Autobiography Of A Geisha

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Overview

The glamorous world of big-city geisha is familiar to many readers, but little has been written of the life of hardship and pain led by the hot-springs-resort geisha. Indentured to geisha houses by families in desperate poverty, deprived of freedom and identity, these young women lived in a world of sex for sale, unadorned by the trappings of wealth and celebrity.

Sayo Masuda has written the first full-length autobiography of a former hot-springs-resort geisha. Masuda was sent to work as a nursemaid at the age of six and then was sold to a geisha house at the age of twelve. In keeping with tradition, she first worked as a servant while training in the arts of dance, song, shamisen, and drum. In 1940, aged sixteen, she made her debut as a geisha.

Autobiography of a Geisha chronicles the harsh life in the geisha house from which Masuda and her "sisters" worked. They were routinely expected to engage in sex for payment, and Masuda's memoir contains a grim account of a geisha's slow death from untreated venereal disease. Upon completion of their indenture, geisha could be left with no means of making a living. Marriage sometimes meant rescue, but the best that most geisha could hope for was to become a man's mistress.

Masuda also tells of her life after leaving the geisha house, painting a vivid panorama of the grinding poverty of the rural poor in wartime Japan. As she eked out an existence on the margins of Japanese society, earning money in odd jobs and hard labor--even falling in with Korean gangsters--Masuda experienced first hand the anguish and the fortitude of prostitutes, gangster mistresses, black-market traders, and abandoned mothers struggling to survive in postwar Japan.

Happiness was always short-lived for Masuda, but she remained compassionate and did what she could to help others; indeed, in sharing her story, she hoped that others might not suffer as she had. Although barely able to write, her years of training in the arts of entertaining made her an accomplished storyteller, and Autobiography of a Geisha is as remarkable for its wit and humor as for its unromanticized candor. It is the superbly told tale of a woman whom fortune never favored yet never defeated.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

University of London - Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies
Autobiography of a Geisha is a compelling... gritty and at times bleak account, but one which is related with great pathos and humor throughout. Rowley is to be commended.
Bust - Elizabeth Quinn

Her story is heartbreaking, but her indomitable spirit prevents it from becoming maudlin.

University of London Bulletin of the School of Oriental and AFrican Studies

Autobiography of a Geisha is a compelling... gritty and at times bleak account, but one which is related with great pathos and humor throughout. Rowley is to be commended.

Bust
Her story is heartbreaking, but her indomitable spirit prevents it from becoming maudlin.

— Elizabeth Quinn

Foreword Magazine - Marlene Y. Satter

[Masuda's] endurance of adversity is admirable, as is the down-to-earth way in which she relates her story. She is witty, realistic, and forthright about her life, and readers will admire her courage and determination.

Woman's Day - Judy Helman

As I read this autobiography I cried for the women who live their lives as geishas...Thank you, Sayo Masuda, for revealing your life to us.

Time Magazines Literary Supplement
A much-needed corrective to the romantic myths spun around this profession... Superbly preserved and sensitively rendered... [Masuda's] gripping, heart-rending and humorous account is a gem, especially as it offers a view 'from below' of the untold social history of modern Japan.
Foreword Magazine
[Masuda's] endurance of adversity is admirable, as is the down-to-earth way in which she relates her story. She is witty, realistic, and forthright about her life, and readers will admire her courage and determination.

— Marlene Y. Satter

Los Angeles Times Book Review

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.

Woman's Day
As I read this autobiography I cried for the women who live their lives as geishas...Thank you, Sayo Masuda, for revealing your life to us.

— Judy Helman

Booklist

Masuda's memoir is a must-read for those interested in the lives of geishas.

Persimmon

Originally published in Japan in the 1950's, Autobiography of a Geisha is a remarkably fresh and personal account of a life that is a far cry not only from the Eastern exoticism of [John Ball's Miss One Hundred Thousand Spring Blossoms], but also from the upscale and at least sometimes glamorous lives depicted in [Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha.

Times Literary Supplement

A much-needed corrective to the romantic myths spun around this profession... Superbly preserved and sensitively rendered... [Masuda's] gripping, heart-rending and humorous account is a gem, especially as it offers a view 'from below' of the untold social history of modern Japan.

Monumenta Nipponica

Since the publication of Arthur Golden's bestselling novelMemoirs of a Geisha, there has been a spate of books that an unkind reviewer might label 'follow-ons'... While all of these speak to a greater or lesser extent of the hardships and occasional cruelties of the geisha's life, none provides as raw and unvarnished account as Sayo Masuda'sAutobiography.

