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Geisha life, unvarnished

Autobiography of a Geisha: Sayo Masuda, Translated from the Japanese by G.G. Rowley, Columbia University Press: 186 pp., $24.95

June 22, 2003|Bernadette Murphy | Bernadette Murphy is a regular book reviewer for the Calendar section.

Arthur Golden's 1997 "Memoirs of a Geisha" introduced readers to the glamorous life of Sayuri, a Kyoto geisha, in a realm in which the geisha is less a prostitute than a woman trained in the fine arts of dance, music and scintillating conversation. Though his novel offered plenty of hardship, all worked out well in the end when Sayuri, who'd become the distinguished mistress of a powerful man, narrates her story from a sumptuous room at New York's Waldorf-Astoria.

By contrast, "Autobiography of a Geisha" is a true story written in the mid-1950s by Sayo Masuda, a former hot springs resort geisha (the bottom rung of the geisha business), who'd worked on the shores of Lake Suwa in the Nagano prefecture.

There is little glamour in this poignant tale, which focuses on the hardscrabble aspects of geisha living and the difficulties Masuda encounters when she leaves that livelihood and finds herself unable to escape the taint of her past. The author wrote the book when she was in her early 30s -- more than a decade after she had left the geisha life -- living hand-to-mouth, earning 350 yen (a little less than a dollar) a day as a farmhand. A magazine offered a cash award for "True Stories by Women" -- highly attractive to one barely making it.

Never having received formal schooling, Masuda could write only in the hiragana syllabary taught to children in their first months at school. Her essay, in its childlike script, won second place and drew the attention of a publishing house, which asked her to expand it into a book. The resulting work is thought to be the only full-length autobiography by a former hot springs resort geisha, the translator tells us, and though the book remains in print in Japan nearly 50 years after its publication, this is the first time it's been translated into English.

At the age of 12, after working as a live-in nursemaid in the home of landowners, Masuda is summoned to the mother she didn't know she had. "[M]y mother didn't show me a single gesture of kindness," she writes. Rather, her mother, who had married a man other than Masuda's father and now had four children to care for as well as a sick husband, needed money for her husband's medical care.

The mother arranges for Masuda to be indentured for 10 years to a geisha house in exchange for the equivalent of 120 kilograms of rice, almost enough to feed one adult for a year. Initially, Masuda is treated poorly in the geisha house as the "younger sister" who must do chores and be subservient to the older, "professional" geishas. At the age of 16, she makes her professional debut and her virginity is sold for a high price. The mother of the geisha house then sells her "virginity" four more times to wring all possible worth from her. Though dance and music play a part in Masuda's working life, sex is the bottom line.

Masuda quickly learns how to keep her patrons happy. "If you sense that he likes, say, the sweet and helpless sort, you have to adapt yourself quickly to his expectations," she tells us, having learned well the art of seduction. "First, you watch a customer's face and wait until your eyes meet. The moment your eyes meet, you flutter your eyelashes ... then lower your eyes and look at him again.... You'd think that the next step would be to blush attractively, but it doesn't work like that. You have to pretend that your cheeks are blushing uncontrollably, put your hands to your face, stand up and rush out into the corridor." Beauty, in this world, is not as crucial as one might suppose, since "once you've smeared on a bit of white makeup -- assuming your face isn't on crooked -- you'll be about as beautiful as anyone else. Whether you sell or don't sell depends entirely on your own efforts."

Masuda's story covers the time she lives in the geisha house and then, as she's taken as a mistress by a local man known as Cockeye, living in the home he sets up for her. When she can tolerate that world no longer, she runs away, falling into the extreme depths of poverty as World War II rages. She rescues her younger brother from a miserable apprenticeship and together they try to make a decent life for themselves. At the age of 21, she has only one desire: to help her brother get an education. "My life was already over; it was enough that I should be the soil from which he could grow."

The writing throughout is quite plain and utterly unsentimental, more a self-narrated ethnography than a work of literature. Still, what is lost in literary style is more than compensated with the bracing slap of truth as she depicts the realities of geisha life and its sullied aftermath. Courageously, Masuda refuses to put white makeup on the unsightly aspects of her tale, inviting readers to take a long, hard look at the unadulterated face of geisha living.

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