The Return of the Book Review!

Finished a book last night that I had never read before; Geisha by Liza Dalby is an account of her time in Japan studying the world of geisha from the inside. She was described while she was there as “the blue-eyed geisha”, so she has some legitimate claim to be the only non-Japanese geisha. After suffering through Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, it was refreshing to read something that was well-written and actually contained some information about geisha that could be relied upon.

While Dalby is obviously very sympathetic to geisha and the system in which they operate, she does not avoid noting that the system was much harsher and more exploitative in the years past. She also notes the confusion in the West between geisha and prostitutes did not arise solely out of ignorance or a Western contempt with Japanese culture, but also had much to do with the geisha culture straddling the line between society proper and the world in which normal constraints are abandoned. The world of the geisha is known as the “flower and willow” world. She notes that even at the time of her writing (1970’s) there was still some overlap between the notion of geisha as performers and entertainers and as prostitutes. The overlap is small, but within certain confines, geisha are expected to present a moderately lascivious entertainment (though in the West where such entertainment is far more explicit, it would hardly be recognized as such) and so the lower rungs of the geisha world still containing members who are willing to prostitute themselves is not so surprising.

On the other hand, from her description, the overlap is small and the majority of geisha are truly entertainers (please see the discussion of mizu-age below for an exception, though this is no longer a common practice), though, because there is no real correlate in the Western world, it can be difficult to see this. Indeed, it seems those at the peak of their profession can be quite the consummate dancers, singers and musicians and the necessary abilities of a truly competent geisha is a daunting list. Not only must they be able to hold their alcohol well, but while drinking be able to maintain an ability to perform the dances and songs that are demanded by customers.

I debated about whether or not to include this next question on my blog, but I think it ought to be brought up since it has a bearing on what I’ve already talked about and it seems to be a point of controversy between Arthur Golden and Mineko Iwasaki; she was the person upon whom Golden “based” his book and who later sued him for that assertion. The question is, what does mizu-age entail? Golden avers that it indicates the selling of an apprentice geisha’s virginity as part of the transition from childhood to adulthood or from being an apprentice to a full-fledged geisha.

Iwasaki claims that this is a complete falsehood (she wrote a book the purpose of which, at least in part, was to repudiate Golden’s) and in fact it has never been the case with geisha. Her vehemence is such that it is worth quoting the relevant section of an interview in full here.

Q: Talk to me about the mizuage ceremony. What is it, and why is there so much confusion about it?

A: This again goes back to the separation between the pleasure quarter and the entertainment quarter. Mizuage is really a coming-of-age ceremony, and apparently there was some selling of the virginity that went on in association with that ritual ceremony in the pleasure district a long time ago. However, that has never been true for the geisha. For the geisha, it was simply when they were becoming a young woman, similar to a sweet 16 in the West, and it was symbolized by the change in hairstyle, into a more womanly, grown-up hairstyle. And also certain subtle changes in the ensembles. There are a lot of rites of passage, but for some reason this one has been really latched on by people, and maybe it’s because of this misunderstanding.

Also, it is true that as with many of the rituals and rites of passage, once one has become a maiko [geisha-in-training], or a geiko, it’s very expensive, because every time you go through an entire change of kimono, for example, or of hairstyle and you need different hair ornaments, these are expensive things. For me, I was the successor to the house, the atotori, so there was no question that the money was there to provide this. But if someone is coming from the outside and training, as basically someone who is there under contract, it is expensive, and sometimes they do ask their patrons to help pay for the cost involved in making the transition.

Q: But their virginity isn’t offered in exchange for that help?

A: That is never on the table. There is one other potential source of confusion, and that is with the word “mizuage” itself. In the Gion, the geisha district, and in many areas of the entertainment industry, “mizuage” is also a term that directly means “gross earnings,” because it’s an old fishing term; as you may know, Japan was dependent on fishing for one of its main economic bases for many years. “Mizuage” means “to take out of the water.” It stood for the catch. “What was your catch?” — “How much money did you make from the water?” So when I refer to mizuage, I’m actually referring to my earnings, rather than the ceremony itself.

I bring this up because mizu-age is mentioned several times in Dalby’s book and its discussion is the subject of several anecdotes. The clear implication of each is that it does always involve the loss of a geisha’s virginity and that this is done for a price. One anecdote involves the indignation that a geisha would take the matter of auctioning her virginity solely into her own hands instead of relying on the assistance of the okiya, the house with which a particular geisha is affiliated. In fact, the glossary of Japanese terms defines mizu-age as “Sexual initiation of an apprentice geisha.” As much as I disliked Golden’s book, it seems that he probably had this aspect of geisha life correct, at least for the pre-WWII period.

The level of the book’s detail is such that with only a casual interest in such matters one may not enjoy it. On the other hand, it is detailed and authoritative enough to be well worth the time with a serious interest in Japan in general or geisha in particular.

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