Thursday, August 6, 2009
Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden
Yes, I know this was made into a movie years ago, but I never saw it. I don't think I will.
I am fascinated by other cultures, but I guess this book induced a little more culture shock than I can handle. For concerned parents, there are sex scenes, though they aren't the passionate kind. I'm not going to let my kids read this one, because frankly, the attitudes in it toward sexual relations, abortion, exploitation and other grittier topics are not such that I want them learning about such issues in this way. They are out there in the world, but I think I want to approach those topics with my kids differently.
I did enjoy learning about what geishas really were about prior to World War II. I think growing up, I had the idea that there were simply prostitutes, but they weren't. Girls who were chosen to be trained as geisha were schooled in singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, elaborate tea ceremonies and using conversation to create a relaxing atmosphere for the men they would entertain. The etiquette, the makeup, the style of dress were all designed to present an ideal of beauty and refinement. Geisha were part of an extensive entertainment industry that men not only used to relax after work, but to develop business contacts and partner relationships. Geisha were registered with a local government office and a portion of their pay went to the teahouse owner where they entertained, a portion went to the geisha's "dormitory" (hard to find a literal translation for okiya), and hairdressers and wardrobe assistants and maids and many others benefitted from a geisha's career. In a way, the lifestyle was an attractive alternative for many young girls who were orphaned or poor.
The more exploitive aspects disturbed me. An apprentice geisha's virginity was considered a commodity for sale. If a bidding war could be instigated between two or more rival males, so much the better. A geisha was considered truly fortunate if she could attract a danna, or a man who would financially support her as his mistress. Only rich men could afford such an arrangement. Even though this kind of behavior must have been quietly accepted in their society, an illigitimate child could still cause a scandal. It appears that as long as a man was discreet, i.e. wasn't caught, it was alright. Abortion was simply a medical procedure to prevent embarrassment.
I know there are those who would criticize me for judging a culture of which I know next to nothing. I don't think the author was trying to glorify such a culture. I think the author was trying to show what a geisha's life might have been like from her perspective, and I think at that, he succeeded. I certainly wouldn't want such a life for myself or my daughters.