The Los Angeles Times
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. — Bernadette Murphy
Publishers Weekly
Masuda's account of being a geisha in rural Japan at a hot springs resort is at once intriguing and heartbreaking. There is nothing idyllic in her description of geisha training or life between the world wars. Born in 1925, Masuda was sent to work for a wealthy landowner when she was five. At 12, she was sold to a geisha house for about 30 yen, the price of a bag of rice. During those years, Masuda writes, "I wasn't even able to wonder why I didn't have any parents or why I should be the only one who was tormented. If you ask me what I did know then, it was only that hunger was painful and human beings were terrifying." Originally published in Japan in 1957, where it is still in print, this book grew out of an article that Masuda, who didn't learn to read and write until she was in her 20s, submitted for a contest in Housewife's Companion magazine. Her picaresque adventures as a geisha, then mistress, factory worker, gang moll and caretaker for her young brother offer an impassioned plea for valuing children. "Never give birth to children thoughtlessly!" she writes. "That is why, stroke by faltering stroke, I've written all this down." (May) FYI: While Arthur Golden's fictional Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) continues to be the yardstick against which all other books on the geisha world are measured, Masuda's account is a worthy complement. Readers interested in this culture will probably have already seen Atria's Geisha, a Life (Forecasts, Sept. 9, 2002) and Gotham's Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West (Forecasts, Jan. 20). Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The deeply unromantic life of a low-rent geisha. Some work the high-end world of Kyoto and Tokyo, and others work out of cheesy hot-spring resorts, their fare a stream of small-time businessmen, factory owners, and petty gangsters. Such was Masuda's lot back in the 1940s, when this rudimentarily trained geisha served more as an indentured servant and prostitute than an artful consort. Nonetheless, it was a step up from her stint as a nursemaid, beginning at age six, when she subsisted on leftovers and was mortified, tormented, and slapped about by adults and kids alike. In need of money, her mother called Masuda home and promptly sold her to a geisha house when she was 12. This unvarnished account, first published 45 years ago and still in print in Japan, does not paint a pretty picture. "Geisha's pride wasn't worth a broken straw sandal," writes Masuda, who made the mistake of falling in love and was then tossed out by the patron, who had bought her from the house. Turned away by her family, she reunited with her younger brother ("My dreams, my affections, they were all for him. He was my reason for living"), and together they struggled to survive in postwar Japan. In stark prose as fateful as a Greek tragedy, she captures a wholly dreadful existence hustling a few illegally foraged potatoes to a starving population for a few yen. When her brother contracted tuberculosis, Masuda intended to return to prostitution to pay for his penicillin, but he threw himself from the hospital roof rather than let that happen. She stayed hungry and harassed, thanks to hypocritical anti-prostitution laws passed in the '50s (and taken to pieces here), until this account shocked Japanese readers with itsbitter taste of grinding poverty and its revelations about the geisha world's dark side. A comfortless portrait of the flip side of the geisha world, where one is more slave than courtesan. A rock and a hard place-and enough to give readers gray hair.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231129503
  • Publisher: Columbia University
  • Publication date: 3/1/2003
  • Pages: 202
  • Product dimensions: 0.63 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 5.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Sayo Masuda died in 2008.

G. G. Rowley teaches English and Japanese literature at Waseda University in Tokyo. She is the author of Yosano Akiko and The Tale of Genji.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

Part 1: A Little Dog, Abandoned and Terrified Little Crane the nursemaidThe eyes of the oxen glow in the darkI, too, had a motherPart 2: The Sunburned Novice The dream palaceGeisha schoolI want to be a geisha, right nowMy four "Elder Sisters''The death of Elder Sister TakemiThe hot ironThe scarI learn my nameCruel rulesI devote myself to artPart 3: Miss Low Gets Wise Shallow riverA secret placeThe new noviceThe sleep-with-anyone geishaHow to be cute and sexyPart 4: Bird in a Cage My first customerThe geisha temperamentMiscarriageThou shalt not loveIn the party businessTip takerTsukiko's suicideRevengePart 5: Awakening to Love Number Two and Number ThreeTricks of the love tradeThe witcher bewitchedTrue loveAttempted suicidePart 6: Wanderings of a Castaway No place to call homeA brother's loveTears of humiliationWar's endThe dumpling-soup dinerPart 7: A Dream for My Little Brother Beautiful eyesPeddlerStreet stallGang mollLittle FoundlingSeven funerary lathsPart 8: The Depths of Despair My little brother's suicideReturn to SuwaReunionHappy daysFarewell banquetLove's anguishHappiness and unhappinessWandering between life and deathPart 9: The Road Back to Life Innocent smilePiiko the fledgling hawkVain dreamsThe Prostitution Prevention ActCats' paws

Columbia University Press

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2005

    A note for the potential reader

    It should be noted that a hotsprings geisha is for the most part simply a prostitute, and does not undergo the same training in the arts that a true geisha does; hot springs resort 'geisha' more often than not are girls sold into prostitution that only mimic real geisha, and are actually more closely related to the tayu of years past. Sayo Masuda was not a true geisha such as those of the Kyoto or Tokyo hanamichi. Simply put this account may perpetuate the inaccuracy that geisha are indigent prostitutes when in fact that is not the case. Nevertheless it is a good read and worth picking up.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2003

    Vivid Potrayal of Country Geisha

    This is a must read for people interested in the Geisha life. This is the often unthought of account of Country geisha. Most people only think of the Kyoto or Shimbashi Geisha, but this opens a person's eyes to the country geisha as well.

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