Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West

Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West

by Lesley Downer


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A critically acclaimed author tells the enthralling true story of the real Madame Butterfly, a woman who became the most celebrated geisha in Japan and the first to tour the West.

At twenty-nine, she captivated the world's stage. From San Francisco to New York, Paris, and Berlin, audiences thrilled to her mesmeric acting and exquisite dancing. She performed for the American President and for the Prince of Wales in London. Picasso painted her. Gide, Debussy, Degas, and Rodin were among her devoted fans. She was Sadayakko, Japan's most notorious geisha—and its first international superstar.

In Italy, Puccini was working on Madame Butterfly. He had the plot for his opera, but he had yet to see a real live flesh-and-blood Japanese woman—until Sadayakko arrived with her troupe of traveling actors.

Madame Sadayakko is the true story of this extraordinary woman—muse to writers, artists, and fashion designers. Her adventures lift the veil on the secretive world of the geisha and reveal a missing piece of history from the turn of the last century, when Japanese women wore bustles and learned the waltz and women in the West wore Sadayakko kimonos.

Author Biography: Lesley Downer is the author of On the Narrow Road, which was short-listed for the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year Award; The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan's Richest Family, chosen as a New York Times Notable Book; and the highly acclaimed Women of the Pleasure Quarters. A frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Downer divides her time between London and New York.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781592400508
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/08/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.06(h) x 0.89(d)

Read an Excerpt

Madame Sadayakko

The Geisha Who Bewitched the West
By Lesley Downer

Gotham Books

Copyright © 2004 Lesley Downer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1592400507

Chapter One

The Geisha and the Farm Boy


One fine autumn evening in 1885 a young man was strolling along the banks of the River Sumida in Tokyo. It was a beautiful place thick with grasses and wildflowers, lined with cherry and willow trees. On the water, junks and fishing boats bobbed, while high-prowed boats like gondolas carried merrymakers to the teahouses along the banks or the pleasure quarters in the northern suburbs.

Anyone who passed the boy would have turned to have another look. He was strikingly handsome. He was tall and slight, fair skinned with fine, rather delicate features. His large, calm eyes were set wide apart and he looked about him with a pensive, slightly disdainful gaze. He had what is called in Japanese a "high nose," meaning that it was long, straight, and larger and more defined than the average Japanese nose, though still neat and small to Western eyes. It gave him an exotic, rather distinguished "foreign" look. His hair was cropped short and neatly parted. He was dressed head to foot in the Western mode-lapeled jacket, trousers, shoes, and high-collared shirt. He was every inch the student.

By the time the last rays of light were piercing the branches of the trees, he hadstrayed a long way out of town. In front of him was grassy moorland broken with copses, wild and forlorn. Behind, on the other side of the river, stretched the teeming hills and flatlands of the city. Smoke rose from a million cooking pots while all across the city oil lamps, gas lamps, and the occasional newfangled electric light were beginning to twinkle. On the horizon the dark silhouette of Mount Fuji soared serenely against the golden clouds of the evening sky.

The boy was about to turn back when he heard the pounding of hooves swishing through the long grasses, accompanied by a cacophony of fierce barking. Then came a shrill scream.

Clinging helplessly to the neck of her dun horse was a young girl, barely out of childhood. The horse was rearing frantically, trying to dodge the fangs of a pack of mangy wild dogs that surrounded it, snarling and snapping at its legs. The girl's hair was flying and her skirts fluttered wildly, yet somehow she managed to keep in the saddle.

Without a second's thought the young man grabbed a couple of rocks, heaved them at the curs, then charged into the melee, lashing out at the brutes with his stick. The snarling turned to yelping as the dogs turned tail and ran. Then he grabbed the reins, calmed the horse, and helped the girl dismount. She was shaking so much she could barely stand. He stood by respectfully while she caught her breath.

She was fourteen years old. She was tiny, a good foot shorter than he, with a heart-shaped face and translucent white skin. Her lustrous black hair, shot with a reddish hue, had come loose from its fastenings and tumbled to her waist. The story has it that she was dressed in a Victorian riding outfit of scarlet blouse and full riding skirts. She, too, had a certain foreign cast to her features. Her nose was unusually straight and long, her lips full, delicately shaped, and rather sensual. But it was her large eyes that were the most extraordinary. The left was flat like a Japanese eye, but the right had a crease, like a Western eye. She was the most exquisite creature he had ever seen.

Finally she began to recover her composure. Taking the reins from him she patted and stroked her horse, talking to it and soothing it.

"Are you all right?" he asked in concerned tones. "Thank the gods you didn't fall!"

"I lost control of my horse," she gasped. "I was so frightened! Where could they have come from, those awful dogs? I might have been killed!" She smoothed her clothes and tied her hair back into a long ponytail. She seemed unusually confident and assured, like one who is already a beauty and used to admiration. She had the chirpy, rapid-fire speech of an Edokko, a person born and brought up for three generations in the city of Edo, as Tokyo used to be called.

