as an Asian American woman:

What my grandmother was to her customers, so, too, am I to a significant number of American men, Eric among them: the repository of wiles, feminine and erotic, one hundred and one of them… what a geisha is to Japan, a Japanese woman is to America.

But instead of rejecting the geisha projection, Kiki is strangely drawn to it, and exploits the sexual cachet of its imagery for all it’s worth. Thinking of her sexual blossoming in college when she changed her name from Yukiko to Kiki, dropped some weight, and “went out” with nearly every member of the tennis team at Princeton, Kiki says, “it was not until I became Kiki that I was able to adopt out of choice the life that [Yukiko] was forced into living.” Between accusing Eric of being a rice king and declaring herself an Asian sexpot, Kiki alternately rebels against and embraces this image of geisha as exotic slut, but refuses to be anything more than just contrary. Instead of a character who grapples with whether degrading images can be reclaimed and made into a powerful identity, or challenges her own notions about her sexuality and ethnicity, we get a reactive Me So Horny stripshow that spanks us for looking.

Perhaps Kiki would have less of a hard time with the yellow fever thing if she would even consider dating a few men of color, or associate with people who look like her:

. . . two Asian women around my age stop talking to look at me. They had been speaking in what sounded like Japanese. They covertly glance at me with tacit recognition and as usual, I turn away without acknowledging our kinship. Like my college roommates and my adult lovers, my childhood friends were white. Still, it usually seemed that no matter how hard I tried to disassociate myself from other Asians, we were all inevitably linked together in everybody else’s mind.

At first it seemed odd that someone who was so focused on Asian geisha would be so reluctant to associate with other Asians. But on second thought, it only seemed logical. The image of geisha, as it is constructed in the West, has nothing to do with how real Asian people may imagine themselves. Caught in a magnetic push-pull movement with this stereotype, Kiki equates her identity as an Asian American woman with the relationship of the fantasy geisha to white men. She relates to herself and others like her only through the eyes of these men — as interchangeable objects of desire with no personalities or reality of their own outside of their relation to white men.

So it is no surprise that Yukiko the geisha never makes an appearance in the book to explain herself to us, or to contradict her granddaughter’s representation of her. She has become as much a fantasy to Kiki as a geisha is to white men. It’s not until the end of the book that Kiki realizes that her grandmother is more than a geisha, that Yukiko’s life may orbit around someone other than a man, that “one hundred and one ways” can describe the many permutations of love. But this epiphany comes as too little, too late — it’s hard to trash the idea of the whore/victim geisha of Kiki’s imagination, and the effect is more the reinscription of a Western male fantasy than of anything that challenges it. Kiki imagines herself as a geisha, and once in those kimono, can’t seem to get out of them.

Anthropologist as Geisha

Liza Dalby also imagined herself as a geisha, but to very different effect, in her book Geisha. Working as a geisha afforded her a way to understand and demystify the institution. Her goal was not to create a hot and marketable fiction that would repackage stereotypes and sell them as “authentic,” but to create a book that would present the words of geisha to a public sorely needing to hear them.

A white woman from the United States, Dalby had lived in Japan as a teenager and gained fluency in the language, even studying the shamisen, a classical Japanese stringed instrument, from the age of sixteen. While she studied geisha as an adult, the “mother” at a geisha house, or okiya, suggested that Dalby try her hand at training and working as a geisha. What followed was a half anthropological study, half personal narrative about her experience of becoming the first non-Japanese woman to train and work as a geisha.

Dalby is straightforward with us right from the beginning about the kind of anthropology she is doing.

I cannot pretend that I was the invisible observer, seeing but not seen, simply reporting what appeared before my eyes, and it would be disingenuous of me to say that my presence had no influence on the interactions I sought to record. On the contrary: during my brief career as a geisha, Ichigiku [Dalby’s geisha name] became rather famous in Japan, and I was interviewed almost as often as I conducted interviews.

