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Orientalism, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Sex Workers

Orientalism, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Sex Workers

Growing up, I had exposure to Asian culture, albeit superficial. Asian women

Mirror, mirror on the wall, Which American Girl doll did little Hannah find prettiest of all? (This one)

were the pinnacle of beauty to me as a child- I picked out a certain American Girl doll as a birthday gift simply because she looked the most “Asian.” I was envious of her long, straight, black hair and smooth skin (I recognize this fetishization now). I asked my mother if I could be a geisha for Halloween one year. She said no.

As a high schooler, I steered my superficial admiration of Asians toward mainstream Japanese culture- I watched Miyazaki movies and adored Memoirs of a Geisha– the movie and the novel. ​As the years have passed, however, I have had to swallow my adolescent consumption of Asian culture as Orientalist.

Orientalism is a concept first introduced by Middle Eastern scholars that argues that Westerners reduce non-Western worlds to a homogeneously separate “other:” Orientals. I picked out that “Asian” American Girl doll as a child because she was foreign and exotic to me. In Western depictions of Eastern worlds, “Orientalism” usually prevails: characters are strange, untrustworthy, and rather mystical in their exoticism (Using “Oriental” as an adjective to describe, well, anything, is also unacceptable: supermodel Chrissy Teigen, who is half-Thai, sparked a humorously interesting debate on the term last year). This implicitly views the Westerner as superior to the “simple but superficially interesting” Easterner. Academic Edward Said popularized this term and built on it, arguing that early European scholars of the East normalized Orientalist scholarship, which ensured its perpetuation (For a deeper dive into the subject, read this blog post by a Lehigh University professor).

This problematic framework seeped into Western interpretations of Eastern lands, such as Memoirs of a Geisha. This 2001 Journal of Japanese Studies article by Anne Allison prompted this connection for me (JSTOR

Readers follow Sayuri as she and they enter the world of geishas. She has blue eyes. Is this to normalize the fictional character and to seduce the reader, or merely a charmingly rare trait?

subscription needed to read). Allison argues that Memoirs author Arthur Golden, an American with a master’s degree in Japanese History, paints a flowery, Cinderella-esque (read: European fairytale inspired) picture of pre and post World War II Japan and geisha society with stereotypical characters and language. The very title of the novel- Memoirs of a Geisha– masquerades as a biography, while the life of former geisha Mineko Iwasaki that allegedly inspired it has a drastically different framework of the geisha experience.

Memoirs author Golden met Iwasaki through friends, just 5 years after she retired from her work. Over a stay of 2 weeks at her home, Golden gained a wealth of information for his book, and they became friends. Memoirs was first published in English in 1997, and Iwasaki and Golden remained friendly until it was translated into Japanese later that year. According to Iwasaki, author Golden promised her confidentiality (Golden claims Iwasaki wanted her name in the book’s acknowledgements, a request he fulfilled, and she planned

Author Arthur Golden

to profit from fame acquired by Golden’s namedrop). This, and several more conflicts- either miscommunications or betrayals- led Iwasaki to sue Golden in 2000. The Chicago Tribune wrote a lengthy article on their broken friendship that year. In 2001, Iwasaki filed a lawsuit against Golden for breaching his vow of confidentiality (which The New York Times‘ Calvin Sims covered). There are no articles on the lawsuit’s progress or outcome; they must have settled out of court.

Regardless of who is truthful, Mineko Iwasaki broke an unwritten rule that geishas must keep the details of their professional work secret. All encounters with geishas are meant to be confidential, the details of which should not be known to anyone outside the business. Another policy of the geisha community, which enhances security and anonymity, is that new clients must be introduced to geisha by a current client. Former SONY chairman Akio Morita served as Golden’s “in” to the community.

Iwasaki- who claims to be inspiration for Memoirs‘ protagonist, Sayuri-  raised issue with how Golden depicted the character’s career. It officially started with a mizuage: her first penetrative sexual experience was essentially on auction to the highest bidder. Sayuri’s- and Iwasaki’s, as declared by Golden- mizuage set a record of 100 million yen, or roughly $850,000 today. Iwasaki vehemently insists that she never financially profited from intercourse:

“It happened in the Astoria Hotel in New York… We flew to New York from different directions, and we met in the hotel. That is the way it was, and that is why I am very angry.”

Golden maintains that Sayuri’s mizuage and its record bid are the same as Iwasaki’s (Is it possible Golden made this up? Yes, but I believe Iwasaki shared her experience Golden then backtracked when Memoirs was translated into Japanese, when she realized other obvious parallels between her and the protagonist). However, the difference in setting between the two works must be noted: Golden’s novel is based in 1920s Japan, and follows the characters through World War II, while Iwasaki was born in 1949; she was a geisha in the 1960s and 1970s. Between the Post-World War II era and Iwasaki’s debut as a geisha, the Anti-Prostitution Law of 1958 passed, and forbade the exchange of sex for compensation. However, stringent enforcement takes time to develop with federal laws, and sex work continued anyway- just more discreetly (Prime Minister Sousuke Uno was not as fortunate with his discretion- he resigned from his position in 1989 when his affair with a geisha was discovered).

Iwasaki retaliated against this allegedly unjust “memoir” by writing a real memoir of her own, named Geisha of Gion for Japanese readers or Geisha, A Life for foreign readers. She describes her life experiences as a geisha with

Mineko Iwasaki’s autobiography chronicling her experience as the most famous and successful geisha of her time

less feminine poetry than Memoirs’ author. From the age of 5, she had daily dance lessons. As a young adult,  she spent as much time on her artistic training as a typical high school student spent in class. She practiced her entertaining, singing, dancing, and playing of instruments. Geishas were crucial in keeping these traditional Japanese arts alive; mastery of these cultural practices required endless practice and instruction.

Just a century earlier, in 1866, Japan ended their sakoku, or “period of national isolation,” which had been in place since 1639. International communication was restricted to official diplomacy and regulated trade. This isolation encouraged cultural distinctness and allowed Japanese customs to flourish. With the influx of foreign influence, geishas effectively placed an economic value on Japanese customs and arts, thus ensuring their preservation for future generations.

Geishas worked more as artists than sex workers, but history prefers to remember their intimate encounters with clients. Female sex workers in the “Wild West” of the United States also held more cultural and political power than history depicts. They saw an economic opportunity in the solely male small towns and took advantage of it; the towns’ small sizes allowed women to make money, use the money to open their own businesses, and gather in such large numbers to gain significant political power. Watch College Humor’s “Adam Ruins Everything” episode, “How Prostitutes Settled the Wild West“! It’s fantastic. Yes, it’s College Humor, but the video credits historical sources.


This comparison isn’t completely analogous, given that sex workers in the United States made money just from sex and geishas made money mostly as a entertainers, but it’s still there. Geishas keep their work- especially the small percentage of it that is just sex- private, while American sex workers in the Wild West brashly celebrated their promiscuity and sexuality. They have

Pictures from Yang Liu’s book East Meets West

different methods of protecting themselves from criticism and probing questions: the Japanese discreetly deny any involvement, while Americans announce their profession without direct communication.

This is a societal difference. In 2007, Chinese-born and German-raised designer Yang Liu published a series of pictures illustrating the difference between Eastern and Western cultures in East Meets West (These books are in 90% of English bookstores in Thailand). Blue pictures describe Eastern society; red describe Western. The pictures generalize, of course, but they also offer valuably simple insights into societal differenes. Easterners value the collective; Westerners the individual. Easterners like predictability and routine; Westerners like shucking the status quo. Despite the pictures’ stark contrasts between East and West, public shaming of sex workers remains universal.

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