The challenge of a Geisha, like all artIsts, is to distill Truth into a gift, with which to distract the rest of us from the grind of life.
My first awareness of Japan and the people of Japan was when I was seven years old, on the afternoon of December 7, 1941. I remember exactly where I was when paperboys ran through our street shouting. An extra-edition newspaper’s bold headline read JAPANESE SNEAK ATTACK PEARL HARBOR. In a few short hours, my seven-year old world was expanded to include “Pearl Harbor”, “Pacific Ocean”, “Asia”, “Japan”, “Japanese dive bombers”, “Japanese aircraft carriers”, “sunken battleships”, and “little Japanese monsters”. Some moments in life become the stage for the complex odysseys which play out over years.
In the next few days, all Japanese were vilified. I lived in a world of white, Angglo-Saxon Protestants. We “learned” that the Japanese were short, yellow non-human monsters with buck teeth, very thick glasses and swords. They believed their Emperor was God. They were not only the enemy but the other, alien, and nothing like us. Our soldiers were told to “Zap a Jap”. There were 70, 000 American residents of Japanese ancestry, living in the USA, who were very quickly incarcerated in internment camps. (See another excellent novel: Snow Falling on Cedars .(1) After four years and numerous “Iwo Jima’s” purchased with the shortened lives of 60 million people (3% of the World’s population) , “we taught the ‘Japs’ a lesson” by dropping atom bombs on them. We won The War! My uncle came back from The War, when I was about twelve, with the pistol and sword from a Japanese officer, for me, as war trophies. I never thought about the man who had carried that sword for his country.
About twenty years later, I was stationed in Hawaii and actually lived on the banks of Pearl Harbor with numerous neighbors of Japanese ancestry. These genuine people, I found, got married, taught school, or were shop keepers or nurses. They had babies whom they wanted to send to college to become doctors, social workers or artists. I traveled to Japan three times including Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara. I found beautiful people, in a beautiful country, who appreciated the tea ceremony and were masters at arraigning flowers. They loved Levi jeans and Les Paul guitars! They were neat as pins and they moved efficiently, with purpose, through exceptionally clean streets. There were no little yellow monsters.
Memoirs of a Geisha is a remarkable, very personal, intensely human story. This is a life of one human, little girl with the pseudo-name Chiyo, surviving, just like our small lives , except for the nation in which she found herself. The author says that this was a dictated autobiography, told in the first person from her diary entries. Chiyo was a child of the second family of an old fisherman. When her mother died she was sold to an okiya, a Geisha house, where she was an indentured servant. We follow Chiyo from pre-puberbesnce to the end of her life, to New York City, where she has become the proprietor of a Japanese Tea house. We share her fears, the turmoil of her adolescence and the transformational experiences of a young woman. She passes through the similar transient victories, disappointments and losses which are experienced by American girls/ women. (There was more than one Chiyo in my home town. There was an orphanage near my school and the orphans were my class mates. They sat next to us, in class, wearing our cast off clothes.) Through long, numerous, demeaning and awkward periods, Chiyo finally maneuvers into a yearned-for relationship with a mentor, “The Chairman”, (a married father and, and subsequently, the father of her illegitimate son).
The Western mind thinks of sex when the word Geisha appears. Physical intimacy is only one arrow in the quiver of a Geisha and not nearly the first. The required performance and entertainment skills of the Geisha are infinitely greater than that of ladies-of- the-night, who are far more numerous. The Geisha is a specialist in treating great stress and fatigue. The first Geishas were male artists. It is their responsibility to orchestrate a room into one full of beauty. The Geisha learns to make herself idealized in appearance, with perfect makeup, with perfectly fixed hair, in order to exude peace with a pleasant facial expression of flat affect. She is meticulously dressed, by a professional dresser, in magnificent, expensive kimonas (each unique), She is to appear to be a life-sized, beautiful, perfect doll. She must cultivate the perfect salubrious understated conversation to promote healing.
The story, of course, includes sexual content which is necessary for completeness, but it is subordinate to the rich narrative of the personal private feelings of one woman. The ladder out from her situation is the opportunity to become a Geisha and become sponsored by a Donna, a wealthy man. Becoming a Geisha is an infrequent and cherished chance to escape base servitude. Becoming a Geisha is an artistic achievement which requires specific schooling and intense mentoring, and no small amount of determination. She suffers through the lies and harassment of her competitors. Having become an apprentice Geisha, she assumes a new identity, Sayuri. Geishas are a high stakes sorority with an elaborate pecking order. The Geisha must be, at at all times, perfect while her life and love are sacrificed in an effort to give men, who choose her, absolute psychological, and sometimes physical, pleasure.
There is a painful episode, which will leave you in tears. When, in her middle teens, she has a “Mizuage” where very wealthy men bid great sums of money to the Head of The Okiya for the privilege of deflowering Chiyo/ Sayuri. She is given little preparation or understanding. The winner is a wealthy physician, no less, who, with studied detachment and without the smallest token of empathy, he robs from Chiyo this unique passage in her life.
What is conveyed is the sameness of her life with ours, the recognition of the universality of “child-ness”, of the “coming of age”, the simple dreams, being bullied, the deceptions, and the barriers in the journey for a chosen partner. This is a Shakespearean drama with a twist of Pygmalion (2) illustrating the history and sociology of the Japanese culture, in mid-Twentieth Century, where the setting and scenery are foreign to us , but the human souls, emotions, dreams and trials are the same as ours.
“Memoirs of a Geisha is a must read for anyone who appreciates beauty. The irony of the story is its paradoxical play on the complexities of manmade beauty.”
All life is one.
Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden, Barnes and Noble, 1997 and Audiobooks
(1) Snow Falling on Cedars,, David Guterson, Barnes and Noble, 1999
(2) Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw, a play, London, 1913.