This is an interesting contrast to Memoirs, in which the voice of a geisha is appropriated by a now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t white author. In Dalby’s case, she becomes as much a subject of her ethnography as the geisha she studies — she describes the grumpy auntie of the okiya insulting her awkward walk in a kimono: “You look like a rabbit, hopping along like that”; recounts how passersby would take in her 5’7” height and mistake her for a male Kabuki actor in drag; and tells us how she was forced to smack a rowdy customer with her fan while visiting geisha in a hot-spring resort area. And by telling us about how she was interviewed so often in Japan, she shows how the tables were turned — she became as “exotic” there as a geisha is considered in the States.

Dalby does much to dispel simplistic ideas about geisha. Though often equated with “prostitute” in Western minds, “geisha” actually means “artist” or “artisan” in Japanese. Geisha are required to master at least one of the traditional Japanese arts — among them dancing or singing, or playing the shamisen. First appearing at parties of yuujo (women of pleasure, or prostitutes) and their customers in the 1600s, the first geisha were male comedians and entertainers. The first female geisha appeared in 1751 and they were soon considered the most fashionable, worldly women around, though they are now thought of as more “traditional” than trendy. Geisha attend parties and act as hosts, pouring drinks, engaging in ribald banter with men, and performing their chosen gei, or art. As one geisha told Dalby, “Our function is to act as ‘oil’ so that banquets and dinner parties may proceed smoothly.”

As for the burning question about the role of sex in a geisha’s work, the line is not clear-cut, a fact that often eludes those outside of Japan. “Our [Western] grammar of sexuality is pretty crude — sex or no sex, prostitute or not a prostitute,” says Allison. “Geisha can talk dirty, but they also talk about politics, dance, art, music. They appeal to all these different aspects.” A modern-day geisha may have a patron with whom she has an exclusive relationship, but she is not obligated to have sex with her customers. To engage in frequent sex with clients, Dalby asserts, would actually damage a geisha’s reputation among the other women in the community.

Dalby goes beyond dispelling myths; she explores elements of Japanese culture to provide a context for the geisha, probing into perceived differences between “wives,” “prostitutes,” and “geisha.” In addition, she travels outside the privileged geisha quarters of Kyoto, to visit the bustling geisha culture in Tokyo, and the rowdy geisha parties in the onsen, or hot-spring resort area of Atami.

Especially fascinating is her examination of how the institution of geisha reflects on gender issues in Japan. She explores how both wives and geisha see their roles in Japan: “Geisha are supposed to be sexy where wives are sober, artistic where wives are humdrum, and witty where wives are serious — keeping in mind that any of these contrasts is culturally constituted…” But where Western wives and women might express outrage over these categories, Dalby says, Japanese wives and geisha “see the distinction in terms of complementarity: as a feminine division of labor, where neither side need be jealous because one identity does not overlap with the other.” Esteemed as the center of the home and the nurturer of children, a wife or okusan (woman of the interior) does not generally join her husband’s coworkers at their parties, or engage in political debate or off-color innuendo. For geisha, these interactions are at the center of their work; they have a good deal of control over their economic situations, which many wives do not, but they remain relegated to lives strictly outside of home and family interactions.

According to Dalby and the geisha she interviews, a geisha in the 1970s earned privileges largely unknown to other women, including economic self-sufficiency, freedom, the possibility of high business achievement in the geisha world, and the excitement of meeting many influential people.

One geisha trumpets, “‘My choice would be either to be born a man or be born a geisha. That’s where the freedom is.’ Another says:

The one who gets the worst deal of all is the wife… A wife has to put up with everything foolish her husband does because, in the end, she has no power, no economic base, of her own. Men can have a wife, a mistress, and girlfriends on the side, yet can a woman do that? Hardly. It’s really an unfair situation.

But now, record numbers of Japanese women are choosing not to get married, or to get married late in life—the average age of Japanese women who marry is 28, by some calculations. Citing reasons such as enjoying their own independence and financial security, Japanese women are clearly making more options for themselves than were present when Dalby’s book was written. Divorce is also on the rise, perhaps in part because wives are increasingly financially solvent, and unwilling to “put up with everything foolish” their husbands may do.

