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Written by Noy Thrupkaew
Part 4 of 5

At first it seemed odd that someone who was so focused on Asian geisha would be so reluctant to associate with other Asians. But on second thought, it only seemed logical. The image of geisha, as it is constructed in the West, has nothing to do with how real Asian people may imagine themselves. Caught in a magnetic push-pull movement with this stereotype, Kiki equates her identity as an Asian American woman with the relationship of the fantasy geisha to white men. She relates to herself and others like her only through the eyes of these men-as interchangeable objects of desire with no personalities or reality of their own outside of their relation to white men.

So it is no surprise that Yukiko the geisha never makes an appearance in the book to explain herself to us, or to contradict her granddaughter's representation of her. She has become as much a fantasy to Kiki as a geisha is to white men. It's not until the end of the book that Kiki realizes that her grandmother is more than a geisha, that Yukiko's life may orbit around someone other than a man, that "one hundred and one ways" can describe the many permutations of love. But this epiphany comes as too little, too late-it's hard to trash the idea of the whore/victim geisha of Kiki's imagination, and the effect is more the reinscription of a Western male fantasy than of anything that challenges it. Kiki imagines herself as a geisha, and once in those kimono, can't seem to get out of them.


Read Liz Dalby's Geisha by CLICKING HERE! Liza Dalby also imagined herself as a geisha, but to very different effect, in her book Geisha. Working as a geisha afforded her a way to understand and demystify the institution. Her goal was not to create a hot and marketable fiction that would repackage stereotypes and sell them as "authentic," but to create a book that would present the words of geisha to a public sorely needing to hear them.

A white woman from the United States, Dalby had lived in Japan as a teenager and gained fluency in the language, even studying the shamisen, a classical Japanese stringed instrument, from the age of sixteen. While she studied geisha as an adult, the "mother" at a geisha house, or okiya, suggested that Dalby try her hand at training and working as a geisha. What followed was a half anthropological study, half personal narrative about her experience of becoming the first non-Japanese woman to train and work as a geisha. Dalby is straightforward with us right from the beginning about the kind of anthropology she is doing.

The Author
Noy Thrupkaew

Noy Thrupkaew is the former associate editor of Sojourner: The Women's Forum, a 25-year-old national feminist publication. She writes frequently on international women's human rights, welfare policy, prison issues, and Asian and Asian American literature and film.

In September 2001, she will participate in a fellowship at The American Prospect in Washington, DC.

I cannot pretend that I was the invisible observer, seeing but not seen, simply reporting what appeared before my eyes, and it would be disingenuous of me to say that my presence had no influence on the interactions I sought to record. On the contrary: during my brief career as a geisha, Ichigiku [Dalby's geisha name] became rather famous in Japan, and I was interviewed almost as often as I conducted interviews.

This is an interesting contrast is an interesting contrast to Memoirs, in which the voice of a geisha is appropriated by a now-you-see-him-now-you-don't white author. In Dalby's case, she becomes as much a subject of her ethnography as the geisha she studies-she describes the grumpy auntie of the okiya insulting her awkward walk in a kimono: "You look like a rabbit, hopping along like that"; recounts how passersby would take in her 5'7" height and mistake her for a male Kabuki actor in drag; and tells us how she was forced to smack a rowdy customer with her fan while visiting geisha in a hot-spring resort area. And by telling us about how she was interviewed so often in Japan, she shows how the tables were turned-she became as "exotic" there as a geisha is considered in the States.

Dalby does much to dispel simplistic ideas about geisha. Though often equated with "prostitute" in Western minds, "geisha" actually means "artist" or "artisan" in Japanese. Geisha are required to master at least one of the traditional Japanese arts-among them dancing or singing, or playing the shamisen. First appearing at parties of yuujo (women of pleasure, or prostitutes) and their customers in the 1600s, the first geisha were male comedians and entertainers. The first female geisha appeared in 1751 and they were soon considered the most fashionable, worldly women around, though they are now thought of as more "traditional" than trendy. Geisha attend parties and act as hosts, pouring drinks, engaging in ribald banter with men, and performing their chosen gei, or art. As one geisha told Dalby, "Our function is to act as 'oil' so that banquets and dinner parties may proceed smoothly."

To read Arthur Golden's book - Memoirs of a Geisha, CLICK HERE! As for the burning question for the burning question about the role of sex in a geisha's work, the line is not clear-cut, a fact that often eludes those outside of Japan. "Our [Western] grammar of sexuality is pretty crude-sex or no sex, prostitute or not a prostitute," says Allison. "Geisha can talk dirty, but they also talk about politics, dance, art, music. They appeal to all these different aspects." A modern-day geisha may have a patron with whom she has an exclusive relationship, but she is not obligated to have sex with her customers. To engage in frequent sex with clients, Dalby asserts, would actually damage a geisha's reputation among the other women in the community.

Dalby goes beyond dispelling myths; she explores elements of Japanese culture to provide a context for the geisha, probing into perceived differences between "wives," "prostitutes," and "geisha." In addition, she travels outside the privileged geisha quarters of Kyoto, to visit the bustling geisha culture in Tokyo, and the rowdy geisha parties in the onsen, or hot-spring resort area of Atami.

Especially fascinating is her examination of how the institution of geisha reflects on gender issues in Japan. She explores how both wives and geisha see their roles in Japan: "Geisha are supposed to be sexy where wives are sober, artistic where wives are humdrum, and witty where wives are serious-keeping in mind that any of these contrasts is culturally constituted. . . ." But where Western wives and women might express outrage over these categories, Dalby says, Japanese wives and geisha "see the distinction in terms of complementarity: as a feminine division of labor, where neither side need be jealous because one identity does not overlap with the other." Esteemed as the center of the home and the nurturer of children, a wife or okusan (woman of the interior) does not generally join her husband's coworkers at their parties, or engage in political debate or off-color innuendo. For geisha, these interactions are at the center of their work; they have a good deal of control over their economic situations, which many wives do not, but they remain relegated to lives strictly outside of home and family interactions.

* Part 5 * Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 *

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