Liza Dalby, the first non-Japanese ever to have trained as a geisha, offers an insider's look at the exclusive world of female companions to the Japanese male elite. A new preface examines how geisha have been profoundly affected by the changes of the past quarter century yet - especially in Kyoto - have managed to take advantage of modern developments to maintain their social position with flair.
She chose the Geisha as a research subject for her thesis. This book is a narrative of her time with the Geisha, as well as a brief history of the Geisha within the Willow World (pleasure quarter), and the greater Japanese society. She doesn't include a lot of statistics, but summarizes some data. She was there in the 1970s, so the modern portion does not have current information but the book is still interesting and informative.
While conducting her research, she stays mostly in a Teahouse or Okiya in one of the hanamachi or Geisha districts in Kyoto, called Pontocho. She visits other teahouses in Kyoto, in Tokyo and in the country at a mineral springs resort. While in the teahouse in Pontocho she is accepted into the world of the Geisha and ends up working as one.
They lend her kimonos, help her dress and with her makeup, have her hair professionally done, and teach her the basics. She is the first westerner to ever work as a Geisha. Part of the book is looking at how the Geishas and their lives have changed, not just from long ago, but before the war, just after, and into the 70s. The changes in the Geisha world are presented against the changes in overall Japanese society. Geisha history is also presented, and is well done, not a bunch of dry dates.
At one time Geisha were actually bound to their Teahouse, because they were sold by their poor parents. They were expected to observe and learn as waitresses and buss-'boys' in the Teahouse. When they reached 12 or so, if they were good workers, seemed to learn well, and had a personable quality they would be sent to classes to develop a Geisha talent.
Geisha means a person of the arts, and they learn dancing, singing, and playing on traditional instruments. They often specialize in what suits their talent and interest best. Those that didn't make the cut as Geisha were sold to brothels to become prostitutes. In modern times older girls try out the life, but many find the hours and the discipline required too much and quit. Only a few continue with the training, trying to turn their lives into a work of art. Young Geisha in training in Kyoto are called Maiko. They become connected with an established Geisha, an older sister, who mentors them. More learning by observing and doing is required, as they go out and work with customers. Once they are ready they become Geisha themselves. In the past the Geisha's virginity was sold, in modern times she becomes old enough, and has spent 1-2 years as an apprentice.
New Geisha must pay off the debts accrued (mostly for Kimonos) by working for the Teahouse. Once the debts are paid, the Geisha can work for herself, but will still be affiliated with a Teahouse.
The relationship between Geisha and Teahouse has changed from the past to the modern day (70s). Geisha are no longer bound or enslaved, their house can't entrap them in loans, and they are more independent. They also can't start as young, because of child labor laws. While Geisha are considered repositories of ancient culture and tradition, and given respect, many parents do not want their daughter to become one.
Geisha can't be married, so they must give up a husband and children. They are also seen as old fashioned, and by some as repressed. Dalby explains the roles of Geisha and wife and how they are not in conflict, she also spends time explaining that as working, independent women they are not repressed. However in my view, the prime function of a Geisha is to use her art to cater to men. She is at the mercy of their whims, wants and attitudes. Many Geisha parties are given by professional men for business colleagues, and clients - an old boy Teahouse network, that generally excludes women and helps prevent their moving into top business and political roles.
I enjoyed the book, and found it interesting and informative. It was written well and flowed easily. The Japanese terms and language were just right, with explanations of what they meant, but not too much so that you got lost trying to learn the language.
Dalby also presented the Geisha and the Japanese in terms of their own culture, and not as imperfect Americans.
I would have liked more information about the basic Geisha training and more explanation about the hair, makeup and kimonos. I also wish it was up to date, since I understand from other sources, that there has been a decline in the number of Geisha since the 70s.
There is a new edition printed in 2008, that has an new preface by the author, where she talks about changes since the 70s. I may try to find it just to read the preface.
However, this book was the oppposite - discussion of geisha and their history and customs, with added notes about her time as a geisha. It is very much a non-fiction book, which probably will put some people off, but as I'm interested in the life and origins of geisha, I enjoyed it. I would have preferred more stories about her time in Japan and discussions with other geisha, though.
It is very thorough without being boring, and definitely a great starting point if you want to learn more after watching "Memoirs of a Geisha", though if you want a real-life account of life as a geisha, try "Geisha of Gion" by Mineko Iwasaki. (I only mention the disappointment that it's a factual book, because the quote on the cover is so misleading!)