There’s more to Japan than “Memoirs of a Geisha”

This is the book written by Arthur Golden’s informant after he betrayed her trust by publishing her name in Memoirs of a Geisha: a novel below.

This book is a real memoir. I’m putting it at the top so no one misses it.

Scroll down to learn from an authentic Western expert on geisha, American anthropologist Liza Dalby, and for information on the concept of cultural appropriation, which explains the issue I have with Arthur Golden’s book.

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The novel.

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Get yourself on a screen where you can see both covers so you can see how the photo of Ms. Iwasaki looks down on the photo of the geisha on Golden’s book. I didn’t notice before how suspicous she looks.

Because of the pictorial nature of kanji, the Japanese writing system, imagery is very important in Japan; the literal shape of the kanji, and their original pictorial meanings, form part of the context of the written language. I have charts my bilingual students made when we studied a Japanese book in translation to demonstrate this to the foreigner because some things don’t translate.

So is this photography deliberate? Could be. It’s definitely awesome.

As part of my preparation for writing this blog, I joined several reading groups on Facebook.  One of the things that has surprised me is how often Arthur Golding’s Memoirs of a Geisha came up; it’s more than twenty years old, and I’m surprised that people are still reading it.

I’ll admit I was a fan when I first read it during the 1990’s, but in 2007 I found myself moving to Japan, and in 2020, with what we know now, I find the book embarrassing, and it kind of gives me the creeps.  I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read the article I’ve shared below, which gave me the word I need: voyeuristic.

What we have is an American man who has studied Japan and Japanese extensively, so he thinks he knows all about Japan, but does he? 

I can’t say for sure whether Golden is right or not in with his portrait of the lives of geisha, but personally, I’m put off by the excessive interest in the geisha’s “deflowering”, and I do find it hard to believe.

But this is the problem with historical: Golding needs to show some sources because people are only interested in reading his book if they think it is “real”, yet whenever he is called on an aspect of the book, he can say, “Oh, I was writing fiction.”  See the problem?

A lot of people deliberately choose historical fiction because they enjoy reading about “history”, but historical fiction isn’t actually history: it’s fiction?  Get it?

Before you read, keep this in mind: The geisha he interviewed for this book, Mineko Iwasaki, sued him and won a settlement both because she spoke to him on the condition of confidentiality and because she disputes some of the things he wrote in the story. While Golden says the character “Sayuri” is not Ms. Iwasaki, you can see why she would be offended.

Also, by breaking her trust, Golden did literally put her life in danger.

Reading a book like Memoirs of a Geisha fascinates us, and let’s be real, titillates us. 

But we need to remember that other cultures are real.  They are as important to other people as our beliefs and customs are to us.  Playing at them is wrong.  Saying “Oh, I’ve studied the language” or “Oh, I’ve lived there” is no excuse.  In fact, that’s even worse because then you are actually disrespecting people whom you know and like, and who probably know and like you.

Japan has an amazing culture that goes far beyond geisha.  Historically, Japan is one of the most isolated nations in the world.  They were never colonized, they are an island nation, and they had isolationist policies until comparatively recently. 

There is a lot more to read about this culture, and there are much more reliable sources from which to read it.    

Let’s show some respect for the Japanese by putting Memoirs of a Geisha, an outdated book by a cultural opportunist, to rest.

Liza Dalby is an American cultural anthropologist who is the only woman to train as a geisha. If you really want to know about geisha, try some of her fiction and nonfiction.

If you want to study and write about another culture, this is how you do it.

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This novel is about the author of a famous 11th century novel, The Tale of the Genji, pictured below.

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James Michener wrote many epic-length novels on many different places to which he had no particular connection; he did it with good research. Sayonara is an exception to his usual approach in that it is partly autobiographical and draws on his relationship with his third wife, who was Japanese. So for this book, there is both a personal connection AND good research.

Free Read

Quick Read

Understanding Cultural Appropriation

I have an issue with the attitude this author conveys with some of her language choices, specifically the frequent use of the term “marginalized people” and “people of color” but overall she does a good job of explaining this confusing concept.

I think there are people affected by it who are not marginalized: the Japanese in western eyes is a very good example. And there are people who culturally appropriate aspects of “white” cultures too.

Ever heard of an Anglophile? Read this.

The ultimate American Anglophile guide to English culture — from music to literature to the telly

By Laura DeMarco

7 Ways of ‘Honoring’ Other Cultures That Are Really Just Cultural Appropriation

April 4, 2016 by Maisha Z. Johnson

A legal study of issues related to Golden’s decisions regarding this book:

Susan Tiefenbrun, Copyright Infringement, Sex Trafficking, and Defamation in the Fictional Life of a Geisha, 10 MICH. J. GENDER & L. 327 (2004).

Available at: https://repository.law.umich.edu/mjgl/vol10/iss2/3

More on Memoirs:

A chance to hear Arthur Golden’s point of view in this interview.

BBC report on the case


If you need more quality reads about Japan, look at these.

Modern, literary “chick lit”: fun, but you won’t hate yourself in the morning.

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A Pre World War 2 family story

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Kickboxing Geishas is by an American, but this is properly researched and documented nonfiction…but light and fun to read.

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Hector Garcia, the author of this book, has a long running Spanish language blog kirianet.com on Japan. This is a great book to have with you if you spend any time there because it explains, with photos, what in the heck is going on.

I so miss the toilets there, and I only know about 10% of the things they could do!

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The back of my copy (an older edition) showing the Japanese price tags…and topic list.

The back of my copy (an older edition) showing the Japanese price tags…and topic list.

These two books show Japanese culture through practitioners of their traditional crafts and traditional objects.

They are both beautiful and informative books with excellent photography.

I think In Search of the Spirit is meant to be a children’s book, but you will like having it on your coffee table.

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Family Read

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And now…cooking time!

If you want to do some REAL Japanese cooking….

There is a lot more to Japanese food than sushi and tempura…and the basis of most Japanese food are mostly things you probably have in your (American) kitchen…you just need to round it out with a few Japanese condiments.

I have one book with “proper” Japanese food, such as what you would make for dinner, but I shopped around quite a bit and deliberately chose a book that kept it simple.

The other two books I actually use much more…donburi means “rice bowl”, and I find making a protein and vegetable topping to eat over rice an easy way to make dinner for myself when I am alone.

A good Japanese rice cooker keeps the rice hot for days, and most people have some in the pot ready to eat all day. If that bothers you, they have timers…or I just put mine on as soon as I get home from work, and it’s ready long before I want to cook everything else and eat (about an hour).

Proper Japanese Bento is awesome…if you use the right techniques, they will keep all morning with no heat and no refrigeration.

Japanese food can seem a little bland until you get used to it, and it is very often meant to be served at room temperature, so that takes some adjustment too…but after a while, you start to notice the flavors of the food, and other cuisines can start to taste overdone.

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If you go to Japan, be sure to go to a home goods store and stock up on all the fun little doo-dads they have…especially to make “cute” lunches for children…but really all you need is a simple box that can easily be purchased anywhere.

Puddle Jumper

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Zojirushi is the only brand rice cooker to have. This is exactly what you would buy in Japan, but you need one produced for the your country’s electrical current (they make a range) for all the timing features to work properly. And also because converters are annoying and gobble electricity.

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Cover Photo Credit:

Zairon [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]


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