"My name is Momosuki Iwasaki," the young man told her, bowing politely. "I am a humble student at Keio University."

"I am Ko-yakko of the House of Hamada in the geisha town of Yoshicho," she replied, blushing prettily as she bowed in return. Then she swung shakily onto her horse and, bowing again and again, cantered off along the path toward the city. Her red skirts fluttered like a flower petal.

He stood watching until she disappeared from view. He could not help noticing her sweetness and pride and the skill with which she handled her horse. But such a girl, he knew very well, was not for him. There was no point even thinking about it. Taking the same path he started on the long walk back to the university and his studies.

There were many reasons why she could not be for him. In those days young people were not in control of their destinies. They did as their elders told them. They studied what they were told to study and married whom they were told to marry. Added to that, she was a geisha. That made her all the more alluring. But it also put her far beyond his reach-and beyond the pale.

Ko-yakko was not the girl's real name but a geisha name, like a stage name. Her birth name was Sada Koyama. As a child she was known as Ko-yakko, which means Little Yakko. When she became an adult geisha, she was given the name of Yakko. Many years later, when she first took to the stage as an actress, she put together her birth name and geisha name to make the name Sadayakko.

Sada was not born to be a geisha. She came from a well-to-do samurai family and might have been expected to make a good marriage and lead an uneventful life as the wife of a respectable businessman. But that was not to be. Life in Japan at the time was changing at an extraordinary rate-which was to have a cataclysmic effect on the life of little Sada. In later years she was interviewed many times. In a Japanese newspaper she described her origins thus: "My grandfather on my mother's side was an assistant magistrate and rather famous, I hear. Our house was in Nihonbashi, right where the Bank of Japan is now. People say that you can call yourself an Edokko if your family has lived in Edo for three generations. Well, I can claim to be an Edokko. We had a perfectly prosperous life. But then when I was seven my father died and our fortune declined. That year I was adopted by the Hamada House in Yoshicho."

Sada's mother's family, the Kogumas, lived right in the heart of downtown Edo, a couple of hundred yards from Nihonbashi, "the bridge of Japan," from which all distances in the empire are measured to this day, in an area called Ryogai-cho-the Money Changers' District. It was a bustling, lively area. The city's fish market spread along the quays, where the fishermen unloaded their slimy catch, and spilled through a labyrinth of back alleys lined with tiny shops and stalls pressed roof to roof. Nearby were the great white-walled warehouses where the hugely wealthy rice, grain, and sugar merchants stored their goods. There for generations the family had run the Echizen-ya, a large store that incorporated a currency exchange and a bookshop. They were town officials, pillars of the local community.

Sada's mother, Otaka, was a notable beauty. In her youth she had worked for a time in the mansion of a daimyo, a provincial lord. There she acquired airs and graces and an aristocratic style. Sada's father, Hisajiro Koyama, was such a placid, saintly man that he was nicknamed "Buddha." When he married Otaka, he moved into the family house and eventually inherited the business.

We do not know exactly when they married, but it must have been not long after 1853, that momentous year when the American Commodore Perry arrived with his Black Ships off the coast of Japan and demanded that Japan open her doors to foreign trade and friendship. Suddenly everything turned topsy-turvy.

For more than two hundred years Japan had been a closed society under the strict rule of the Tokugawa shoguns. They had established peace after years of civil war, but only by establishing a system of extremely tight controls. There was a rigid class system with the military at the top, from the highest-ranking daimyo to the humblest foot soldier, followed by peasants, who performed the essential task of producing food, then craftsmen. Merchants, who produced nothing and were thus regarded as parasites, were at the bottom of the social pecking order, though many had become hugely wealthy.

To ensure that no subversive ideas entered and disturbed the delicate balance, the shoguns sealed off the country from the outside world. It was a capital offense for Japanese to leave the country or for foreigners to visit. There were no wheeled vehicles and no gunpowder. Isolated from the rest of the world, Japan developed a sparkling hothouse culture-the culture of the floating world of courtesans and geisha, celebrated in woodblock prints and the plays of the kabuki theater. Only one small window was left open-the remote southern port of Nagasaki, where Chinese junks brought their goods and a small enclave of Dutch merchants was allowed to live and trade. Through this porthole news of some of the developments transforming the outside world filtered in.

By the mid-nineteenth century the country was ripe for change. The merchants had grown rich and frustrated at not being able to change their status, and the military government had turned into a rambling bureaucracy. The samurai still strutted around carrying two swords, but most had little or no experience of using them for anything except sport. They spent most of their time balancing account books.

The great powers of the West, ceaselessly looking for new territories to conquer and new areas in which to extend their influence, had long been interested in the fabled riches of this closed country; they wanted to prize open the treasure box.

