|Cover photo: Hideki Fujii|
Some hostels and hotels have a bookshelf where travellers can leave their old books and take new books along. That's how I snatched this book: from the bookshelf of a hostel apartment in Greece. I replaced it with David Nicholls' One Day and hopefully someone staying in the same place will find that and enjoy it as much as I did. :)
I haven't read much about the geisha - fictional or otherwise - but I've watched the film Memoirs of a Geisha quite a few times, because something about the geisha and the mystery and taboos that surround them are fascinating.
Lesley Downer lived among the geisha for many years and got to know many of them personally. The first 200+ pages of her book focus on the history of Japan, which is also closely related to the history of the geisha. This was - to me - the most interesting part of the book. Japan was isolated for centuries with no foreign contact, until in 1853 an American commander stepped ashore and demanded that the country be opened for foreign trade. Stories about the first confused and culture-shocked foreigners in Japan and their encounters and affairs with famous geisha sound like the screenplay of a soap opera...
The latter parts of the book mostly describe Downer's own experiences among the geisha, including personal anecdotes from different hana-machi, or geisha districts, especially in Tokyo and Kyoto. I found the book a bit confusing towards the end, because there wasn't a clear thematic structure or outline - just random stories of different geisha and their clothes, training, customs and behaviour. These were all interesting facts, but the book could have used with a more coherent structure and less repetition.
But I certainly learned a lot of strange and fascinating things. For example, I didn't know that the first geisha, taikomochi, were actually male and it caused quite an outrage when women began to perform on stage as geisha. Or that Richard Nixon, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are some of the foreign guests that the geisha entertained. Or that kissing is one of the most erotic things that a geisha could do and was - until very recently - considered so shockingly pornographic and taboo that it was never shown in drawings of the geisha.
The ultimate question that Lesley Downer tries to answer is: are the traditional geisha vanishing, becoming extinct, because they cannot survive in the modern world? Is there any way to preserve their ancient customs? The paradox of the situation is that the geisha culture depends on a certain degree of mystery, isolation and secrecy. The geisha are not meant to interact freely with the outside world. They are not supposed to fall in love, get married (although if they are lucky, they might get a danna, a patron) or ever forget that they are geisha, 24/7.
At the same time, fewer and fewer girls and women in Japan are interested in the traditional geisha training. Fewer men are able to or willing to pay the enormous amounts of money that geisha entertainment costs. So in the end, the geisha simply cannot make a living by doing what they traditionally do. So should they modernise their act, open their doors to curious tourists and forget the ancient rules of secrecy? It's a difficult question and Downer doesn't provide a simple answer.
After reading this I know a lot more about geisha and their history, but I'm even more intrigued by what it means to be a woman in contemporary Japan. The descriptions of marriage - where the couple can lead entirely separate and independent lives even in modern Japan - sound so completely different from what I'm used to that it would be interesting to read more about that.
Lesley Downer: Geisha - The Secret History of a Vanishing World. Headline. 2000. 434 pages.
JapanReview.net: Geisha - The Secret History of a Vanishing World