However, many of the geisha’s criticisms still hold true. Japanese women are still woefully under-represented in the workforce, especially in senior or management positions, as they are in the United States; and life options still remain limited, despite the work of Japanese women to create more possibilities for themselves.

But geisha life doesn’t seem perfect either, it turns out. Among the potential work hazards for geisha? Being the “other woman,” they say — if one has the fortune to have a patron and the misfortune to love him — the “day-to-day psychological problem of living as the second woman in a man’s life.” And despite their proclamations that being a geisha is just about as liberating as being a man, when Dalby asks if the geisha world might afford women more opportunities than being wives, one geisha responds, “That’s true enough. [But] it doesn’t seem to offset the other disadvantages of being female…”

Geisha is an unusual piece of anthropology — threaded with conversations between geisha and descriptions of her own slow transformation into Ichigiku. Dalby’s book is invaluable for the focus it places on thoroughly foregrounding geisha’s voices and points of view, and the tangible ways it shatters Western preconceptions of geisha. But some points do seem to fall by the wayside. In her attempt to privilege the voices of geisha and understand their lives more from the inside, Dalby avoids taking a critical stance on not only how their work might be degrading but how the institution of geisha speaks to a larger system of male dominance and sexism in Japan.

Although Dalby does say at one point, “Men, on the other hand, freely cross over the lines separating the women’s spheres,” she doesn’t offer greater insight into the matter. As Allison says, “The geisha is still an outcropping of chauvinism, it’s still part of a chauvinist, gender ideology. [Dalby] doesn’t address that.” In her introduction, Dalby rhetorically poses the questions that Western feminists might ask: “Why can’t wives go out with their husbands? Why can’t geisha marry and work too? Why are there geisha at all?” All these questions are valid, but Dalby prefers not to address them, saying, “But Japanese wives and geisha themselves often have a different view of these institutions, one that we cannot simply dismiss as distorted or false consciousness.” While I applaud Dalby’s efforts to highlight the words of Japanese wives and geisha and to treat their opinions with respect, I also would welcome the insights of Japanese women who definitively call themselves feminist wives or geisha.

Discarding the Kimono

All three books flirt, to varying degrees, with becoming geisha. Each supports its “authenticity,” or “credibility” in different ways — Memoirs through the flaunting of research by a “real Japanologist” author; One Hundred and One Ways through the geisha bloodline and ethnicity of its author and narrator; and Geisha, well, because she tried it. Each tantalizes with the suggestion that between the covers of the book, the reader can have an encounter with the paradoxical authentic “exotic other.” And this is a large part of the appeal of these books. Readers, most of them women, are seduced by both the “truth” of “this is what a geisha is,” and the opportunity to use that “knowledge” to experiment with their own sensuality. 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, I suppose, 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. It is somehow apt that Sayuri’s eyes, “the color of a mirror,” throw back nothing but the image of both the intended audience and the author. It is just as telling that a Japanese American narrator, recounting her love-hate relationship with the geisha image, transforms herself into the very image that the public pays big bucks to see in books, TV, and smutty Internet porn sites — the sexually voracious, all-for-her-white-man Asian gal. Dalby is the only one who dares to complexify what a geisha is by truly putting on the kimono in order to better understand the words of the women who inhabit it every day.

It’s sad that the geisha image has become a source of fantasy and sexual play for U.S. women readers. Even in her own country and context, the geisha is a far-from-feminist figure — more powerful than how we think of her here, but a product of the web of troubling male dominance, nonetheless. With the horny-ho flava and trodden-on subservience that we tack on here, you have an image that is far from liberating. And 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 own.

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.”

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Noy Thrupkaew

Author's Bio

NOY THRUPKAEW is the former associate editor of Sojourner: The Women’s Forum. She is currently working as a fellow for The American Prospect. This essay first appeared in the November 2000 issue of Sojourner.