Commodore Perry's Black Ships were the foot in the door. Perry was an emissary from the American president, Millard Fillmore. His mission was to open Japan to trade and diplomatic contact with the West, by force if necessary. He demanded that the shogun should allow foreigners to live and trade in the country and open some ports to foreign ships.

Soon there was an unstoppable flood of red-haired barbarians on Japanese soil. Their presence destabilized the whole crumbling system. It proved the spark that set the whole country aflame. Over the next years there was growing unrest. Young disaffected provincial samurai saw their opportunity to rid themselves once and for all of the decadent shogun and his hated government. Finally in 1868 the shogunate was overthrown in a coup d'itat. That November Emperor Meiji-only fifteen years old at the time-came down in a grand procession from Kyoto and was established with much pomp as the figurehead of a new government, dominated by those same samurai. Up until then he had been a purely ceremonial figure living in seclusion in his vast echoing palace. Thereafter, too, he remained a figurehead with no real power. Edo was renamed Tokyo ("Eastern Capital") and became the official capital of the country.

On the other side of the world the American Civil War was not long over and a railroad had finally been completed linking the country coast to coast. Queen Victoria had been on the throne of Britain for over thirty years and was nearing the middle of her long reign. Abroad the Western powers were grabbing more and more colonies and at home life was being transformed by the industrial revolution, with Britain in the lead. Everyone was arguing over Charles Darwin's controversial book, On the Origin of Species, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was completing War and Peace, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky had just published The Idiot. Burning with enthusiasm, Japan's new rulers set about creating a country that could deal with the West on equal terms. The original plan was to absorb the new technology so as to beat the West at its own game. But people soon became seduced by the wonderful things that the West and its industrial revolution had to offer. The slogan of the day was "Civilization and Enlightenment"; and everyone was in hot pursuit.

Young Japanese steamed off on P & O liners to Europe and America to study and foreign experts came to teach-British engineers to share the secrets of the industrial revolution; French to explain their system of law and military affairs; Germans to teach the Japanese about their parliamentary system; and Americans to teach commerce, agriculture, and technology. A British engineer arrived to oversee the building of the first railway, the Tokyo-Yokohama line. Within a couple of years after the coup there was a postal service, a telegraph service, a banking system, and a growing, well-equipped modern conscript army. All this, however, was hugely expensive. Inflation soared and there were cripplingly heavy taxes. For many of the established families who had prospered under the old order, the changes spelled ruin. Among them were the Koyamas.

In 1871 Otaka discovered she was pregnant again with her twelfth child. It was the worst possible time. The new banking system had put currency traders out of business. To make matters worse, according to one version of the story, the head clerk had been caught embezzling funds. Things were so bad that Buddha was considering selling the ancestral business. Added to all this, the couple were middle aged by now. They already had eleven mouths to feed.

Little Sada was born on July 18, 1871. For a few years Buddha managed to keep the family together. They moved to a grander part of town and set up a pawnbroking business, providing cash to impoverished aristocrats who had lost their privileges after the change of government. They still had money from their previous business and for a while were able to keep up their lifestyle.

The stories of Sada's earliest years are a little confusing. According to one version of events, by the time Sada was four, the family was already feeling the pinch. Daughters were expendable, little more than commodities. They sent her off to the Hamada geisha house to work as a maid. Not long after, there was a plan to bundle her off to yet another household. But the little girl had a mind of her own.

In later years, when she was sitting over sake with her daughter, Tomiji, Sada liked to recount the story of her narrow escape. One of her brothers, Sokichi, had been apprenticed to a metal sculptor called Matsuo Kano and it had been arranged that he would marry Kano's daughter that winter. Little Sada, too, was sent to stay at the Kano house.

There were two boys there who were her playmates. The five-year-old was lively and full of fun. But the older one, who was ten, was rather dull and quiet. One day all three were splashing about in the bath together. The older boy suddenly said, "You're going to be my wife, little Sada." Young though she was, she knew very well what that meant.


Excerpted from Madame Sadayakko by Lesley Downer Copyright © 2004 by Lesley Downer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Note on Pronunciationxiii
Prologue--In Search of Sadayakko1
Part IGeisha
Chapter 1The Geisha and the Farm Boy: 1871-188511
Chapter 2The Prime Minister's Favorite: 1885-188831
Chapter 3The Liberty Kid: 1888-189647
Part IIActress
Chapter 4Setting Sail: 1896-189977
Chapter 5"And How This Geisha Dances!": Lost in America, 1899-1900105
Chapter 6"The Witchery of Salome's Art": Boston to London, 1900134
Chapter 7"An Opium Hallucination of the Far East": Paris Swoons, 1900-1901160
Chapter 8The Real Madame Butterfly: Europe, 1901-1903187
Chapter 9Secrets of a Woman's Heart: Performing in Japan, 1903-1911211
Part IIIMistress
Chapter 10Wild Chrysanthemum: 1911-1917241
Chapter 11In the Shadow of the Peach Tree: 1917-1946263
Select Bibliography303

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