Social Histories of Japan 2 – Autobiography of a Geisha
Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda pub: Vintage
Second in my short series about social histories of Japan.
Usually when you think of geisha you have an image of elegance in Kyoto. And geisha are adamant about how their function is not about sex. This woman’s life was very different. She was an onsen geisha and it was almost all about sex, albeit that her art put her a step above the common prostitutes. Her life was also one of slavery in all but name.
Unable to go to school, unable to read, I had grown up as an abandoned dog does; and then at the age of twelve, I was sold.
The second half of the memoir recounts her life after the war and black marketering and how she had to go into prostitution to pay for her half brothers treatment for TB. A sad life.
If you’ve read Arthur Golden’s novel or Geisha of Gion the autobiography of a high class Kyoto Geiko, or Lisa Dalby’s anthropological adventure, you should read this to get a fuller picture of what was probably the majority of geisha’s lives before the war. Of course the geisha in Kyoto and Tokyo would look down their noses at the common geisha and not consider them true geisha at all. However that is what Sayo Masuda was; a Geisha.
As with so many things in Japan, to the outsider there are many layers and subtleties to negotiate. Only those within the society really know and they feel no great need to satisfy outsiders curiosity.
It will make you think again if you catch a rare glimpse of a Geiko or Maiko in Kyoto.
It is remarkable that she wrote the whole book in hiragana. She was able to write but had no education so was illiterate in that she couldn’t write kanji. I’d like to try to read the original someday.
She is still alive I believe and has the much better life everyone deserves.
Doug at Japan: Life and Religion has a nice (and probably more readable!) review.