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Memoirs of a Real Geisha: Masuda Sayo's "Half a Lifetime of Pain and Struggle"
February 14, 2001 / 6.30 P.M.
Dr. Gaye Rowley, Kyoto University
The enormous and continued popularity of Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha has led to renewed interest in geisha, not only in the West, but also in Japan. The launch issue of Vogue Nippon, published in July 1999, and the June 2000 issue of the magazine Tokyojin, for example, both feature photo-spreads of geisha. All these recent accounts of geisha and their “secret world” focus on the entertainment districts of Kyoto and Tokyo; the geisha life is depicted as glamorous and aesthetic, devoted to the pursuit of art. Sex, if mentioned at all, takes place only within the bounds of a long-term relationship with a patron.
There is, of course, another geisha world, that of the onsen or hot-springs resort geisha. To the best of my knowledge, only one former onsen geisha has ever written her memoirs: she is Masuda Sayo, and the world described in her autobiography is the subject of my paper.
The training Masuda Sayo received in the geisha arts did not become a means of self-expression, nor a way of supporting herself as she grew older. Masuda writes against the view that the geisha life is glamorous and/or aesthetic; and she exposes as fantasy the notion that geisha do not provide sexual services for payment. She makes clear that in the world she inhabited, geisha routinely engaged in sex for payment, that this is what was expected of them, and that a relationship with a geisha at an onsen required no special introduction or intermediary, only the ability to pay. Masuda’s memoirs reveal the seamy underside of the pre-war onsen and the desperate poverty disguised by the onsen geisha’s arts.