After 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."
Why on earth, I wondered, do Americans want to wear stuff Asians wouldn't be caught dead in?
I 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.
Just what we need! I thought. More, please, on that lurid Western obsession, the geisha!
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 on.
White 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?
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.
Even 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."
But 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."
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. 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."
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. "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.
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, "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.
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." "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 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."
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 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 HOOCHIE MAMAS!)
It's 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 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."
An 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.