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5.0 out of 5 stars The World of the Geisha Stripped Bare, 18 Feb. 2007
This review is from: Autobiography of a Geisha (Vintage East) (Paperback)
There have always been two basic myths of the geisha. One is that they are whores in kimonos; the other that they are sophisticated private entertainers and conversationalists on a par with ballet dancers, classical musicians, or raconteurs, who may just occasionally sleep with someone they take a shine to over a line of poetry.

The second view is especially common in literature on geisha, like Hida Chiho's "Forty Years in Shinbashi" and even Arthur Golden's fictitious "Memoirs of a Geisha," based on firsthand accounts of high class geisha. This is also a view of the profession favored by those wishing to present a positive view of Japanese culture and society against Western censoriousness.

But the reason this dichotomy of myth exists in the first place is that there have always been different kinds of geisha, from cultured beauties with a tinge of sleaze to full-time tramps with a smattering of culture, and everything in between. Naturally, the `cultured beauties' have won out in the literary stakes, allowing a distorted and romanticized view of the profession to dominate. The perfect antidote to this is "Autobiography of a Geisha" written by Sayo Masuda an ex-geisha in the 1950s. It is a rare account of what life was like for the vast majority of geisha, those forced into a humiliating profession by grinding poverty and forced to survive through sheer guts and determination.

While tales of high class geisha usually focus on subtle points of etiquette, decorum, and status, Masuda's tale, by contrast, is full of the red, raw bleeding meat of human survival, as she details her life's odyssey through the lower depths of Japanese society. Working from the age of six as a `nursemaid,' she is abused, half-starved, and forced to sleep in a urine-soaked hempen sack in a storehouse. At 12 she is sold by an uncle to a low-grade geisha house in the provincial onsen town of Suwa, where she continues her life as a bullied servant with liberal doses of corporal punishment. This includes being thrown down some stairs for trying to prevent another girl being punished with a hot iron.

After some shamisen and dancing lessons, she makes her `professional' debut at the tender age of 16, and has her `virginity' sold to four consecutive customers, including a smalltime, cock-eyed middle-aged gangster who becomes her `danna' (main patron).

"His eyes were squinty, he was going bald, and his face glowed bright red," she remembers. "When he sat drinking in his quilted cotton jacket, dripping with sweat and leering with satisfaction, he looked just like an octopus."

Later `Cockeye,' as she always calls him, drives her back into grinding poverty when she makes the mistake of falling in love with someone nearer her own age.

What makes this so readable are not the frequent sordid details of the `floating world' but the central drama of Masuda's quietly developing resilience, determination, and common sense that drives her to made the best of things through constantly mounting difficulties. Indeed a large part of the book centers on her post-geisha life as a waitress, small-time vegetable trader carrying backbreaking loads, and market seller hounded by thugs and gangsters, and is no less fascinating for the absence of kimono's and scented fans.

The small victories Masuda wins are constantly highlighted by the sad fates of others, including another geisha who dies from a sexually transmitted disease and the tragic suicide of her younger brother, who kills himself when he becomes ill so that he won't be a burden on his hard-pressed sister.

The translator G. G. Rowley does a good job preserving Masuda's original tone, which is refreshingly unliterary and which explains the book's continued appeal among Japanese readers. Rowley also takes the trouble to update Masuda's story to the present, visiting the author, who is now in her eighties and living comfortably in her home region, so it's a book with a happy ending.
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